The need to address the complexities of language and communication for learning mathematics in multilingual classrooms is relevant not only to the University of Cape Town (UCT) but to the entire country, vice-chancellor professor Mamokgethi Phakeng told a meeting of experts in mathematics education and in literacy and language who gathered for a specialist symposium at the university.
A key theme that emerged was the need to move beyond dichotomies, both in terms of how language use in mathematics classrooms is viewed, and the theories chosen to research such language use.
The vice-chancellor, a professor in mathematics education, shared some of her insights about mathematics learning in multilingual contexts and committed herself to further tackling the problem through her research. Phakeng acknowledged that she couldn’t assume “language in and of itself will solve the problem” of poor mathematics performance in South Africa. Yet she noted that for youngsters being taught the subject in a language other than their mother tongue – usually also among the most impoverished in South Africa – language matters in terms of the teaching and learning process, as well as their performance.
There are numerous reasons, she stressed, why language in multilingual mathematics classrooms matters. Some stakeholders are interested because of the "politics of language".
"It’s about which languages are privileged and which ones are marginalised and silenced."
While democracy has brought about the recognition of 11 official languages, in practice only two of those languages continue to hold prominence – English and Afrikaans, Professor Phakeng added, pointing out that a command of these languages continues to afford the speakers social capital and access to social goods.
While other stakeholders are interested in the topic because of its relevance to the decolonisation project, language has not featured prominently in this debate, which itself takes place in English.
Tacking multilingualism complexities
She added that there are also stakeholders outside of South Africa and the African continent who are dealing with their own complexities regarding language in mathematics classrooms.
"Multilingualism is not just a phenomenon in South Africa or on the continent; it is a phenomenon across the world."
To tackle the complexities, there have been global moves in this area. These have included a shift from a focus on bilingualism in classrooms to multilingualism, which has also taken place at a theoretical level.
UCT’s associate professor Kate le Roux, from the Language Development Group in UCT’s Academic Development Programme, presented her conceptual paper, Africa-centred knowledge about multilingual school mathematics classrooms in South Africa
The focus is on the relationship between, on the one hand, the choice of research theories and methodologies and where research is conducted, and on the other, what knowledge is produced about teaching and learning in these classrooms.
Professor Le Roux argued that their research process has not been a simple application of knowledge developed elsewhere in dominant "centre" contexts. Rather, the knowledge produced in the "periphery" context of South Africa can be viewed as a reflexive contribution to global knowledge in three respects: contributing a complex multilingual context; offering new perspectives on conceptions of language, and mathematics learners and teachers; and new research methods.
A "nuanced view of knowledge production practices in periphery contexts such as South Africa is important" added Le Roux. This is so contributions to global knowledge of research situated in different contexts are recognised.