“There is a difference in understanding a concept and getting it.”
So explains Associate Professor Mbulungeni Madiba, who encounters this problem all the time with students whose mother tongue is not English.
As the point person of the university’s Multilingualism Education Project (MEP), Madiba holds a wealth of insight into multilingual students’ difficulties when learning in a monolingual environment such as UCT.
When a student understands content, they are able to take it in and store it for the purposes of reproduction. But this is not the same as “getting it”, or internalising it, he explains. This is where translation can help.
The MEP began with a number of comprehensive glossaries put together for the so-called ‘killer courses’ that often impede graduation. It focused first on subjects like statistics and mathematics, later branching out into the social sciences and humanities.
This led Madiba into a collaboration with Dr Ellen Hurst and Dr Shannon Morreira, who convene foundation courses in the four-year extended degree within the Humanities Education Development Unit (EDU).
Recognising the importance of creating a learning environment that works for all students, instead of only mother-tongue English speakers, Madiba, Hurst and Morreira co-authored a chapter titled “Surfacing and Valuing Students Linguistic Resources in an English-Dominant University”, which was published in Academic Biliteracies: Multilingual Repertoires in Higher Education.
“There’s been quite a shift in terms of who the student body are at UCT and I don’t think there has been as big a shift in terms of lecturers’ perceptions of the ways in which they need to teach,” says Morreira.
The chapter outlines the value that students’ multilingual resources can bring into the learning environment, by bringing complex social histories to bear on abstract academic content.
They propose this be done through a process called translanguaging.
Monolingual learning is a legacy of colonialism
The call for a decolonised pedagogy has not yet directly addressed issues of language and multilingualism.
But multilingualism is crucial to the process of decolonisation.
“We need to shift away from the idea that teaching involves only one language,” says Madiba. Those who introduced these systems of education came from a background where there was only one national language. This is not the case in South Africa.
“My point is that there is no way we can complete decolonisation unless you look at the language issue. That is why people like Ngũgĩ [wa Thiong’o] all say decolonisation should start with language.”
Surfacing and valuing multilingual resources
“When students arrive at UCT, they often feel like all of their resources have been stripped away and suddenly they are at a complete disadvantage compared with students who come from English language schools and English language dominant backgrounds,” says Hurst.
Hurst, Morreira and Madiba assert that multilingual students arrive at university with valuable linguistic resources that can be used in very powerful ways in thinking through concepts.
But as it currently stands, students do not see the value of their linguistic resources in the classroom setting.
Madiba describes a typical lecture or tutorial scene: where non-mother-tongue students remain silent. After the lesson ends, they decode the entire session together, mixing English with a variety of other languages as necessary.
This leads to the discussion, debate and engagement that should be happening in the classroom.
“We just pretend, once they are here, that they are all monolingual,” he says. Yet this study shows that some students are able to engage in up to seven different languages. Translanguaging will allow them to draw on those resources in the classroom.
Thinking versus memorising
“Once you ask learners to say something in their own language, they begin to think. They are not trying to memorise,” he says.
“The difficulty with African languages,” he explains, “is that there is a cognitive way of classifying things.”
Words need to belong somewhere. So students need to determine if a concept belongs within the noun class, the human class, the animal class, the processes class, and so forth. In so doing, they begin to engage with the concept on a cognitive level.
Inevitably, students end up with long and complicated definitions, which they will then attempt to shrink down to a single world. But it is through building this full and complex definition that the students really engage with these weighty concepts.
Morreira recalls one memorable multilingual session in the EDU where students grappled with the concept of power.
After mapping out a lengthy explanation, they began the process of shrinking it down. Then one student said: “Amandla.”
“So you can bring social histories into the classroom in ways that you can’t when it is just happening in English. And for all of us in this room, ‘amandla’ brings a whole host of associations along with it. Then you have a better sense of how the big concept works,” Morreira explains.
Is this the end for English?
Multilingual students mix languages as necessary, says Madiba. If given the space to do so through translanguaging, they will engage with the content in their languages.
That does not mean these students cannot report back to their tutors or lecturers in English. They are already doing this.
As a matter of fact, translanguaging improves students’ academic English, notes Hurst, as students are better equipped to own these concepts.
Once you take away the issue of language, what remains is meaning making.
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