Learning in your language

18 July 2017 | Story Kate-Lyn Moore. Photo Michael Hammond. Video Saadiq Behardien.
The Residence Tutors Council has implemented multilingual tutoring within the residence tutors' system.
The Residence Tutors Council has implemented multilingual tutoring within the residence tutors' system.

The residence system is an essential part of student life. As part of its efforts to improve and innovate within this space, the Residence Tutors Council (RTC) has implemented multilingual tutor training within the existing residence tutoring programme.

The RTC is made up of residence academic representatives, who are responsible for spearheading the academic programme in their residence. Together as a council, they provide programmes for the residence system as a whole.

Although this is a living environment, the learning still needs to continue, explains Frank Karigambe of the division of Student Housing and Residence Life, who has mentored and coached the RTC. This additional and voluntary tutoring programme provides essential and continued support for students in the residence system.

Distinct from tutoring provided through academic courses, residence tutors work on a voluntary basis. Students who feel they need support in a particular area are able to request assistance and a tutor will be assigned to them.

The hope is that this more informal and one-on-one support will allow students, who may feel too intimidated in front of their peers in lectures or tutorials, to feel comfortable enough to ask questions.

“We sat down and looked at all of those programmes … and we realised that tutors were ideally situated to formulate the most change in residences,” explains 2016 RTC chairperson Michael Ross. “And we realised that language was one of the barriers that a tutor had the power to help overcome and to really bring about an integration in residences that we’d never really seen before.”

The council therefore decided to introduce a multilingual tutoring programme, an initiative for which they were awarded Best Residence Life Team in the 2016 Investec DSA Leadership Awards.

Multilingual awareness

“When we arrive at UCT, we come with a lot of different backgrounds. We’ve grown up in different environments. And UCT can be a stark contrast to where we’ve come from, especially in residence,” says Ross.

“I’ve always said that residences hold up a mirror for students to evaluate themselves, to grow as individuals. And language is a barrier that students can encounter.”

It is essential that tutors are aware of the particular challenges that come with being a non-mother-tongue English speaker in an English-medium university.

“I’m extremely fortunate in that I’m allowed the opportunity to study in my first language. But many people don’t. And I think that that is a great shame. Everybody should be afforded the opportunity to learn in their own language. There is an intrinsic benefit to being able to do so,” says Ross.

“And so as a [multilingual] tutor helping a student that may be struggling with a subject, it’s valuable in that you can connect with that individual on a higher level than maybe their lecturer, or a university tutor may be able to.”

This multilingual awareness is crucial for all tutors, even those who are unable to provide support in more than one language.

“Language is quite personal, you know. It’s almost like a name. It’s an identity,” says Karigambe. “So just recognising their language and perhaps asking a question, showing your interest in it, it really says: I see you.”

Multilingual tutoring system puts everyone on the same page.  

From the ground up

This programme is complemented by other language-based initiatives within the university, such as the Multilingualism Education Project (MEP) under the leadership of Associate Professor Mbulungeni Madiba.

Madiba, who led the RTC’s multilingual tutor training, advocates for translanguaging within the classroom space, to allow students to make use of their multilingual resources to simultaneously advance learning and decolonise the learning environment.

Madiba demonstrated how a classroom comes alive when students are able to discuss content in their own languages. He played residence tutors a recording of an economics lecture, where discussion was facilitated first in English before shifting into Sepedi.

Karigambe recalls: “It began in English for the first five to 10 minutes. It was going fine. A few students spoke. But when they switched to Sepedi … Wow, it sounded like they were speaking about some really exciting topic. But it was the same subject. But they were speaking about it in a way that is more understandable to them.”

When a student is free to ask a question in their own language, they are able to get to the root of concepts and engage with content on a deeper level. The RTC refers to this as the “lightbulb moment”.

“This just incites a deeper learning, allows students to be able to play with ideas, to be more creative with what it is that they are learning,” explains Ross.

“Programmes such as this is are extremely valuable and need to be grown. This is only the first step in making sure that students can feel fully integrated into the university space.”

The RTC multilingual tutor programme was funded and supported by the Residence Academic Development Committee (RADC) fund, which has grown many other living and learning programmes that bring about collaborations between faculty staff and residences.

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