Teaching Math and Science in Mother Tongue


Language can be your most powerful ally in your arsenal, or your enemy; for centuries it has been used to divide and unify a nation.

Taking a closer look at its role in educating our children in subjects like math and science, specifically at an early age, let us indulge in this matter to explore its impact and how it can be addressed.

The lack of direct translation of core scientific and mathematics terms in hundreds of languages around the world is a hindrance for students in facing the real world in applying their knowledge, resulting in them being globally incompetent.

The obstacle is the absence of certain terminologies in many languages compared to English. The underlying implication is that it is the language barrier preventing students from excelling in math and science.

For Australia, England and Canada where the majority speak English, the matter is not of great concern; but when you look at countries in Europe, Africa and Asia, this becomes a challenge.

Key to the debate is the issue of understanding, whether through a certain medium of instruction, be it Spanish, Africaans, Venda or English, particularly at a foundational level of schooling, and that if this is not carefully addressed, it might have remedial consequences.

If you are in education or politics, you have failed in your mission to ensure there are enough learners leaving school if there are not enough to fill all the vacancies for positions in the job market where mastery of math and/or science is required.

We also know from all the current brain research that the foundation for later learning must be laid from as early as six months. This window of opportunity to learn an extra language and master the basics of math is wide open in the early years but largely closed by about eight or nine and then become remedial.

Why don’t we spend time and money to let children learn basic concepts which are the foundation for all future learning, especially mathematics in English from the earliest grade – when it’s natural and easy for them? Officially they are supposed to have four or five EFAL (English First Additional Language) classes per week. When I talk to teachers they tell me nothing happens in those classes in far too many schools. Children at this age can easily understand mathematical concepts in English such as counting, addition, subtraction, shapes etc.

It’s sickening that learners who will eventually be taught maths and science in English are only introduced to it in Grade 4 where they have to switch to math in English, even when many of them haven’t yet mastered basic numbers, addition and subtraction, even in their mother tongue and now they have to start in English from scratch! No wonder schools lose more than half the Grade 1 enrolments before they reach Grade 12! Had they learnt their math in English, they would have been far better off – as long as the curriculum makes provision for them to catch up and the teachers use proper ways of teaching.

There can be no good reason why we should not use words like oxygen, calculus and algebra, if we don’t have our own indigenous terms. We talk of computers, cell phones, soccer and taxi without trying to find IsiZulu, isiXhosa or Tswana translations. We will not stop using isiZulu or any other indigenous language because some technical terms are borrowed from English.

Our children are already starting behind, why make it more difficult for them? Should we force them learn the same lesson twice? So many words and terms do not exist in indigenous languages and we should far rather use the academic terms instead of trying to invent thousands of new terms.

We managed to do it to in some extent. Even so they still have serious backlogs with terminology and many students at school and university prefer to rather learn in English as that is the language most widely used in the world of math, science, research and commerce.

Only if our politicians push and allocate funds for a different approach in EFAL in ECD (early childhood education, i.e. pre-school and Grade R-3) will we start producing the academics, engineers, technicians, doctors in the numbers our country needs.

Debates around language are linked to heritage, self-identity; in an integrated world, we need not to be inflexible; as much as we embrace our mother tongue, we should make sure our children are taught in languages universal to the fields of math and science.