Physics needn’t be Greek to isiZulu

You are sitting in a slightly musty-smelling lecture theatre, a physics lecturer at the front of the room, writing an equation on the blackboard.

At either elbow, fellow students focus intently on the English words the lecturer is using, pens scratching as the 400-plus other people in the room take notes. You are trying to take notes, but you don't understand what they mean and soon get lost.

You haven't encountered "derive", "vector" or "deduce" before. Not wanting to look stupid, you keep quiet and don't ask what the lecturer means. You know as soon as the attention of the crowd focuses on you, you won't be able to find the words to ask, your second-language English will let you down.

From 2019, the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) wants to introduce undergraduate courses in isiZulu, the most widely spoken language in the province, with the aim of curbing a high undergraduate dropout rate.

Nationally, more than 45% of all students who began undergraduate degrees in 2005 – excluding those enrolled at Unisa – had dropped out by 2010, according to data published by the Council on Higher Education.

The question of universities teaching in more than one language has become a highly politicised debate, but there has been little practical guidance on how to teach technical subjects in a language that does not yet have the vocabulary.

In May this year, the university said: "At a university where more than 60% of students are isiZulu-speaking, the institution has an obligation to ensure that linguistic choices result in effective learning solutions."

But how do you teach physics, a jargon-filled and nuanced subject, in isiZulu, when many of the technical terms do not exist in the language, and – most importantly – will the students benefit?

Physics is necessary for engineering, and first-year physics is a prerequisite for careers such as medicine.

A recent article in the South African Journal of Science, titled "Student responses to being taught physics in isiZulu", surveyed 125 isiZulu-speaking first-year physics students in 2011, and encountered a mixed perception of whether learning physics in isiZulu would help.

While the language barrier is often seen as the reason for a student's poor performance, it may be a scapegoat for underlying problems in South Africa's education system, writes the paper's author, Dr Naven Chetty, the director of studies and a lecturer in UKZN's physics department.

For example, "the lack or absence of laboratories and laboratory experiments [at high school] … may well account for a substantial deficit in performance [as] … they were never exposed to these at school," Chetty writes. "The reasons for the lack of knowledge are not interrogated by instructors, and the easier assumption is that the language barrier is the cause."

However, nearly 85% of students believed their laboratory work would improve if they could ask questions in isiZulu, with the demonstrators responding in English.

The director of the Centre for Education Practice Research at the University of Johannesburg, Professor Elizabeth Henning, says: "The more Zulu support [first-language Zulu-speakers receive], the better, but by the same token, they have to learn the discourse of physics. The discourse is the way of saying things, not just the vocabulary."

While Henning "salutes" UKZN for the move towards introducing subjects in Zulu, students "must know how to write a physics sentence in English". But she acknowledges that isiZulu can be used to build the "scaffolding" of students' understanding.

Most of the students surveyed felt that having isiZulu-speaking tutors would help them to understand their work. But, as Henning says, human capacity is the big question: "You need people who know the language, but also understand the physics."

Many of the English words used in physics do not have corresponding words in isiZulu. Students' primary criticism of teaching physics in isiZulu is that many terms are not translatable and, worldwide, English is the dominant language in physics discourse.

"A common feeling is that a physics textbook in isiZulu needs to be produced to provide a standard and uniform use of isiZulu words for physics, and to define terms and other language nuances so as to comprehensively and accurately convey physics to isiZulu speakers," Chetty writes.

UKZN deputy vice-chancellor for teaching and language, Professor Renuka Vithal, said the university recognised the need to produce the appropriate terminology, and one of the projects approved by the university's language board was the "development of discipline-specific terminology in health sciences, psychology, education, law and chemistry".

"The Language Planning and Development Office is funding and pursuing a wide range of initiatives aimed at implementing the approved university language policy," Vithal said, without answering questions about how much it would cost.

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