The University of KwaZulu-Natal wants to introduce undergraduate courses in isiZulu but students are concerned technical words don’t translate well.
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?
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