Pioneering home-language learning of mathematics in a digital environment in South Africa

Learning mathematics in a second language has been identified as a major barrier to understanding mathematical concepts and terms for South African learners. The Cambridge Mathematics Dictionary App (English and isiXhosa) is an easy to use, helpful mobile reference tool for South African learners aged between 10 and 15 years old (Grades 4 to 9). Written in a language that is easily accessible to non-­mother tongue speakers of English, the app  contains over 900 Maths terms and definitions in both English and isiXhosa. Words are explained using examples relevant to the South African context and entries are supported with compelling visual content  to further enhance the explanations and to reinforce the concepts.

Mathematics Dictionary App

Developing this app, the authors wanted to ensure that all the mathematics terminology needed in the South African Intermediate and Senior Phase classroom was covered to really support learners in their studies. More than this, they wanted the content to be interesting, creatively presented and, most of all, learner-friendly. By helping learners to acquire and understand the terminology used in the mathematics classroom, they are able to engage with the concepts in a meaningful and constructive way, rather than being hindered by possible gaps in comprehension.

The app gives users  the ability to:

  • Easily search for a Maths term in English
  • Toggle between the English and isiXhosa definitions by swiping left and right
  • Tag words as Favourites for a personalised, quick and easy reference list.

The app was developed when Cambridge University Press (CUP) noticed that home-language isiXhosa students struggled with understanding English mathematical terms and definitions, and this was hindering their progress in the subject as a whole. This issue is seen throughout South Africa, where learners are often taught subjects  in their second or third language. Currently this multilingual learning environment seen by many educational practitioners as a challenge to overcome, rather than a potential strength to leverage. CUP, however, is an advocate for bilingual education and the recognition of languages like isiXhosa as a co-medium for teaching and learning. This approach also debunks the common myth that African languages are not developed for teaching mathematical concepts and encourages students to value their home languages.

Mobile Learning in South Africa

Drawing on current trends in education and technology, the app makes use of a mobile learning resource to develop 21st century skills in learners. This approach is premised on the use of devices like cellphones, smartphones and tablets, and taking advantage of the enhanced functionality they are able to offer. It makes use of both the medium and the content to encourage learning, helping learners to develop their digital literacy while at the same time ensuring that they acquire subject-specific skills.

While this approach to learning is in line with global best practice, up until now it has been difficult to take advantage of in South Africa because of limited access to smart mobile devices. The new generation of cheaper devices that have since entered the market, however, gives many learners in this country access to quality educational media both inside and outside of the classroom. As these devices become more and more common, they open up exciting possibilities in education, making it easy for learners to access and share information and develop their skills outside of the classroom through self-directed study.

African languages online

CUP South Africa is committed to the advancement of African languages in the digital space, previously working with Worldreader to make 360 primary-level story books in a number of African languages available on mobile phones. Other organisations operating in this arena in South Africa include:

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