Abstract: What kind of language do opt for when you’re helping someone with a maths problem? How does your brain bridge the gap between verbal communication and numbers on a page? This blog post discusses the role language plays in learning mathematics at a foundational level and beyond.

One aspect of mathematics that I find most fulfilling is being able to share my knowledge with others. For several years I have tutored school-aged students in mathematics. I enjoy the challenge of understanding how others make sense of maths and strive for the moments where a concept ‘clicks’ in an individual’s head. It brings me joy to see the confidence that students gain once they conquer a previously challenging topic after it is presented in a way that makes sense to them.

One thing that fascinates me is how I subtly alter my language use depending on how an individual understands maths. Interchanging verbs such as ‘move’ and ‘shift’ or alternating between commands ‘swap the signs’ and ‘multiply both sides by negative one’ can make all the difference when a student is stuck. I can’t help but wonder about the role language plays in learning mathematics.

English has an irregular counting system. When I ask you to sum one hundred and seventeen with twenty-three, what is the process that occurs in your head? For me I convert the words to figures: 117 and 23. From there I add three to make 120 and 20 to make 140. The drawback of our irregular system is that first step needed to convert words to numbers. Although it doesn’t slow me down now, this step can create an obstacle for a child still grasping language.

If we look to languages such as Japanese and Korean, we find regular number-naming systems which linguists have dubbed as ‘transparent’. It has been debated for many years whether learning maths in a transparent counting system accelerates children’s numerical development. One study that interests me is by Dowker and Roberts. It removes confounding cultural variables by comparing students taught through the mediums of Welsh and English in Wales. Welsh has a regular system, which the study concludes may in fact help children in learning ‘correspondence between written and oral representation of number’ and ‘numerical magnitude representations’.

A takeaway from this is not to underestimate how intertwined language and learning are. So next time you’re helping someone with a problem, choose your words carefully!

References:

Dowker, A., & Roberts, M., 2015, ‘Does the transparency of the counting system affect children’s numerical abilities?’, Frontiers in psychology6, 945.

Emily Palit
Monash University