El math

Math is a Not-So-Universal Language claims an Education Week story, which starts with Malinda Evans’ fifth-grade class at a school in Albuquerque, N.M.

Spanish is the first language for more than half Ms. Evans’ students. As she and other teachers working with similar students have come to understand, translating the arcane terminology of math for English-language learners can be daunting.

. . . She works on an overhead projector, writing out terms as she pronounces them. She avoids lengthy definitions. And she points out similarities in the roots of words in the two languages: Equilateral triangles, she tells students, can be remembered as igual and lado in Spanish, or “equal” and “side.” Children with a strong command of English are encouraged to help their classmates, using whatever lingo will get the point across.

I have my doubts about the thesis of this story. Many teachers have told me that their immigrant students can learn math even when their English is very weak.

Whether students’ first language is Spanish or another, they face several challenges in math. The academic language of the subject presents terms that almost never come up in everyday conversation, such as “quotient” and “exponent.” It also presents them with words that have double meanings, like “table,” and idiosyncratic English expressions, such as questions asking for the “difference” between two numbers. Many students mistakenly take that as a cue to describe numbers’ different characteristics, rather than a call to perform subtraction.

Math isn’t anyone’s first language. (OK, except for a few math geniuses.) Teachers have to explain “quotient” and “exponent” and “equilateral” to native English speakers. They have to explain the specific math meaning of “table” and “difference” too.

Perhaps the trendy aversion to teacher-directed instruction is holding students back. Or perhaps, as Kimberly Swygert suspects, students are stumped by overly wordy story problems.

About Joanne


  1. Clark E Myers says:

    Funny, my own first language is American English but I had no trouble learning: minus mal minus gibt plus
    well enough that that it comes to mind 40 years later.

  2. Foobarista says:

    Odd that Chinese, Vietnamese, and East Indian kids seem to handle this sort of thing just fine without bilingualism…

  3. Engineer-Poet says:

    3 enter enter * 4 enter enter * + sqrt

    Man, RPN makes things so easy.

    I grew up speaking English, but I can talk formulae (and through them, engineering) with people who barely know it much better than I can talk about literature or food.

  4. I am a bilingual (Spanish/English) junior high school teacher in California. In my experience, kids who were in the process of learning English often had the most difficulty with history, and had an easier time with science and math.

  5. Tech in Teaching says:

    I taught Science to 7th grade students, many of whom were ESL students (Spanish and Arabic). The aide diligently translated everything into Spanish. I felt they didn’t need to use the Spanish word for cell, for example, but needed to stress the English word. Alas, I never won that argument.

    Like math, most Science vocabulary is new to students. Even the words that are known, often have a different meaning in Science.