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.