Language and School Mathematics

Are students who struggle in math classes lacking an innate mathematical ability needed to succeed? Or is it possible that their struggles are, as Robyn Zevenbergen argues, “a result of the mismatch between the language of the student and the language of the school”?

Zevenbergen’s argument opens the door to a wider discussion of the connection between mathematics and language.

Contrary to the common perception that “math” and “language” are as far apart as any two subjects could be, it should be recognized that math is primarily a language also. “Language speaks us” in math, just as much as in English or French.

Both of the cooperating teachers I had last semester were all about “teaching procedures,” as if learning to do math was the same as learning to tie your shoelaces or to ride a bicycle. The problem with this approach is that language exists on a different level than the repetition of muscle movements. Correct use of language requires an element of conceptual purpose, whereas muscle memory does not.

Being able to speak a language is precisely the conceptual performance of procedures inherent within the words that are heard.

Applying this definition to math, a student who hears “subtraction” should know to count backwards. A student who hears “multiplication” should know to count in groups. Admittedly, the complexity of the procedures of mathematics obscures the element of purpose more so than in ordinary language. For example, most students in today’s school system rely on memorization or on calculators to perform multiplication, rather than conceptualizing it as a form of counting. The mind’s ability to memorize and the reliance on technology provides shortcuts that often cover up misconceptions about a procedure’s purpose. But ultimately, math is just like any other language in that the test for fluency is the ability to respond to symbols/words with a conceptually purposeful performance.

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