Posted in Educational Reform, Math

Math Is A Language (An Easy One)

I’m always amazed by how many people tell me they think they are bad at math, yet they say this in a perfectly formed English sentence! Math is a language, and a far simpler one than any natural language. English, with its thousands of rules and hundreds of thousands of exceptions, is one of the most complicated languages in existence (as any ESL student will tell you). Yet many native speakers take for granted the massive feat of intellectual prowess represented by being able to communicate and think in this language.

Mortimer J. Adler explains this in the classic guide to intelligent reading, How to Read a Book:

“We are not told, or not told early enough so that it sinks in, that mathematics is a language, and that we can learn it like any other, including our own…When we underwent our initial reading instruction in elementary school, our problem was to learn to recognize certain arbitrary symbols when they appeared on a page, and to memorize certain relations among these symbols…Since mathematics is a language, it has its own vocabulary, grammar, and syntax, and these have to be learned by the beginning reader. Certain symbols and relationships between symbols have to be memorized. The problem is different, because the language is different, but it is no more difficult, theoretically, than learning to read English or French or German. At the elementary level, in fact, it may even be easier…We are also not told, at least not early enough, how beautiful and how intellectually satisfying mathematics can be. It is probably not too late for anyone to see this if he will go to a little trouble.”

Lately I’ve been getting really into the articles that math professor Sanjoy Mahajan has written for the Freakonomics blog. They’re worth checking out, especially this one on the similarities between how math and languages are taught in schools, and how both can be improved:

“Instead of teaching physics or mathematics as we teach second languages, then blaming the victims for not doing well, and expecting them to internalize the blame…why not use physics and mathematics to ask and answer questions about the world?”