I’m not sure how, but it’s been a month since my last post. It feels like it was just the other day that I was working on its first draft… Since my first blog dealt with the language of Mathematics, I thought I might continue the language theme for now as it is something that really interests me.

Let me start by asking you this: How often do you take being a First Language English speaker for granted? (Has this thought ever even crossed your mind?) Have you ever traveled to a foreign country and needed to communicate and found it difficult? Were you frustrated by this? What happens when you don’t have a very good grasp of a particular Language, would you want to speak it? Or read it? Or perhaps worse still, write it?

Well, I think this is the challenge that a number of learners face and they are often left feeling frustrated and misunderstood in their classrooms, particularly in South Africa, where we have 11 official languages. Often a child would not be learning Mathematics (or even any of their other subjects) in their First Language. I think their reluctance to engage with the Mathematics is not only linked to their understanding of the Mathematics, but also their grasp of the language they are being taught in. In many cases, learners have a poor command of the English language and are being taught Mathematics in English. Is this not compounding the problem to some degree? We are not judging their mathematical abilities on their mathematics, but how they interpret the question and then their mathematics. Is this really fair? However, being a (former) teacher, I also know that it is not always possible to teach a child in their mother-tongue language. But any good teacher knows that they need to make time and take the effort to include some strategies, build into their class and lessons, to help with these challenges. Strategies like the availability of multi-language dictionaries, peer-to-peer explanation, your verbiage while teaching, learners starting a class vocabulary list at the back of their (Maths) books and team teaching amongst others. But instead, many teachers find it easier to criticise the learners’ Mathematical abilities. They send the message that the learner is not good enough to be in the classroom, without even trying to do anything about the very obvious language barriers.

I think, if we as teachers could be more considerate of our learners and their needs, Mathematical, linguistic or both, it would make for a much happier learning environment. We could encourage learners to participate in the construction of their own mathematical knowledge, while building their language skills; imagine the possibilities in that classroom. Imagine their future possibilities…

May you be a little more considerate of the needs of others today.

Jonathan ShockFebruary 22, 2016 at 9:42 amGreat post – indeed this is something that we should be aware of at all levels of mathematics teaching.

Natalie WoodFebruary 22, 2016 at 6:06 pmThank you. I just hope that others can find this as thought provoking.

Jean-JacqFebruary 23, 2016 at 7:26 pmVery true, I too have experienced the frustration of being unable to express myself in my second language, let alone others. I can imagine a huge feeling of insecurity that could arise.

Natalie WoodFebruary 24, 2016 at 9:26 amThank you for sharing your experience.

It’s now up to us, to do our best to help those around us to have a different experience, one without the fear and insecurity!