The Language of Maths

Succeeding in mathematics (maths) depends greatly on how well you speak the language of maths. Imagine that you are presented with a test in a natural language you don’t speak. Or you may speak just enough of it to have everyday conversations, but not to understand or talk about specialised subjects. That is how most children start out learning maths, and their situation may be further complicated if the language they are expected to do maths in is not their home language.

Is maths really a language?

Most researchers agree that the language of maths shares many elements with natural language and is even more precise when it comes to presenting abstract logic. It may use technical terms and unique grammar, specialised symbols, visual elements and a specific way of writing – but it still conveys meaning in the same sense as natural language.

For example, in maths, the ‘nouns’ are numbers or expressions, ‘verbs’ may be represented by the add, subtract, multiply, divide or equal signs, ‘pronouns’ can be seen as variables such as x or y, and ‘adjectives’ as super- or subscript, as in xn or xn. Combined, these elements form whole mathematical ‘sentences’, for example 2x + 3 = 7.

The language of maths is used to describe not only the physical world we live in (fields such as computer science, engineering and physics), but also abstract theories (for example the origin of the universe, how black holes behave, or why light bends around the sun).

In fact, some researchers believe that mathematics is the ‘language’ of the universe (the mathematical principles inherent in nature), and resides in a part of the human brain that developed long before the emergence of natural language. In this sense it can almost be seen as a non-verbal language that all humans share, but we still need the tools to decipher it before it becomes meaningful to us.

Why do we need (to speak) maths?

Maths has an impact on how we perceive our world and by extension ourselves, as it nurtures reflection and logical thought, supplies us with tools for explanation and justification, and gifts us the ability to communicate complex information in an unambiguous way.

Mathematical tools have enabled us to move beyond describing what exists to predicting what may exist. Think of the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Albert Einstein, who used the language of maths to describe new physics theories about space, time and matter that changed our perception of the universe.

In the Maths classroom, speaking the language of maths allows us to carry out calculations, make predictions, demonstrate proofs, recognise patterns, solve puzzles, build concepts, draw interpretations and arrive at assertions. We can use this logic and reasoning to great effect not only in all our academic pursuits, but also in other aspects of life.

Attaining mathematical literacy

Becoming fluent in the language of maths requires an effort on the part of teachers/parents as well as learners. As with natural language, one must first learn the basic vocabulary and grasp its meaning before moving on to more complex concepts. Along the way one learns to develop skills for reasoning, interpretation, problem-solving and strategising, and for communicating one’s understanding effectively. The same applies to maths.

Fluency is built through continuously exposing learners to specialist mathematical vocabulary. Resources may include dictionaries that help learners move from concrete through pictorial to abstract (CPA) approaches as developed by American psychologist Jerome Bruner. In this way mathematical concepts are eventually assigned to long-term memory.

English Additional Language (EAL) learners may experience unique challenges. For example, they may find word problems hard and need extra support in the form of bilingual dictionaries.

The Oxford solution

Enter the new Oxford Illustrated Bilingual Maths Dictionary, available in English-IsiZulu and Englis-Setswana. Recognising the need for especially EAL learners in the intermediate and senior phase to build maths vocabulary in order to grasp mathematical concepts, this dictionary was specially adapted from the UK best seller for the South African classroom.

Mathematics word cloud

Visit our website and buy the Oxford Illustrated Bilingual Maths Dictionary: English and Setswana (ISBN 9780190732097) and the Oxford Illustrated Bilingual Maths Dictionary: English and isiZulu (ISBN 9780190734381), or call/email Oxford University Press Southern Africa customer services at +27 (0) 21 120 0104 / oxford.za@oup.com