Mathematics Is Not a Universal Language

By Tevebaugh, Tara N. | Teaching Children Mathematics, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Mathematics Is Not a Universal Language


Tevebaugh, Tara N., Teaching Children Mathematics


Suppose that you walked into class and heard "Guten morgen meine lieben Schuler. Heute fangen wir mit Mathematik an. Lasst uns einige Aufgaben durcharbeiten. Fangt bitte an!" Would you know what to do? Would you even know what subject or lesson your teacher was beginning? If you managed to get the gist of her message, would you be able to follow along as she used technical mathematical terminology and asked you to describe your solutions? Imagine, then, the frustration that almost 3 million students who speak limited or no English face each day as they attend classes in United States schools (Lara 1994). Although some schools are adding English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) classrooms and teachers, the needs of many language-minority students are not being met, particularly when they are mainstreamed for content-area instruction. Even as schools attempt to help limited-English-proficiency (LEP) students with English literacy, many subjects, such as mathematics and science, continue to be ignored as crucial language areas. However, increased language comprehension and proficiency are essential if these students are to achieve the level of mathematics literacy that is envisioned by the NCTM Standards documents (Buchanan and Helman 1993).

As a United States college student interning in Germany, I had a special opportunity to live academically and socially as a normative speaker. For the first time in my life, I felt the frustration that language barriers present. Although some teachers may have had similar experiences or are second-language learners themselves, the rest might find it difficult to imagine how exhausting it is for students with limited English proficiency to function in situations that we consider routine.

Although educators seem finally to be acknowledging the problems facing language-minority students in social and some academic situations, mathematics is a subject in which the language needs of LEP students are largely ignored. This disregard results mainly because of the myth that students do not need much English proficiency to do mathematics problems. Quite the opposite is true, however. Both teachers and students find that limited English proficiency is a "discouraging obstacle to learning mathematics" (Kimball 1990, 604). Indeed, students have to learn not only such mathematics terminology as divisor, reciprocal, and exponent but also the usual syntactic and semantic structures used in mathematics (Dale and Cuevas 1992). Such authors as Kimball (1990), Dale and Cuevas (1992), Kang and Pham (1995), and Nolan (1984) explain how the register, or type of language used in a special area, can be very difficult for even native English speakers to master. It seems silly, then, that LEP students should be expected to succeed in mathematics classes without any special language instruction, an idea based on the false notion that "it's all just a bunch of numbers."

Even without special training, teachers can use a few simple strategies to make mathematics learning less stressful for language-minority students. First, and perhaps most important, teachers must create a supportive and trusting environment in which students are not afraid of speaking out or risking failure. According to Sasser and Winningham (1994), a positive affective environment is essential for success, and "empowerment occurs when students find their skills, abilities, and cultures valued and perceived as valuable resources" (p. 30). An important start in creating such an environment is making the students feel welcome, which Kottler (1994) says can be done by getting to know them. Some of her suggestions are taking and displaying pictures of the students participating in different activities, developing progress portfolios, learning about family backgrounds, and paying attention to cultural and social customs.

Next, mathematics teachers can adjust their teaching methods and delivery to be more comprehensible to LEP students. …

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