math and language

What does language have to do with math?

Does the English language of math contribute to math failure in the US?  As crazy as that question may sound, I believe it does for many children. In  my work as a speech therapist, my goal is to help teachers, parents and students have greater success with learning math by revealing the confusion that English math language presents.  After years of study, working with students, and interviewing teachers and parents across the country as part of my National Science Foundation grants, I am ready to share what I have learned.  Here are some facts:

  • Percentage of students who meet the Proficient standard in math across the US:
    • 4th graders = 40%
    • 8th graders = 34%
    • 12th graders = 25%
  • United States international ranking of 15-year-old students from 72 countries (PISA exam)
    • 2012:  28th in the world
    • 2015:  35th in the world 

OUCH! Our kids need help!

The English language of math is abstract and complex and can be a barrier to math success for many students.  How can that be, you ask? Although math may exist without language, we must use language to communicate our knowledge and thinking about math concepts, and the English math language is particularly abstract.  

Many math words have a different meaning outside of math.  That word list is very long, but let’s start with the words  for numbers, which sound like other words we use every day but are spelled differently and have different meanings:  

  • One, won
  • Two, to, too
  • Four, fore, for
  • Eight, ate

When we get to numbers greater than ten, the names are not related to the base 10 system of math, are easy to confuse by their sounds, and are not logical, consistent, or efficient:

  • Eleven – just a random word that means ten and one more:  11
  • Twelve – another random word that means ten and two more:  12
  • Thirteen – means ten and three more:  13. However, we say it backwards and in a confusing way.  We should say the teen (which is a morphed form of ten) first, followed by three but we morph the three into thir.  Crazy!
  • Twenty – means two tens, but we have to figure out that the teen part of the word refers to ten, and the  ty ending of the word means more than one ten, but it sounds an awful lot like teen.  Many kids confuse 13 and 30, 14 and forty (not spelled the same as four by the way) because they sound alike and are not clear in their meaning.

The countries with the highest scoring teens in math all speak Asian languages, including Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.  These countries’ math languages are logical, predictable and inherently reflect the base 10 concepts of math. In Chinese, all of the names for the numbers 1-10 have only two sounds.  For numbers more than 10, the name directly reflects their value:

  • 11 – English interpretation is ten and one
  • 12 – ten two
  • 20 – two ten
  • 35 – three ten and five

In Chinese, they need only 14 words to count to 1,000,000, whereas in English we need 34 words.  

Does the language difference for counting matter?

  • 4-year-old Chinese children count to 40 easily, whereas American 4- year-olds struggle to count to 15 and it takes them 1 year to catch up
  • Chinese children master counting fluency, math facts, and base 10 concepts at least 2 years earlier than American children

Counting fluency is a very strong early predictor of later math success. Hmmm…

Coming up in my next blogHow to teach counting to young children to give them a huge math advantage!

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