Math – My First Foreign Language

I can remember the moment that math made sense to me. Not the moment that math became easy for me – I’m still working on that. This was that moment that I gained my entry point into math. This was the moment that this collection of numbers and symbols meant something more to me than another opportunity to feel stupid.

I’ll set the scene. I was an incoming freshman at Florida State University bound for an English degree in Creative Writing. My mother is an accountant and my father used to design complex machinery with a slide rule, so I should have been decent at math. In the early part of my childhood, I held the conviction that I was, in fact, good at math. I also thought I was fast. Elementary school soon taught me that neither was the case.

I was smart enough so I managed to maintain my place in the higher level math classes, typically surviving on wit, personality, and my survival instincts that taught me how to succeed with assignments if not actually achieve any of the intended objectives. While “C” may have stood for “credit,” in my case it did not also stand for “comprehension.”

I topped out at Pre-Calculus, but truth be told, much of Algebra I was a stretch. As I made my way to the university, I had retained enough skill to test out of the required College Algebra class and was looking forward to not having to take many more math classes. I was not out of the woods quite yet and that brings me to my moment.

The liberal arts requirements of the university required that all students earn credit for at least two math courses. I had tested out of one, so I needed one more. To help us choose our liberal arts courses, the university provided each student with a chart that showed the various required categories and course options. I looked to see what my options were to complete my math requirement and to do that I had two find the math courses on that chart. But where were they?

Communications – with the English classes. In fact, math and English were the only two subjects in that category. This caused a small knob to turn in my brain and a great big door to open wide. It was creaky, cob webbed, and a rather a bit surprised that was being opened.

It made sense now. Math, like English, is a language. Granted, it has different syntax and symbols, but is nonetheless a language. There were statements, expressions, verbs, nouns, facts, falsehoods, and the imaginary. This wasn’t new concept to me. I had often read that math was the language of the universe. I had heard it spoken and I had read it in books. My foreign language textbooks and my math textbooks even had the same lesson layout. It just wasn’t my language and I didn’t understand.

For those learning a language, particularly those immersed in a new language environment, there comes a moment when after a period of exposure, study, and practice that language begins to makes sense. When that moment comes and what causes it, is different for everyone. For some, it never happens. For me and math, it was this of all things– a chart in an undergraduate guide to liberal arts requirements. I still wasn’t “good at math”, but now “good” was possible.

Some years later, I’d be in graduate school studying First and Second Language Education. While we learned a great many things from that program, the one that stood out the most to me is simply that each learner is different, and we must keep trying new techniques, approaches, and perspectives until we find the one that works for the student. Until the light bulb clicks on. Until the knob turns and the creaky door swings open. It was a lesson that I have tried to apply to all teaching and instructional design situations and it is one that I began learning that day in my freshman year when math finally became a language to me.

Scott Dinho, an associate at A Pass Educational Group, was contractor of the month in August 2014.

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2018-06-18T20:04:57-05:00 September 16th, 2014|algebra, math, mathematics|0 Comments

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