Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Math as a Foreign Language

A violinist who still worries about fingering positions cannot hope to impress with the beauty of tone or the elegance of phrasing, and an opera singer without the requisite high notes would try in vain to stir our souls with searing passion. In good art as in good mathematics, technique and conception go hand in hand.
Hung-Hsi Wu

I don’t know if I’ve ever spent as much time thinking about mathematics as I have lately. I am an interpreter by training and aside from the calculus, trigonometry and statistics I took in undergrad, and the business type math I took in grad school, my world is a world of language. I do know about learning language, teaching language, and speaking a foreign language, however, and it occurs to me that it is much like learning math.

Math starts out much like a foreign language, something unfamiliar with it’s own symbols, and meanings, and structures. It’s hard work at first and requires repetition, memorization, and practice. You’re not really comfortable with a new language until you use it over and over, consistently and successfully. There is no resting on your laurels, because fluidity depends on practice and vocabulary depends on exposure to rich sources of language.

You don’t discover the language on your own. You don’t invent the language. The language is already there for you to master, to seize, to make your own if you’re willing to work for it. It’s a beautiful thing to move seamlessly between two or more languages but it doesn’t magically appear by placing a dictionary under your pillow and wishing it so.

You learn language by listening to others speak, by looking words up in the dictionary, by learning the rules of grammar and then memorizing the “irregular” applications that break all those rules. Finally, you are able to communicate with others in this new language and the more often you do so, and the more challenging the conversations become, the more you grow in your ability to communicate.

You can always tell who had the benefit of a good foundation through formal instruction (grammar, syntax, pronunciation, vocabulary) and who just "picked it up" informally, on their own and without academic support. The latter tend to be more limited in the range and depth of communication in that foreign language. There is a limit to what they are able to accomplish with the "tools" in the "toolbox" so to speak. Those with the strong foundation move through their discipline with ease, with confidence and with mastery. I think the same applies to many other disciplines be it ballet, basketball, the violin or dare I say, mathematics?

Yes, learning math is much like learning a language. When you master the basics through diligence, perseverance, and the benefit of good instruction, one day without realizing it, you’ve opened the door to a whole new world.


Tex said...

Hi CTParent! So nice to see another parent math blogging. (I’m part of the KTM group.)

Direct instruction, practice, memorization and cumulative sequential structure seem to be anathema to the fuzzy math crowd. Yet, they seem to accept that these principles are critical in sports, music, dance and other areas.

Can you imagine how sports parents would react if they learned the coaches were applying constructivist methods? “Don’t worry about getting creamed during last week’s game, because it’s more about knowing the concepts and applying your critical thinking skills.” How long would that last?

concernedCTparent said...

Constructivism wouldn't last very long in the world of sports, for certain. In many ways I see it as a reflection of our values as a society. Why is it that we would tolerate mediocrity, lack of results, and anti-mastery in education for decades but it is unthinkable in sports, entertainment for even one season?

Anonymous said...

That was absolutely beautifully written.

Catherine Johnson said...

wow - fantastic post.


VickyS said...

Great post. Foreign language is sort of the last frontier for constructivism, isn't it? Thank goodness! My kids love their foreign language classes. They learn point by point, to mastery, and it is deeply satisfying.

Yes, there is (at least should be) a strong similarity between learning math and learning foreign language. I just hope that we are successful in chasing out reform math before constructivist philosophies consume foreign language instruction as well.

Catherine Johnson said...

Foreign language has already been destroyed.

The schools are teaching it "culturally" -- i.e. they have the kids cook food and sing songs from the culture, instead of learning the language.

One of our administrators told us cheerfully that there are K-5 schools teaching as many as eleven foreign languages.

When we looked at him dumbfounded he said, "They teach the culture."

David Foster, on a thread at Joanne Jacobs, said that education is filled with people who want to turn all of the disciplines into social studies or arts and crafts.

Foreign language study has been turned into social studies.

Catherine Johnson said...

Parents here lobbied for 8 years to bring in foreign language instruction to the elementary grades.

When they finally prevailed the school taught it "culturally."

None of these kids is learning to speak or read Spanish & French.

They're just creating menus and cooking tacos.