What is your maths language?

When our children are schooled in another language since the beginning, their most dominant language for counting and doing maths is or will be the school language

When I tell this to parents who have still to decide which school would be best for their bi/multilingual child, we have the most interesting discussions. Many of them don’t see it as a problem, which, in fact, it is not. But when I show them the different ways to count and explain to them that the way to do simple equations can differ considerably, and that they may need to switch to another way to do maths to help their children with homework for example, they are usually very surprised.

If you speak more than one language at home: which is the language your children prefer when counting, if they learned this before attending daycare or school in another language? 

If your children count in one of your home languages, they might need some help to switch to counting in the school language later.

One way to make this easier is to teach our children to count in more than one language from the beginning. When they show interest in numbers and want to count, we can do so in “our” language and ask our partner or a friend to do the same in the “other” one, so that our children get the input in both or all the languages.

Do you think it is too confusing? It is not. It requires more brain-work but it is like learning new words and link them to those we already know.

My tip for parents whose children are schooled in another language is to bridge between the school and the home languages, i.e. to help them learn the necessary vocabulary in their home language too. Why? Just imagine your child is in your home country and wants to buy something: numbers are everywhere! We need them constantly, either when we buy something, measure something, tell the time, count our steps, prepare a meal and use measures…

The earlier we foster the maths vocabulary in all the languages in our children, the better for them (and us: because we don’t have to translate numbers, prices etc.).

74: seventy-four – or “four-seventy” or “sixty-fourteen”?

Especially when numbers like 74 are named in different ways – tenths first then units, or units first, then tenths, or in the French way, the transfer between their languages can become a major brain workout for our children (and us)!
I personally learned to switch between Italian and German from a very early age and don’t get confused between “cinquantaquattro” (54) and “quarantacinque” (45), or “vierundfünfzig” and “fünfundvierzig“, just to make an example.
I learned Geography and History in French, so I don’t get confused with French numbers either – the “quatrevinghtdixneuf” (lit. “four-twenty-nineteen” 99) is as natural as the “neunundneunzig” or “novantanove”. 

I “only” needed to switch between my languages when I do more complex maths with my children in English. Although I didn’t have any problem with my other languages, I had to learn the math-vocabulary in order to help them. Needless to say that they taught me a lot!

Do multilinguals have one maths language only?

The language we are taught to count in, do maths, is the one we will be more proficient doing so also in the future, unless this changes very early.

It is a myth that the language we count in is always our “mother tongue”, our “native language”: It is actually the language that is the dominant one for us, when counting and doing maths, i.e. it is closely related to a given situation and topic. 

For multilinguals it is perfectly normal to have different “language dominances” across our languages: for example maths is English, literacy in German, science in French. It all depends on what language we use the most when talking, reading, writing, studying about those subjects.

What if older children attend a school in a new language, how will they cope with the other “math language”? 

Research on mathematics and language diversity is published in mathematics education journals as well as linguistics journals focusing on language in education. Poor performance in maths is usually due to a lack of understanding the language of the test (see: Adetula, 1989; De Courcy & Burston, 2000; Evans, 2007; Farrell, 2011; LlabreCuevas, 1983; Ni Diodan & Donoghue, 2009; Zepp, 1982): those who learn mathematics in a language that is not their own, their strongest one, in order to improve, the language, culture and the logic or reasoning system of the learner should match with that of the teacher, the textbook and the curriculum (Berry, 1985; Evans, 2007; Zepp, 1982).

What should parents and teachers know about multilinguals and maths? 

The most important thing to know for parents and teachers is that the competence in both the home and the language of learning and teaching (LoLT) is an advantage in mathematics achievement (Clarkson, 1992; Clarkson & Galbraith, 1992).

However, language fluency is not necessarily linked to the learners’ performance, i.e. if learners are not fluent in the school language, they can still perform on a high standard especially in maths and other subjects learned in another language! Also, it is a misconception to assume that only because people perform in a subject with a native fluency they do it at a high level. 

When using translanguaging practices in other subject areas with multilinguals 

More and more teachers use translanguaging practices in various subject areas. Especially when it comes to STEM  subjects (i.e. science, technology, engineering and mathematics), teachers should always assess the learners’ competence in their home language(s) or the language they were taught the subject.

For example, a French-German child, schooled in Dutch and now attending a school in English, might be better off if the teacher can bridge between Dutch and English. Assuming that the child is better in those subjects because of their home languages is a common misconception!

Generally speaking, encouraging the development of the learners’ home language is a successful strategy to motivate them to succeed in mathematics (Barton, Fairhall & Trinick, 1998) – but only if the learners have the necessary vocabulary in their home language though!

Unfortunately, very little research focuses on how STEM teachers should deal with the complexities of teaching and learning these subjects in linguistically diverse classrooms, but I am optimistic that many schools are addressing this manco and looking for solutions that involve teacher trainings.

Learners whose first/home language is the same as the language of instruction are familiar with the linguistic structures they encounter in the mathematics classroom (Barwell, 2009). Research shows that this is not the case for learners whose home language is different from the language of learning and teaching (LoLT) (Adler, 2001;Gorgorio & Planas, 2001; Halai, 2004). Both groups of learners have to familiarize themselves with the structure of the mathematical language. (from:  Teaching and Learning Mathematics in Multilingual Classrooms: Issues for Policy, Practice and Teacher Education (pp.3-10))

– This is an “ongoing post”, which means that I will regularly update it with more scientific findings about this topic.
If you have any suggestions, examples, input on this matter, please add a comment here below.

Here are some references (taken from Anjum Halai and Philip Clarkson eds., Teaching and Learning Mathematics in Multilingual Classrooms. Issues for Policy, Practice and Teacher Education, 2016) :

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