Math: the Not-So-Universal Language
Malinda Evans spends about an hour and a half each day teaching mathematics to her 5th graders at Navajo Elementary School in the working-class South Valley neighborhood of Albuquerque, N.M. Whether the topic is basic division, geometry, or word problems, it is invariably also a lesson in the English language, which vexes many of her pupils more than any single equation ever could.
Spanish is the first language for more than half Ms. Evans’ students. As she and other teachers working with similar students have come to understand, translating the arcane terminology of math for English-language learners can be daunting.
Over the years, the sixth-year teacher has learned several tricks. She works on an overhead projector, writing out terms as she pronounces them. She avoids lengthy definitions. And she points out similarities in the roots of words in the two languages: Equilateral triangles, she tells students, can be remembered as igual and lado in Spanish, or “equal” and “side.” Children with a strong command of English are encouraged to help their classmates, using whatever lingo will...
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