Speaking Mathanese

Kids butcher the Mathanese language.  I’m just sayin’.  We have all these kids who speak text just fine.  It seems to me that Mathanese should be right up their alley.  All we are doing is taking a bunch of words and converting it to symbols.  Should be easy, right?  Not so much. 

I find that kids have a tough time translating algebraic expressions to English and vice versa.  Am I alone? 

Yeah, didn’t think so. 

One of the things that I have been trying to focus on this year is to convey to students the universality of the things they are learning.  For example, cause/effect in language arts becomes input/output in math.  Conflict resolution is the same as problem solving.  Language arts has expressions and sentences, so does math.  Scientific method can compare to making a conjecture in geometry, testing it out and then using inductive logic to arrive at a conclusion (read: rule). 

So what happens when you tell them to translate: the product of 3 and the sum of x and 2?

You get: 3x+2, right? 

Not quite. 

Well I figured we needed to develop a mashup of English and Mathanese; Mathglish, if you will.  Here is what we came up with:

English to Mathanese:

This should read: The product of 2 and the sum of the product of 4 and x and 3.

Mathanese to English:

The key this time was to allow the mashup.  I live in a rural area where the Spanish speaking population is very large.  Many of my kids speak and understand Spanglish.  I have never done it this way before and the kids nailed it. 

How do you do it?

Update:  Just did a quick check for understanding 2nd period and  26/28 kids circled the bases.

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5 Responses to “Speaking Mathanese”


  1. 1 Matt Townsley December 4, 2009 at 10:39 am

    Umm…I don’t do a very good job of this. Guilty as charged. Motivated by your work, David. Thanks for sharing.

  2. 2 CalcDave December 4, 2009 at 10:47 am

    I wonder if you could start a “wiktionary” of math for the class including vocab words as well as translations like “= means ‘is'” (then include an example and maybe a “word origin” of where that sign comes from if you want kids to do research about it). Could be a tech/online wiki or a binder you keep in the classroom depending on your school’s tech level.

  3. 3 David Cox December 4, 2009 at 10:55 am

    @Matt
    I have never done a good job of it either. For some reason, the diagram came to me mid lesson yesterday. I am wondering if it will prove beneficial later.

    @Dave
    Is this what you had in mind?
    Algebra: http://bit.ly/7CY6aT
    Geometry: http://bit.ly/6kWG2h
    Theorems: http://bit.ly/5FRgXZ

  4. 4 Carol December 4, 2009 at 11:04 am

    Reminds me of teaching percents in middle school. Spent a lot of time showing student that they can substitute an equal sign where they see the word ‘is’, and a multiplication symbol where they see the word ‘of’… it really is learning a new language, but do we ever explain it to the kids that way?

    Love the diagrams!

  5. 5 David Cox December 4, 2009 at 11:45 am

    Hi Carol
    I have always been a fan of teaching percentages by translating directly. I never go into doing the proportions (is:of::p:100). It has always been a matter of

    _________ is ________% of ___________ which translates nicely into an equation. I have used the term “mathanese” for years now, but the diagrams are new.


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