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Is Math a Language?

Updated: Mar 15, 2021

“Is Math a language?” I asked my 5th-grade daughter this question the other day. She replied instantly. “Math is definitely a language. It’s one of the only languages that people in every country in the world can understand. So if you don’t know a foreign language or culture, you may still be able to communicate with people in that country.” I was pleasantly surprised that she concluded that math is a universal language. On the surface, it may seem unlikely that math meets the definition of a language, as it doesn’t contain vocabulary or grammar. However the key function of a language is that people use it to communicate and understand each other. Math certainly meets that definition as it has symbols and equations that are recognized across continents.

To me, math has always been a language. It was the main form of communication with my father, as he was always busy at work when I was a young girl. Math brings many fond memories of my childhood. My dad was a civil engineer and devoted his entire life to building harbors along the coastal cities in China. He loved his job and had to travel a lot for his job. Whenever he had some free time at home, he spent it teaching me math.

Where we lived, there was a math portion in the middle-school entrance exam across all grade-schools in the city. With my dad’s coaching and plenty of daily practice, I thought I aced it. The exam lasted a whole day. By the time it was evening and the exam had finished, I was beaming when I got home to tell my dad that I was sure I would get a perfect score. However, after hearing my optimistic prediction, my dad began to worry. He predicted as the scores would be inflated so that the second exam would have much harder exam questions. I was disappointed at his reaction, but without any arguments, I went back to my desk and started preparing for a potential second math entrance exam. Believe it or not, the news of the second exam came in a week! I studied extra hard, hoping to get a good grade to test into my dream school. My work finally paid off when I got in!

It takes effort, determination, and practice to be good at math. Practice is extremely important for math, just as it is for any other languages. Languages are learned quickly if studied at a young age. Math, on the other hand, involves a very abstract thinking process so it is mostly recommended for study when students begin their schooling, not before the age six or seven. Additionally it is less about an individual’s natural ability but more about their hard work and tenacity that makes a good math student. So math provides an equal opportunity for anyone who wants to learn and do well. There is a quote from The Outlier that brings me back to my childhood memory of math and my dad, and I would conclude this blog post with it: “My earliest memories of my father are of seeing him work at his desk and realizing that he was happy. I did not know it then, but that was one of the most precious gifts a father can give his child”.

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