Friday, March 28, 2014

Indigenous Languages and Mathematics Vocabulary

The other day I heard a new spin on the same old song:
"well, I totally believe it what you guys are doing...but there is just no way these kids can keep up with higher level mathematics."
Really?  I've never heard this argument in reference to math! And its probably because I was having this conversation with a fellow teacher (who can't so easily dismiss the cognitive benefits of bilingualism).

I have to admit that I wasn't exactly able to slam the book on the case, either. I know that our school uses a variety of Singapore math (then again, who doesn't?) but I don't know the name of the actual curriculum. Or if there even is one. Because the curriculum not only has to be translated into Hawaiian, it also has to align with Hawaiian pedagogy, there is no easy answer for a mainstream American curriculum that will fit into a school like Nawahi. And, frankly, having an empirically sound curriculum doesn't necessarily guarantee student success.

My friend's point was that higher level mathematics requires a certain broadness of vocabulary that he wasn't sure exists in modern Hawaiian. Helix-whatevers and spiral-cluster-mabobs... How can a Hawaiian school teach these concepts to a student? Inevitably, they will fall behind their English-speaking counterparts. (Or, as this teacher put it, they have to be given supplemental instruction at home in order to achieve on the same level).

Now, this might be because I'm not a higher level math person (I could barely follow this conversation in English), but I'm under the impression that vocabulary is mostly semantics. It doesn't really matter what you call it, just that there is a word that clearly identifies the concept. Hawaiians came up with a word for iPhone (ipona) so I'm sure they can figure out a word for Parabolas. In fact, there is an entire modern Hawaiian dictionary that has all kinds of useful math-y vocabulary.

Students at Nawahi have SAT/ACT scores that are on average with other American students. They aren't blowing them away, but they aren't completely bombing the test either. And that test is always given in English, which makes this an encouraging statistic. I left the conversation wondering if Hawaiian or math was the real problem. If my kids went to a more common language school - like Japanese or French - would the concern be the same? Is the real fear that an indigenous language like Hawaiian can't possibly communicate more sophisticated and modern concepts (like pure mathematics)?

No comments:

Post a Comment