Language, Culture & Math

I just spent the last 3 days at a Summer Academy for Purposeful Math Planning. I was very intrigued when we were discussing number sense and the need to become more flexible with numbers and how we use them in our world. Only one person brought up the issue of culture and how numbers are perceived. It really gave me pause to deeply consider the impact our culture has on how we perceive math as well. Particularly in the areas of spatial sense.

In the article ‘Does Your Language Shape How You Think’ by Guy Deutscher, I was really drawn in when I read that speakers of geographic languages appear to have almost superhuman senses of orientation, and simply ‘feel’ where the directions are. I couldn’t help but consider how language has deep connections to visual and spatial sense and how we ultimately perform – especially with English when used in our Eurocentric, settler based curriculum.

As the article said:

The convention of communicating with geographic coordiates compels speakers from the youngest age to pay attention to the clues from the physical environment (the position of the sun, wind and so on) every second of their lives, and to develop an accurate memory of their own changing orientations at any given moment”.

The language we use compels our students to pay attention to different cues in the environment. Our language thus shapes our habits in ways that make our spatial understandings feel like second nature.

I was struck by the fact that different languages lend themselves to different languages of space. Some languages explore directions from a more egocentric point of view – ie., directions given in relation to ourselves, whereas others are more geographically oriented. This may not sound like a big deal, until you consider how deeply language shapes our realities and how we perceive and learn about the world around us depending upon the language we have learned.

More questions I have include:

What ‘habits of mind’ form due to the spatial language that we use?

How is our ability to succeed in math class affected by our language?

What if the instructions we give in say a math class is what is preventing a student from understanding instructions?

What about our English Language Learners who may be confused based on instructions that are more egocentric or more geographic?

Do we assume that the student has learning difficulties?

Also, what happens when we are trained via language to ignore directional rotations when we commit information to memory?


This is another example in the article that was very powerful to me – basically, if I walked into an adjoining hotel room that is opposite of mine, I might see an exact replica of my own room. However, if my friend who spoke a more geographical language walked into my room, they would not see an exact replica – rather they really would see that everything is reversed, and would have the language to describe that. This has big implications therefore in how we commit events to memory, recall them, solve problems, and critically think about the world around us.

The language we use compels our students to pay attention to different cues in the environment Our language thus shapes our habits in ways that make our spatial understandings feel like second nature.  It therefore will compel our students to think differently about math.

We make so many decisions each and every day about the world around us – so much of this is spatial. We just simply don’t know our language and habits impact our ability to succeed in math.

We really are at the center of our own worlds. If we determine that subjects like math are linear and one-dimensional, with set algorithms and languages to describe, know and understand, then we are absolutely missing the worlds of many of our students. To dismiss language, culture and our identities of our students could very well mean the difference of success and achievement vs failure.


Deborah McCallum