The Problem with Math is English

There have been several separate occasions in my math classes this semester where a student has asked me a question about a vocabulary word and I simply just didn’t know the answer.  I took 3 years of Latin in high school and I was an English teacher at one point, so I generally can guess the meaning of a word from the root word.  However, some words just have me stumped.   My new ‘go to’ tool in class is dictionary.com.  Let me give you a few examples of some words that I have looked up during class this semester.

Linear Algebra

In linear algebra, we were talking about inverse matrices and a student asked me what it means to be an inverse.  I explained to him that it means that the inverse matrix, if it exists, is the matrix that when multiplied by the original matrix yields the identity matrix.  Although that explained what the inverse is mathematically speaking, that really didn’t give any insight into why we call it an inverse matrix.  It turns out that the word inverse comes from the Latin word meaning ‘to turn upside down or inside out.’  So, conceptually, the inverse matrix can actually be thought of as the matrix that is used to turn a matrix inside out in order to get the identity matrix.  I thought that this was a very interesting way to think about inverse matrices.

Math for Elementary Teachers

In my math for elementary teachers class, we were talking about subtracting whole numbers.  When I learned about subtraction, I was taught that the first number in the subtraction problem is called the minuend, the second number is called the subtrahend, and the result is the difference.  Apparently, minuend and subtrahend are not words that are taught to most students these days, or they have simply forgotten the terms over the years.  Anyway, during class, a student asked me why we use the words minuend and subtrahend.  We looked it up on dictionary.com, and it turns out that subtrahend comes from the Latin word meaning ‘to be subtracted from another number’ and minuend comes from the Latin word meaning ‘to be diminished or made smaller.’  So, after looking at the definitions of the words together in class, I feel as if my students got a better understanding for why it is so important to teach children the proper math vocabulary.

Everyday Math (Liberal Arts Math)

In my everyday math class, we were talking about discrete and continuous random variables.  A student asked me why I was defining a discrete random variable as being a random variable that as one that can only take on countable values.  The student said that it was confusing because discrete generally means to do something carefully or quietly.  I immediately brought up dictionary.com on the computer and showed the class that the words discrete and discreet are two different words.  The majority of the class was shocked and several students even mentioned that these types of problems with the English language aren’t even being addressed in the English classes that they are taking this semester.  I’m not an English teacher, but I would think that if students don’t know some basic vocabulary words, they aren’t going to be turning out very high quality papers for their classes, either.

In summary, my whole point is that using a tool as simple as dictionary.com during my classes has helped spark some discussion in my classes and has helped to bring a new perspective to some of the mathematical vocabulary that is used in the courses.