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language as a means of communication

April 3, 2008

Rumor has it that “in college, there are teachers from China who don’t speak English”. Well, the rumor is true, at least partially.

The word “language” stands for different things. A restricted definition of language means what people talk in or write in, it being Chinese or English or anything of that sort. But think about the language in a broader way, think about the tower of Babel and how “language” came into being on the first place. Some say the first language of human beings were in music or poetry, since these are direct expressions of human emotions. When I was young I was educated that the first Chinese language was the Oracle-Bone Inscriptions, which are shell and bone writing and form one of the most ancient written languages in the world. Simply put, they mimic items in reality, such as the character that stands for “a person” looks like a person. It is my belief that languages were created in order for people to communicate. One may imagine some day in the ancient times after somebody was suddenly not satisfied with being limited with body languages and hand-wavings and decided to speak something more on purpose to express something deeper and clearer. A long time after that there was the first person in the world who decided to put it down and a written language was born. Languages evolve during the years, for the reason of perfection. Thousands of languages die every single day, since they are not used by anybody any more. It is not my purpose to discuss linguistic. I am only interested in the functioning of languages, or, language as a means of communication, it being teaching mathematics or not.

As a Chinese I came to United States at the age of 24 and had learnt more than ten years of English before that. I was not articulating well in my first several years for the simple reason that I hadn’t had the chance of speaking a lot of English back in China. During the past years I barely survived teaching Calculas to students some of which liked me or not and some of which didn’t really care. In my teaching evaluations there were more than occasionally comments on my accent. This problem had bothered me for ever.

When teaching mathematics one may apply oral languages together with body languages and other means. The point is to convey to the students mathematical ideas and get them learn math. Fluent English is helpful, since more than eighty percent of the time students are listening to the instructor. As a person who believes in fairness, applied in this case for the students to have a “fair” chance of learning math. The language barrier is not going to make students learn better, whereas it is not necessary true that an instructor who is a native speaker is better than one that is not. There are so many different aspects on teaching math that I have no intention of covering them all. Instead I may talk about some key points about non-native speakers teaching math based on my own experiences. There is nothing I can do to change the fact that I don’t speak perfect English. But as teaching is a complicated issue there are other routes towards improving teaching than changing ones mother tongue.

When teaching I make an effort of putting more time with preparation for each lecture, including writing the teaching notes carefully and finding good examples to convey the mathematical ideas. When languages were not helping, examples would. Besides, I make it clear to my students that I like them to ask me questions in classes even if I might not understand all of them. I also tried to be more patient with students and try to understand their difficulties. And I tried this and that, some of them may have helped some may not. At a certain point I decided that it was more important to teach math than to make students like me, since students more than often like instructors for their personalities and I may not be the particular type that is meant to be popular among students. On the other hand, I may always try to get students more involved in the classes and learn better math, and there are all the teaching techniques out there in the air waiting for me to catch and cast.

When talking about languages that is used for communicating, one may notice that body languages are as important as oral languages. It is true that Asians or mathematicians, as groups, are generally less social and hence have less vivid body languages. As a result, Asian mathematicians end up with poorer teaching evaluations than anybody else. (Gender makes a difference too but that is something different and, in a sense, more complicated an issue.) Similarly, professors who smile more tend to win students better than professors otherwise. Such built-in features of instructors have no much room for improvement, if there was any. I don’t intend to go into these dead ends here. Instead, just like looking at languages in their fundamental senses, I want to take a look at teaching in a similar way.

When teaching something that is meant to be abstract such as mathematics, there is an amount of energy transferring from the instructors mind to students minds.

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