Doing Math in a Foreign Language

Many a time I have written about German schools, which sometimes seem to be the bane of my life, but are generally pretty okay. It seems that no matter how good the non-German parent was in school (and in our case, that would be me), when confronted with German math problems, I’m lost. And unhelpful. And really really frustrated.

Now granted, my oldest daughter is not a math genius. She would probably do pretty well if she found math interesting and had a little bit of faith in herself (the classic not living up to her potential). But our problems started way back in first grade when they start adding and subtracting. They even subtract differently here. No borrowing and carrying. The little numbers go at the bottom. Division is another story. As soon as I see that math book coming out I want to run for cover. I have to relearn it, remember how we did it, and end up asking my colleagues to explain long division to me German style.

The next problem is a linguistic one. My German is fluent; I’ve been here for years. I can explain lots of complicated things and tell interesting stories without flinching or stuttering. But stick me in front of a German math book and I realize how little I really know. What the heck is a Bruch? (It’s a fraction). Have you ever heard of a Rechenbaum? And they are quite fond of these little pyramids or brick walls that involve adding or multiplying or subtracting until you get to the top. My oldest can usually handle it when I explain things in English, but I often have to do the whole problem the way I learned it before I can even think of learning it her way. Now I understand why my dad always had to derive back to the beginning when he was trying to help me with calculus. I can sympathize with her annoyance while my husband and I talk our way through her math homework before we can help her.

My second daughter, on the other hand, wants nothing to do with my English explanations. When Ty the au pair tries to help her with homework it gets even worse. Now that I am back at work, she is stuck calling someone else for help because I can’t help her with the math if I can’t see it and I certainly can’t do it in English with seeing it. Emma is much more German than the rest of us, I guess.

So for those of you expats who have little babies and are having a grand old time watching the language develop and preparing for an easy future of bilinguality, beware! Better get working on the math along with them, right from the beginning. Sometimes I think I should just go back to first grade with the little ones. Then maybe I can think like a German and can figure out what they WANT from me on those dreaded worksheets!