Thursday, 26 May 2016

Maths problem

My son's homework... makes me want to cry!

After 13 years of living my life in another language, I consider myself bilingual. But there is something I really cannot do in English, and it's maths.

I don't remember ever being good at it. Maybe in primary school, but still, I have memories of struggling with silly things like divisions or types of angles. Now, imagine having to do it all over again, but in a different language.

This is what's happening right now when I'm desperately trying to help my 8 years old with his maths homework. I don't know maths vocabulary in English, I don't know how the teacher has explained and worse, I actually cannot count or do arithmetic in English.

Before I had to face that problem, I never really asked myself why I was always counting or doing mental arithmetic in French. And if I'm at the ATM I always think about my Pin number in French. I know my Irish phone number in English, but if I had to give a French number to someone, I would have to think harder before saying it. Strange isn't it?

I was so puzzled I decided to research the issue and see if I was the only one who couldn't do maths or use numbers in their second language. And I finally came across this article.

In short, it explains that the majority of bilinguals count in their native language because they favour the language of instruction. Basically, the process of learning arithmetic tables is so hard that it stays in your brain and it's easier and more efficient to reactivate the cells involved when we use numbers  than learning it all over again in a different language.

But the study also shows that when it comes to numbers we have to remember, the language we think in can vary according to circumstances.

All of this makes perfect sense to me. That's why I remember my different passwords involving numbers in French, why I know my own phone number in English and especially why I find it so hard to explain additions in English to my son.

There's only one solution I think. Learning arithmetic with my child in English all over again. And I thought I was being done with maths since the end of secondary school! The nightmare is only starting I guess...

What about you? Do you find it hard counting in your second language? Or are there other things you can only do in your mother tongue?