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Researcher probes maths teaching in Indigenous languages

 Cris Edmonds-Wathen
Education Lecturer Dr Cris Edmonds-Wathen is looking at how linguistics can help teaching maths in various languages

The challenges of teaching mathematics in Indigenous languages is being explored by a Charles Darwin University (CDU) researcher.

Education Lecturer Dr Cris Edmonds-Wathen is looking at how linguistics techniques can help inform how maths is taught in various languages.

“In some languages, because school maths hasn’t been taught in them before, it’s hard to find the words and structures for maths functions. This makes teaching maths in these languages challenging. I am looking at how linguistics can help address the teaching of maths in these languages,” Dr Edmonds-Wathen said.

“Take Pitjantjatjara, which is spoken in the Western Desert region of Central Australia. Instead of prepositions like English it uses case-marking suffixes extensively. In that respect it’s a lot like Finnish. There may be scope to look at how maths is taught in Finnish as a guide to help teach in Pitjantjatjara,” she said.

“Languages reflect the culture of the people who speak them. Lots of maths language has been developed from mercantile culture, so cultures that are not traditionally mercantile will not have some of the words that are needed in school maths.”

Even if new words in Indigenous languages are invented for school maths or borrowed from English, it’s the language structures that go with applying those words, such as making a comparison between two things, that need to be identified.

“That’s where the linguistic structures in other languages can play a role. It’s about finding how maths is taught in structurally similar languages and seeing if something can be borrowed to assist maths teaching,” she said.

Ms Edmonds-Wathen has been running a small-scale trial with early primary students at the school at Warruwi on South Goulburn Island. The school had been bilingual till 2001, when it changed to teaching in English only.

The community is now teaching lessons in culture and literacy in the local Mawng language.  

“I’ve been working with the Indigenous teaching staff to help them do some maths teaching in Mawng and it seems to get the students very engaged when maths is presented in their own language,” Dr Edmonds-Wathen said.

In the next stage of her research, Dr Edmonds-Wathen will develop guidelines that are systematic and informed by both mathematics teaching research and linguistics research, to help teach maths in a student’s own language.

“We know that students learn best when they are learning in their own language. But with so many languages spoken by Indigenous people in Australia alone, the education system could benefit from a pathway for teaching maths in these languages,” she said.

Dr Edmonds-Wathen’s research paper, “Linguistic methodologies for investigating and representing multiple languages in mathematics education research”, was recently published in a special edition of the British journal Research in Mathematics Education on Language diversity as the Editor’s Pick.

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