What do you think? When asked this question, most educators will fall on one side of the coin or another.

There is evidence to support the fact that mathematics is indeed universal. But at the same time, there are irrefutable challenges that English language learners (ELLs) encounter when learning math through English — for them a foreign or second language.

To illustrate this point, I'll share highlights from a contentious, but respectful interchange among math educators with whom I had the privilege of working recently. In response to the question of whether math was universal for ELLs, they came up with the following points:


  • Mathematics is logical and functional
  • 1+1=2, no matter the language.
  • In the history of mathematics, two important scientists — Jabir Ibn Hayyan (who gave us algebra) and Mohammed Ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi (who gave us algorithms) — made their contributions in Arabic but were later translated into other languages.


  • There are cultural differences in math that can impede understanding, such as how Europeans use commas where Americans use decimal points.
  • Math is taught differently; for example, mental math is much more commonly used in other countries, whereas in the U.S., kids must "show" their work.
  • Word problems are often loaded with difficult terminology and expressions that may have nothing to do with solving the problem.

Who is right? Well, sure they both are, but I would have to argue that the universal aspects of math stop pretty early on for an ELL. There are numerous tricky components of mathematical language that can serve to challenge ELLs in their quest to solve a problem in math.

These challenges include linguistic issues related to syntax (the forming of grammatical sentences), semantics (the meaning of a word, clause, phrase or larger unit), the lexicon (vocabulary), as well as the various extralinguistic notions inherent in understanding math and the ways of learning it.

Some linguistic challenges include the necessity to understand how certain syntactic structures must maintain their integrity to make sense. For example, the statement "80 divided by 5 equals x" cannot easily be changed or moved around. It would not have the same meaning.

Not only that, but certain symbols must be interpreted in relatively strict ways, such as 8<9 would be read "8 is less than 9." Sure, it is possible to say "smaller than," but mathematical language is characterized by precision. All students of math are expected to not only understand the meanings (semantics) but also the syntax.

Symbols like the "<" and ">" signs have a lexical component that is equivalent to greater (than) and less (than). In traditional English, the "!" sign means we are showing enthusiasm or emotion, but in math, "!" means factorial. Tricky, huh?

Furthermore, the math lexicon is specialized and specific. There are many polysemous words in math table (chart) and table (in the classroom), plane (in geometry) and plane (in the sky) as well as homophones, words that sound the same but have different meanings, like sum and some.

Not to mention, the cultural issues that confound understanding in math such as the use or nonuse of the metric system, or even how tally marks are used different ways in different countries can be hard for someone learning content in a new language.

It has further, been argued that students may not be succeeding in math due to the fact that they cannot read. If math were universal, these problems would likely not be so grave.

Indeed, there is a specific mathematical language, discourse or register that students must know, understand and be able to do to "do math" in English. In the same way that sign languages like American Sign Language (ASL) are not universal, there are differences among the ways we speak about and learn math in different languages.

So what can we do for ELLs learning math and English at the same time? We must work to improve the instructional environment for ELLs in math as is done in a foreign language class. There will be visuals, supports, home language dictionaries, peer tutors and all the rich resources we need to learn (a foreign language) well.

As teachers, we need to anticipate the linguistic and cultural challenges our ELLs may face and provide the supports and modifications in our math classes that we would for a newcomer to our English classes. The math is the content, no doubt, but the context should be supportive, comprehensible and clear. Check out this article for further ideas.

In so doing, the ELLs in our math classes will be less challenged by language and be better able to tackle the high-quality content in math.