English and Mathematics -  Compliments to Africanus

Mr. Africanus Owusu Ansah should be highly commended for publicly championing the case for the proper use of the English Language in society (especially by the youth) and its important role in determining the success or otherwise of many people in careers they might want to pursue. In one of his series (Daily Graphic of 16/07/07, page 17) in which he talked about the importance of English in job recruitment and admission to educational institutions, he made mention of Mathematics as the twin subject that plays similar important roles.

In fact, English plays such an important role in one’s success in mathematics that many students fail mathematics because of their poor command of the language. Mathematics involves ideas. Being able to verbalize correctly these ideas is one sure indicator of one’s understanding of the ideas involved. Then, one must be able to interpret the ideas correctly as used in Mathematics. Interpreting correctly involves good understanding of English. For example, what does it mean to add, divide, find the square root, integrate, differentiate, proof by contradiction? Which side of a triangle is opposite a given angle? Others that follow seem more mathematical, like representing the interpretation symbolically and the proper manipulation of the symbols to preserve the meanings of the original ideas.

Not surprisingly, one of the difficult areas in Mathematics for many students is solving word problems. For example: Currently Kofi is thrice as old as Ama. Three years ago, Kofi was four times as old as Ama. Find the present ages of Kofi and Ama. To answer this problem, you have to translate correctly from the words that are in English to the symbolic representations which are mathematical. As you do not know Ama’s age, it can be represented by a variable, say x. Then Kofi is thrice as old as Ama is represented by 3x. Three years ago means Kofi’s age would be 3x – 3 while Ama’s age would be x – 3. However, at that time, Kofi was four times as old as Ama, that is 3x – 3 = 4(x – 3). You can now solve for x (Ama’s age) as 9 years and 3x (Kofi’s age) as 27 years. Notice that there is interplay between English and the methods and principles of Mathematics to solve this problem.

Another example: Four times two less than a number is the same as thrice one more than the number. Find that number. (I leave this one for readers to solve). The interpretation you give is a matter of your command of the English language. A wrong interpretation will lead to a wrong symbolic representation, and therefore a wrong solution. It is sad to see the many students who get frustrated at this stage of their study of mathematics.

Notice that there are a lot of parallels between English and Mathematics. For example, a match between antonyms and synonyms in English can be likened to a map between elements of a domain and its co-domain while one studies functions in Mathematics. I can go on and on citing examples.

However, I will rather like to advise students to take the study of English and Mathematics very seriously, hoping that they will listen. Why the usual second world war? Why can’t students study sufficiently and pass their examinations at the first sitting? Any student is capable of studying Mathematics and English and excelling in them. The two subjects are compulsory, and rightly so, because Mathematics ensures the efficiency that we need for national development and we must communicate that efficiency in a language, and for our purposes in Ghana, the English language, as it is our official language. We need to make students see the relevance and the interconnectedness of the subjects they study. We need to occupy the minds of our students with useful activities that impact on them positively. These days, there are many things competing for the time and mind of students. Pornography, occultism, cocaine usage, gayism, lesbianism, alcohol usage, valentine day celebrations, shit-bombing of classrooms, and the like, have all crept into the school system and are taking quality time away from students; time that they need to study and appreciate the beauty of school subjects and how these subjects contribute to the general knowledge needed for the development of dear Ghana.

Mr. Owusu-Ansah, (and for that matter anybody reading) be reminded that Mathematics is not a monster, as your teacher made it look to you. Mathematics is not the problem, but the way we teach Mathematics is the problem. Mathematics has a lovely, orderly, and friendly human face and character. Many who consult with me at the Mathematics Academy come with gloomy and traumatic stories but leave with and ear-to-ear grin. If you understand mathematics, you will find it to be a friend, and a good friend in deed. Thanks Africanus, for taking me through those memory lanes in your article. God bless you!

-Prof. S.E. Anku
Founder & Executive Director, MathNED

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