Language Barriers in Math

Teaching Math without Language

One of the most common questions in a job interview – “Tell us about your strengths and weaknesses”. But what if we flip the question to – “How did you get these strengths or work on your weaknesses?”

Do you remember if language was involved in learning any of these skills? For example, say that you are a talented artist. How did you learn to draw? Did your teachers help you, or was it videos you saw online? 

Maybe, you read some books and taught yourself?

As you might have noticed, the common thread among all these methods is language. It could be your mother tongue or the one you are proficient in. Can you imagine how good you would be at drawing if your art class were in a language you were not good at?

Learning in a foreign language

In the era of globalization, you will need to learn another language at some point. You may live in a foreign country with different cultures at some point. After all, we live in a century with mass migration rates (Castles & Miller, 2009). Sound exciting, right?

Imagine a situation where you are moving to a new country with your family. In what language would you converse with your children? It would be your mother tongue. Yet, when they go to school, the language of instruction is … you guessed it – the local language. Will they be great at drawing if she does not master the language of teaching? Maybe she will not be great at drawing because it is not her thing. Of course, this is not limited to a teacher but to every field of interest.

Math Learning In a Second Language

Let’s go to our favorite subject: Mathematics

In our previous blogs, we discussed how important math is for everyone. 

What was it like for you to learn Math? Can you imagine what would happen if you were learning Math in a foreign language? Would it have been the same experience?

These kids have to work substantially harder compared to their native speaker classmates. Besides paying attention to learning math concepts, they also have to translate words and explanations. 

This adds extra effort to math classes and may decrease the success rate in the math activities. Does this mean they are not good at math? 

As a teacher or parent, you might have seen children getting dejected about not being good at math. More often than not, they could just be struggling with the language, not the math per se.

The problem is not limited to children with migratory backgrounds. The same is applicable for other situations, such as children with:

  • Language Disorders
  • Hearing Problems (Partial or complete)
  • Learning Difficulties (Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, Dysgraphia etc.)
  • Autism
  • Down’s Syndrome

and many such cases.

Wait, but is it such a big problem?

Per a study by UNESCO, approximately 40% of the children don’t get an education in a language they understand.

One of the most crucial school subjects is mathematics. Mathematical skill level at school entry is a strong predictor of later academic achievement (Duncan & et al., 2007). 

In fact, children who fall behind their peers when entering formal schooling are at a high risk of lagging in mathematics throughout schooling (Jordan, et al., 2009, Hornung, et al. 2014). How we (educators, teachers, and parents) teach children mathematics can make a big difference in their performance. 

Actually, 22 to 40% of school children worldwide speak a different language at home than at school (Suárez-Orozco, 2015). Moreover, 3 to 14% have hearing problems (Chan & Chang, 2014). Using language for explanations may have so low mathematical understanding. 

This can be particularly problematic if we consider the beginning of the school career, where the basis for understanding all other mathematical concepts will be formed.

In fact, 5 to 8 years may be required for the mastery of the linguistic skills. Only after that can a student effectively achieve academic pursuits in a second language (Cummins,1980). Thus, non-native speakers risk missing out on many learning opportunities due to the language barrier.

More importantly, deficits in basic mathematics are believed to remain throughout school years. The result is obvious. These kids fall behind their peers and will not likely catch up over the course of preschool (Aunio et al., 2015). 

Consequently, the performance gap produced by insufficient knowledge at the beginning of formal instruction is likely to persist over the course of schooling and result in lower academic achievement (Fazio, 1999).

Teaching Math without Language

But would it be possible to teach mathematics to young children in any other way than through the use of languages? Yes! This is already possible. Not only teaching math without language but also testing children’s performance in math without the need for verbal instructions.

Two studies have shown that this is possible!

The first study by the researcher Max Greisen and colleagues (2018) implemented video and animation-based task instructions on touchscreen devices that need no verbal explanation for first graders. In this study, one group of children completed the tasks with verbal instructions, while another group received video instructions. 

Their results suggest that the non-verbal instructions were generally well understood and that the absence of explicit verbal instructions did not influence task performance. 

In other words, in small children, explicit verbal instructions can be replaced by videos showing successful task completion for children to understand the functioning and purpose of the numerical and mathematical tasks. This is an important result when put in the context of multilingual settings, where the language of instruction can negatively affect task performance.

The other study is the one in which second-language learners participated in an intervention with the Magrid program (see Pazouki s and Cornu’s thesis for more details). In total, 186 children participated in this study, half participating in the language-neutral mathematics training, and the other half were considered the control group. 

After two school years of intervention, children who participated in the early mathematics training with Magrid performed significantly better on several measures of early mathematical abilities. 

These first empirical results show that the Magrid application can be effective for all preschoolers, including second-language learners!

Wrapping Up

Let's go back to the skill you are good at.
Have you ever tried looking for visual language-free videos to improve your drawing skill (or your handstand, yoga moves!)?
You may be surprised that you can easily improve your skill and learn different tactics with such a method. Language-free videos may facilitate the use of different teaching methods.
While your child improves her early-mathematical skills with a language-free program, you may as well try the same!


  • Aunio, P., Heiskari, P., Van Luit, J. E., & Vuorio, J. M. (2015). The development of early numeracy skills in kindergarten in low-, average- and high-performance groups. Journal of Early Childhood Research.
  • Castles S. and Miller, M.J. (2009). The Age of Migration: International Population Movements in the Modern World. (4th edition). Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.
  • Chan, D.K., & Chang, K.W. (2014). GJB2‐associated hearing loss: Systematic review of worldwide prevalence, genotype, and auditory phenotype. The Laryngoscope, 124.
  • Cornu, V. The Spatial Road to Mathematics – from the Relation between Spatial Skills and Early Mathematics towards Interventions. Thesis defended in 2018. University of Luxembourg.
  • Cummins, J. (1980). The entry and exit fallacy in bilingual education. NABE Journal, 4(3), 25–59.
  • Duncan, G. J., Dowsett, C. J., Claessens, A., Magnuson, K., Huston, A. C., Klebanov, P., Pagani, L. S., Feinstein, L., Engel, M., Brooks-Gunn, J., Sexton, H., Duckworth, K., & Japel, C. (2007). School readiness and later achievement. Developmental Psychology, 43(6), 1428–1446.
  • Fazio, B. B. (1999). Arithmetic calculation, short-term memory, and language performance in children with specific language impairment: A 5-year follow-up. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research.
  • Greisen M., Hornung C., Baudson T.G., Muller C., Martin R., Schiltz C. (2018) Taking Language out of the Equation: The Assessment of Basic Math Competence Without Language . Frontiers in Psychology (9). DOI=10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01076
  • Jordan, N. C., Kaplan, D., Ramineni, C., & Locuniak, M. N. (2009). Early math matters: kindergarten number competence and later mathematics outcomes. Developmental psychology, 45(3), 850–867.
  • Hornung, C., Schiltz, C., Brunner, M., & Martin, R. (2014). Predicting first-grade mathematics achievement: the contributions of domain-general cognitive abilities, nonverbal number sense, and early number competence. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 272.
  • Pazouki, T. MaGrid – from Developing a Language-neutral Learning Application to Predictive Learning Analytics. Thesis defended in 2020. University of Luxembourg.
  • Suárez-Orozco, M., & Suárez-Orozco, C. (2015). Children of immigration. Phi Delta Kappan, 97(4), 8–14.