Foreign Language: Word Math

STEM! STEM! Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, oh my! STEM is all the rage in the education field right now. And why not?!  Of course we want our children to be strong in these areas. As a kid, I always planned on becoming a scientist; it was my favorite subject for many years. I’m especially sure that my husband, the Georgia Tech graduate, would be immensely pleased if our two daughters love math so much that they choose to go off to study in the land of the White and Gold. In our family we always joke that my husband is “the math one” and I’m “the language one.” But I have to argue that learning a language is actually mathematical.

I find language learning – learning a foreign or as we say in 2017, World Language, to be a mathematical experience. World Language learning is the equivalent of Word Math. I started taking German in ninth grade and knew right away that I was going to soak up all the four years that my high school would offer me. My teacher was entrancingly enthusiastic and for me, learning a new language was like cracking open a treasure chest. Hey! There are new words in here! There are, like, ten more ways to say “hi” in here! I was hooked. How could someone not be interested in all these new ways to communicate to people? What was it like in Germany, anyways?! I had visited Mexico as a third grader on family vacation, but I just couldn’t transfer those hot fly-swatting, Coke-yearning, beautiful ocean images to a picture of Germany. My parents, on the other hand, couldn’t figure out where I scored this knack for languages. My mom confessed that she answered a college Spanish test question with: We playo in the snowo. Eeek.

Admittedly, my second grader could add 72 plus 36 quicker than me. Try as I might, the numbers just don’t stay still in my head. I try to visualize the numbers so I can add them but by the time I say plus thirty-six, I’ve already forgotten what I was adding thirty-six onto.  How can you add up two double-digit numbers if you can’t even see them?! But strangely enough, I was able to succeed at learning German. See, in German there are six ways to say “the.” SIX! It all depends if your noun attached to your article (the) is masculine, feminine, or neuter. Additionally, the article could morph depending on whether your noun is the subject, direct object, indirect object, or object of a prepositional phrase. My ninth grade English lesson in German class cemented the parts of a sentence in my brain. Which is probably why my skin crawls when people say I instead of me when they are the object of the sentence. My boss asked Sarah and I what we thought of the new proposal. I just shivered writing that. Back to German, though. Guess what? There is an entire chart to help you figure out how to say “a” in a sentence! Doesn’t that sound mathematical to you?! Or at least pop visions of an Excel spreadsheet in your head?!

You are probably bored reading my dull commentary on my passion. And I’ll get to Pitbull and Spanish in a minute, if that helps, but I thought I’d teach you some German real quick if you haven’t moved on to Instagram just yet. If you want to say: The man gives the dog the ball, you’d say: Der Mann gibt dem Hund der Ball. But guess what? Originally Mann, Hund, and Ball all started out as “der words” because they are all masculine. Mann is the subject, Hund is the indirect object, and Ball is the direct object. Being able to compose a sentence in a second language in your head and then speak it feels very mathematical to me. If you wanted to say in Spanish: Give it to me, you say: Dámelo; Give me it. So in mid-thinking from English, you have to switch the place of the direct object (it) and the indirect object (me.) Not to be confused with Pitbull’s infamous ¡Dale! If switching the order of words in your head before you speak them isn’t mathematical, then call me verrückt! Because I may not be able to add up double digits in my head as quickly as my eight year old, but at least I can say Gib der Mutter das Eis! (Give the mom the ice cream!)

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