Adventures en Matimáticas

You can probably tell from this title that I am not fluent in Spanish. Nevertheless, school’s been in two weeks, and I am now tasked with helping teach math to several students new to the country who know almost no English. As you can imagine, this usually ends with us communicating via interlanguage–my broken Spanish and their broken English reaching (ideally) a common understanding. There are also a lot of blank stares. In both directions.

One question I got when I started this process was “do these students also have an English class in which they learn the language?” The answer is yes. But they are simultaneously trying to learn content in a language they are still learning. When trying to explain the plight of ESL students in the United States, myself and other teachers I know tend to put it like this: Imagine taking a class taught entirely in Spanish. Only the goal of the class is not to learn Spanish. It’s to learn math (or science or social studies, etc.) It is an insurmountable task, and the older you get, the harder it becomes because there is more content you may have missed, and there is more incidental vocabulary that you might not know.

Naturally, as a partial solution to the difficulty of helping these students, other teachers and I went perusing the internet for math videos in Spanish, which was how I discovered the world of Spanish Khan Academy. For those of you who don’t know, Khan Academy is this very useful website for learning things, especially math. If you have a (free!) account, you can learn whatever subject you desire, tailored to your needs. It gives you an assessment of about half a dozen questions, and based on your answer, passes you on to more difficult material or gives you extra practice. It is also full of videos to help you learn concepts you don’t know, videos you can watch whether or not you have an account or are logged in. I’ve used these before while teaching students math in English. And now I find out the entire website has been translated into Spanish. And then I got an idea. An awful idea. I got a wonderful awful idea.


What if I didn’t just imagine taking a math class in a language I barely know… what if I actually did it?

So, I got an account on Spanish Khan Academy to mimic the experience my ESL students go through learning math in English, and hopefully to discover first hand what it’s like to learn content in a second language.

Details of the Project

  • Like my students, I will be learning Spanish as well as, but separately from, the math. I intend to teach myself Latin American Spanish using the method laid out by Gabriel Wyner in Fluent Forever, as well as using the Latin American Spanish resources he’s developed. Why Latin American Spanish? Because I don’t have a lot of students from Spain. I also have a head start due to the 5 semesters of Spanish I took in high school and college, but I’ve lost much of it. This would make me similar to ESL students who have studied some English in their native country or have picked up some incidental vocabulary. On the other hand, I also have some interference, as I am also currently learning Italian by the same methods.
  • I am not using any website translate devices, so not only will all questions be asked in Spanish, and all videos will be in Spanish, I have to navigate the website itself in Spanish. Consider this like students who have to find their classes in a new school and don’t have a lot of people who they can ask for help. Or even students who have to take computerized tests in English. I’m learning math, language, and software.
  • Khan Academy started with math, so it is not surprising that you can study math from counting up to calculus (and possibly things even more difficult?) I’m starting from the very beginning, as basic as you get. Why? Mostly because I had a friend who decided to re-learn math through Khan Academy, started from the very beginning and had a lot of fun. I’d wanted to do the same, and now I get to kill two birds with one stone. Does this undermine the project of mimicking my students’ experience? Yes and no. Yes because many students find themselves thrust into math classes that are not only taught in English, but are more difficult than their level. Not only do they have a language barrier, they have to somehow catch up to where their classmates are. This would be like me jumping into calculus or statistics in Spanish. But no, it doesn’t undermine the project because many other students do find themselves in classes studying material at or below their level, only in a language they don’t know, so it’s less a question of whether or not I’m successfully mimicking, and more a question of who I am mimicking. The answer: is a student who has studied some basic English in their home country and is gifted in math. In other words, I’m mimicking one of the students who is going to have the least amount of trouble learning content in a new language. Something to keep in mind.
  • Each week, I’ll review my progress: how far I got in that week, what difficulties I encountered, and what incidental vocabulary I have or haven’t picked up along the way.

The Road so Far

I started this project at about 7:00 am. In the last 13 hours, I have progressed 99% of the way through basic math, and I am already getting questions wrong because I can’t read them. We’re talking adding 2 digit numbers and counting by 100s. This is the kind of math I can do in my sleep, but there are so many words around the numbers that I don’t know how they relate to each other. I have to admit, even I didn’t expect to have trouble this early on. The final skill I have to master? addition and subtraction story problems. It’s kind of frustrating watching myself roller-coaster up and down, trying to solve problems that would be easy if I could just read them in my native language.

I also found myself skipping over large sections of words, going straight to the numbers and assuming the way in which I was supposed to put them together. More often than not, would get the problems wrong, only to discover that if I had paid closer attention, I would have seen that the problem asked menos que, not más que, or something similar. I’ve learned that if I don’t want to keep going back, I have to read each question slowly and carefully, even if I know I won’t understand most of it.

A weird difficulty I ran into? Khan Academy isn’t actually entirely translated into Spanish. Every once in a while, something pops up in English. This wouldn’t seem like a problem, except that it’s usually the labels on graphs. For example, one questions included a graph of cookies eaten by Santa, by type: 3 chocolate chip, 5 oatmeal, 2 raisin, etc. The question asked something like “how many chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies did Santa eat?” only in Spanish. Chocolate chip, I figured out, but I didn’t know the other word, and because the labels were in English, I didn’t know which column to look at without a translation, so I was left guessing. As you can see, I didn’t even get knowledge of the word oatmeal out of it.

Takeaway for day 1? Even at its most basic, content knowledge is a daunting task for students learning in a new language.


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