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An old joke goes:

Q: What do you call someone who knows three languages?
A: Trilingual
Q: What do you call someone who knows two languages?
A: Bilingual
Q: What do you call someone who knows just one language?
A: An American

Probably mostly true, the joke implies that it’s a bad thing to know only one language. More specifically, it’s poking fun at the fact that most Americans only speak English. But is it such a bad thing to only know English? According to this Wikipedia list of most commonly spoken languages, the most spoken “primary” language (“mother tongue” or “L1 Rank”) is, predictably, Mandarin, followed by Spanish, and then English. So, you’re at least in the top 3 just out of the gate!

But just looking at the number of speakers of their Mother Tongue (L1) is misleading, because when someone does learn a second language, it is almost always English! So instead of looking at the most common “first languages” (L1), you look at the most common languages including second languages , that is, the languages by total number of speakers (L1+L2+…), you get a very different, and somewhat surprising, list (the rightmost column in the WP table, and the main sorting rank of the table). By this measure, English is the most commonly spoken language, with 1.12 Billion speakers (at this writing), followed closely by Mandarin (1.11B), and then by Hindi, Spanish, Arabic, and French. The reason that most people learn English as a second language, if it isn’t their Mother Tongue, is that English is the de facto language of Business, Engineering, Science, and, most influentially, The Internet. Indeed, by the time you get to French, there are fewer speakers of French word-wide than the population of the US! So, really, there are only five global languages: English, Mandarin, Hindi, Spanish, and Arabic. So if you were going to learn a second natural language, you’d do best to learn one of those.

But I’m going to make a play for taking a different path; Instead of bothering to learn a second (natural) language at all, speakers who’s Mother Tongue is one of the four global languages that isn’t English, should definitely learn English as a second language, in order to participate fully in Business, Engineering, Science, and, The Internet. BUT — and here is where I’m going out on a limb of my own!  — native speakers of English (or those who already know it well, if not natively), shouldn’t waste their time learning a second (natural) language at all, but instead, those English-speakers should spend their time learning the only true permanent global language: Math.

Now, I realize that this is an extraordinary suggestion, and that extraordinary suggestions require extraordinary support. I’ve already demonstrated that one doesn’t really need to learn any language other than English in order to participate in the modern technical world. One may want to learn a second natural language for some personal or local reason. For example, I live in California, where knowing Spanish is of great practical value, and I’m personally fascinated by Chinese (esp. it’s ideographic writing system). But some educators have argued (and some scientists have experimental results to support the hypothesis) that learning a second language is good for your brain. My read of this data is that it’s pretty weak. However, I have no interest in trying to tear down that result, but instead to make a different point, which is that, as far as I know, there are no studies that suggest that learning math as a “native speaker” does not have at least the same, and perhaps even more benefit … and it certainly couldn’t hurt!

Now, one might well ask, at what age one should start being exposed, under my theory, to math. My answer is very specific: Immediately — from day one! My hypothesis is that mathematical understandings, as well as mathematical ways of “seeing” the world, can be taught basically bilingually, so that just as someone is bilingual in two natural languages, one can become essentially bi-lingual in English and mathematics.

“But wait!” I hear you saying to me (via your computer screen), “Math isn’t a natural language — it’s a faux language — a notation made up by mathematicians to describe and manipulate things mathematical!” This, of course, depends upon your definition of “natural” (and it’s opposite: “faux”). Whereas math doesn’t have apparent surface structure of natural languages, I assert that it does have the basic elements thereof: There are abstract and concrete nouns (e.g., numbers, triangles) and verbs (operations such as addition and subtraction, or, if you prefer: “more” and “less”), and there is a grammar and a semantics, whereby grammatical sentences have clear and specific semantic referents, and ungrammatical sentences do not.

Moreover, just as natural languages derive directly from our needs to do things with, and communicate about, things in, and state of in the real world, such as running away from lions, attracting mates, and (more recently) engaging in commerce, mathematics derives directly from our needs to do the exact same sorts of things: count chickens (or the number of lions you are running away from), mark time, distance, and rate (as you run from them) and their relationships, and so on. Indeed, the typical elementary mathematical practice of word problem solving relies explicitly upon the fact that natural expression and mathematical ones are closely related.

To wit:

“John has three bags with four faux diamonds in each. He trades half of the bags with Mary for six dollars total. Five minutes later Mary discovers that the diamonds are glass, and releases a hungry lion to eat John. A lion can run ten times as fast as a person walks, and five times faster than John can run. John, having had a five minute walking head start, starts running from 500 yards away when Mary releases the lion. How much longer does John have to figure out how much per faux diamond he had just traded his life away for?”

See, perfectly fine, either as a natural or mathematical language!

Moreover, there is constant hand-wringing about which second language one should learn. For the rest of the world, the decision has clearly been made: English. As a result, I believe that people whose Mother Tongue is English are missing a phenomenal opportunity to get an enormous leg up on the rest of the world in business, science, and engineering, by bothering to learn a second natural language, but instead, they ought to be taught math bilingually – a native language – from birth.

What does it mean to learn math bilingually, as a native language? First, of course, there is counting, which can be learned from the very earliest months of life. As poor John above demonstrates, mathematical operators, like multiplication and division have natural language phrases, for example, “of” or “at” are forms associated with multiplication, and the same is true for most mathematical operations and most basic mathematical objects are directly groundable on natural objects and experiences (at least until you get to very abstract concepts).

Math is the only truly universal language, even more so than English. Learn Math, not … well, anyway, not French! [I’m mostly kidding here; Half my family is French, so I have no loss of love for French, and would have a good personal reason to teach it to my kids, if there weren’t several way more practical options, like math, Spanish, and Chinese!]

ps. I’m reminded of something I heard a physicist say on a radio interview once. The interviewer ask him what his greatest fear was (scientifically speaking). He had a fun answer, that was something like (paraphrasing): “I’m afraid that we’re going to finally communicate with intelligence aliens who are way more sophisticated than us, and they’re going to explain all the scientific mysteries of the universe to us, beginning with: ‘Math? Yeah, we tried that for a while; it didn’t work out so well…'” 🙂