I want to share something with you. Mathematics shares an equal-sized place in my heart with the English language.
I don’t remember being read to or being taught to read. (I’m sure that I was; I had attentive parents.) My memories of reading as a child are of being deep in a novel or at the library. I read on the school bus, in the car, and while walking. I read in bed, in the bath, and on the loo. Growing up on a rural property with three younger brothers, I had a lot of chores. I would try and do chores while snatching a few pages at the same time. (Why I didn’t wait to the end, I have no idea.) My outdoor play was strongly influenced by what I read (Narnia, The Faraway Tree, Terabithia, Famous Five, Nancy Drew, …). My dad wouldn’t let me read at the breakfast table, so I read the back of cereal boxes instead. I did cryptic crosswords, agonised over word choice, and delighted at puns. My superpower is spotting a spelling mistake on a page of text at a glance1.
As I finished high school and contemplated university, my love of words drew me to language-rich careers such as law and journalism. I was attracted by the opportunities to express myself through careful crafting with words. But I also loved mathematics, in particular, the problem-solving aspect — everything seemed like a puzzle to crack.
After a year of mulling it over (which included repeating my final year of high school; perhaps a story for another post), I decided to follow mathematics, with a ‘back up plan’ to also do computer science, because I didn’t know what kind of job I could get in mathematics, but I knew that I could be a programmer … .
Looking back, I didn’t realise at the time that ‘Mathematics’ or ‘English’ was a false choice. Now, as a mathematician working on industry problems, as a teacher aiming to meaningfully connect with my students, and as an advocate for my profession, communication is key. I need to choose my words carefully in order to have the most mathematical or educational impact. My love of the English language immeasurably enriches my mathematical experiences.
Explaining ideas — to myself and to others — clarifies and deepens what I think. (Which is why I eventually began this blog.) It’s why I care so much about building communication skills in my students. I look forward to elaborating on this in future posts.
1. I’m well aware that readers are now more likely to point out my glaring spelling, grammatical and punctuation errors!