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August 10, 2009


I was reading somewhere something that struck a chord with me. The person, paraphrased because I don't recall the exact way in which he said it, stated that he felt he was lied to by teachers. His teachers, like mine, constantly told him to really study math because you will use it every day of your life. What they should have pressed him on, he lamented, was English.

With apologies to my many friends who have taught or do teach math or work as programmers and engineers and are those few for whom that old adage is true, the vast, vast majority of people do NOT need more than the basics of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division to get through their daily lives. However, even those who do use more complicated math daily must speak, read, and write every day, multiple times per day.

How often do we read a sign, or a package, or warning labels, a book, a magazine, a web site/blog/forum every day? How often do we speak to those around us, to ourselves, or to our pets? How often do we need to write a note, a blog post, an article, an email? How often do we communicate with others and rely on our message getting through to the other in a clear and precise manner?

One of my long-time friends is a programmer. His day involves knowing math and communicating in languages that are math-based and precise. However, he thanked me once for forcing him to take more challenging English classes because it allowed him to excel at work; he was one of the few programmers who wrote emails clearly and could communicate in meetings in ways that others could understand and follow. His experiences in those harder English classes improved his ability to communicate with those around him and made him, sometimes he claims "unfortunately," better suited to positions of leadership and even management within his company.

From January 1 through to right now, I have needed math a handful of times. My wife and I had to calculate how much wood was delivered after it was finally stacked, and that involved figuring out the volume of a cord of wood and then breaking down the amount we had and figuring out if we were over or short. Outside of that one issue, we haven't needed math on a daily basis beyond calculating the tip on a food bill, adding or subtracting in a check book, some light multiplication or division on occasion. However, we have to communicate, with each other, our friends and family, and our coworkers, bosses, and clients, on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis. Sometimes those communications have been critical; talking with bosses about raises or needed assistance, correcting errors with software, understanding drug interactions on medicines, calming down situations or people, etc.

A lot of students figure "well, I speak it, so I don't need to study it" when it comes to their native language. What they are not understanding is that their understanding and use of the language may be the difference in getting the job, keeping it, and being fired. The clarity of the communications they use may be the difference between getting or keeping the girl and losing her. Their ability to process and respond to written or verbal communication may be the difference between life and death.

If a person shows an aptitude for mathematics, then by all means encourage him/her in that area and see how far he/she can go. But make sure that person can communicate clearly and effectively, both in writing and orally, as well. He or she may be the next Einstein, but who would know it if he/she can't communicate what they discover?


  1. As someone who spends much of his day in front of spreadsheets and data analysis programs... You are absolutely correct.

    It appalls me how many people have a hard time making themselves understood. I don't ask for perfect grammar or 100% perfect spelling (though it would be nice if people would turn on their spell checkers), but I sure would like to know that what you've written required a minimum of interpretation on my part.

    And it would be great if people could proof their emails and make sure that what they've written makes sense.

  2. Students bristle when I tell them that there are 5 skills they must have to be competent adults: the abilities to read, write, speak, listen, and think in their primary language. Always someone asks, "But what about math?"

    Math requires an individual to read the problem, think it through, speak to others, listen to their perspectives, and then write the solution. Ditto just about anything a person wants/needs to do as part of life.

    English uses letters to form words, words to form sentences, and sentences to express thoughts and make meaning of ideas/concepts, regardless of one's field of study. How well one can use the tools of the language to "work the problem" determines the quality of the result of the process.

    Anyone who is so arrogant as to think "I'll never need/use this" is also ignorant, especially when it comes to the process of using language as the foundation for everything else in one's life.

    Good defense of my life's work, son.

  3. Anonymous12:24 PM

    Life occurs through language. Everything that exists does because of it (i.e. a book would simply be paper with a binding if we did not create the word "book"). The fact is that I think where people fail most is not in their lack of understanding of language but in listening. Everyone listens to what is said through filters (ie. cultural, society, political, etc.) and if people truly got to the root of what each person was saying irrespective of their filters, then this world would be a much better place.