All about maths Part 3: Using maths as a tool for language development

The development of mathematical appreciation and language development go hand in hand. They cannot be separated. Even subjects such as art, history, geography, literature can no longer be viewed or taken in isolation. In real life, the boundaries between topics and subjects are artificial and blurred. Therefore math as a subject can no longer be taken in total isolation from all others.

Language involves words and their pronunciation, and how they can be used to express ideas and feelings to others. Language development from birth onwards is very important to the child. Language acquisition in the early years will help put a child way steps ahead by the time the child first arrives at school. At the same time a child who is deprived of quality conversation in the early years is likely to fall below their potential ability very quickly, so that by the time the child first arrives at school, they might be many steps behind their fellow classmates.

In your conversation with your child keep introducing and repeating words which suggest speed and distance, size and comparison, volume, and texture, and so on.

An excellent way of illustrating differences in speed is a combination of fast and slow songs with physical activities. While playing a song with a fast tempo, dance, shake, spin, hop, and or trot at a speed reflecting the beat of the song and say, “We are dancing, or shaking, or spinning fast.” Switch to a song with a slow tempo, repeat the exercise and this time you can use voice inflections to illustrate and say, “We are dancing, shaking, spinning     slow…”

To demonstrate distance; an airplane or a bird flying overhead, or a moving object, “The airplane is flying closer. The bird is flying away. Or the toy is moving closer.” Another familiar example would be; while holding the child up in the air and then low to the ground, you can say, “I’m holding you high now…I’m holding you low now… and I’m holding you high again.”

For size and comparison, hold a tablespoon against a teaspoon, or your foot against your child’s foot, “The tablespoon is big…the teaspoon is small. Or your foot is small…my foot is big. Or your hand is smaller than my hand.”

Volume; play some music at a moderate volume and say, “The volume sounds just right.” Then raise the volume to a level where you have to raise your voice to say, “The music is too loud.” Then lower the volume until the music is barely audible, and using a hushed voice for effect, whisper, “This sound is too quiet.” Bring the volume back to a moderate level and repeat the exercise a couple of times, then end with the volume at a desired level.

Texture; select some fabrics and objects with different textures. Encourage your child to touch, stroke, and squeeze them as you supply words like; smooth, rough, soft, or rugged. Fill free to use sound twists and intonations to describe texture and sound.

Keep introducing words that suggest size and comparison, and their comparatives and superlatives – big, bigger, biggest; small, smaller, smallest; long, longer, longest; short, shorter, shortest- and so on. Also remember to include words that mean the same thing or something similar – tiny, little; huge, large, great; narrow, thin; broad, thick; long, tall, high; less, least; more, most- and so on. Also keep introducing words of mathematical bearing like – height, width, depth, breadth, length; top, bottom; edge, side; left, right – and so on. Keep introducing words of this nature, words in common use that should be in a child’s vocabulary by the time they reach school. The best way in supplying these words is to use them in normal conversations as you go about your daily activities.

One day my daughter came home with an interesting story. She always liked to tell me about her day in school, something I too always looked forward to. I knew some of her schoolmates, even those I never had the occasion to meet in person, based on certain happenings, some quite hilarious. The school had passed a rule to have a Kiswahili day each week. On this day, apart from during class lessons, all conversation would be in fluent Kiswahili. It was at a time when she and some of her classmates were into playing a game of football during break time.

They were busy playing when suddenly someone scored a goal. Seconds ticked by as they waited for one of them to come up with the correct word for goal in Kiswahili. When someone decided to improvise and shout, “Ndani…!” They all joined in cerebrating, “Ndani…!… Ndani…!” Then they all started laughing at the ridiculous situation they found themselves in. Ndani means in, and while it served the purpose, they knew it was not the correct word for goal. But in the course of the day, they went out of their way to find the correct word, which is ‘bao’, ready for use the next time they needed it.

Language development is not just to prepare a child for school. It is for the bigger picture when nurturing a child. From birth a new born begins to collect auditory blue prints, assembling sounds spoken by those around them. Because of this a baby who is exposed to a variety of languages will develop different neural connections that will assist them in speaking what will be their first language. By about the age of one these blue prints are pretty much set and the learning and reproduction of foreign sounds and dialects become more difficult. Exposing a child to various and diverse words, music, and sounds in general during this first year helps stimulate the child’s brain to form a number of different types of sound connections, clearing a path for expanded sound repertoires later in life.

There was this incident at the supermarket when a dad took offence because the cashier spoke to their child in Kiswahili. He ranted saying this would confuse the child and if someone wants to speak to the child, they must do so only in English. In Kenya, our national language is Kiswahili. And we have two official languages, English and Kiswahili. When I look at my family tree, based on characteristics such as, customs and traditions, names and physical features, and the journey of migration to where we are now, I can link my family to at least seven different tribes. But my parents are identified as Kikuyu by tribe. Growing up, interacting in the neighborhood, the main language was Kiswahili. At school apart from the Kiswahili subject, all other subjects were taught in English.

My mother was the proprietor of a general store. From the age of six when not at school I worked at the store. It was like playing shopkeeper, in a real shop counting real money. Perhaps because of this I was very good with numbers even then. It was a family business and my dad too, when not at his work helped at the shop. During off peak hours my parents would seat back to chat, sometimes over drinks. Occasionally they were joined by friends, some of them, people they grew up with. Their conversations were mostly in Kikuyu, with a few English and Kiswahili words and phrases here and there. Talking business, sharing stories some quite funny.  I wasn’t allowed to listen to grown-up’s conversations. So very cleverly I’d find a place out of site, at a vantage point to observe and listen. It was like watching a reality show, or reading a very interesting book. From an early age I could communicate in English, Kiswahili, and Kikuyu.

Later as a parent, I figured my daughter would learn English and Kiswahili at school and in the neighborhood. French was also taught as a subject in her school. So at home I’d teasingly for fun tell her something in Kikuyu then repeat it in English or Kiswahili. For example if preparing a meal in the kitchen I’d say, “I need two tomatoes.” Or “Bring me one onion.” in Kikuyu and then repeat the instructions in English or Kiswahili. She began to develop an interest in the language and would ask me to supply certain words as per need. She was interested in naming numbers in Kikuyu, or the days of the week. I even remember her asking me for the word for sweets. We had a lot of fun as I dag for the correct words and also shared other versions where you just say a word in English or Kiswahili with a Kikuyu accent and it serves the purpose. We still like to go there for jokes and laughter.

We liked to take trips up country to visit with her grandparents. At the farm is a great place for a child to explore and discover. I remember while still in kindergarten someone would find her playing outside. Assuming she doesn’t know Kikuyu, they’d greet her in Kiswahili and she’d respond in Kikuyu. Surprised the adult would engage her in conversation trying to gauge how much she knows, and she happy to show off her ability in the language. Then the adult would go raving to my parents, “Your granddaughter can speak very good Kikuyu.” She speaks Kikuyu with an interesting accent. Not the kind Europeans or people who have leaved abroad have, she has her own distinct accent. I like to eavesdrop on her phone conversations with her grandmother. They usually start in Kikuyu, greetings. Then they continue in Kiswahili and occasionally some English. But they almost always end in Kikuyu and here they can linger for a while.


Read Part One and Part Two here.

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