Linguistics, mathematics, and the general public

Just about everyone can speak, so we all have an opinion about language. Just about everyone can count, so we all have an opinion about math. Everyone’s an expert. After reading uninformed opinions about both, I decided to compare and contrast. Off the top of my head I can think of three points of comparison and four points of contrast; if I were writing a thesis on this subject I would undoubtedly find many more.

First let’s look at some similarities that go beyond what I hinted at in the first paragraph:

  1. For some reason, people who state their uninformed opinions in public almost always take the conservative side of issues in both of these areas. I suppose that shouldn’t surprise me, given the general tenor of Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and other instances of talk radio and its television allies. But it’s still striking that your typical layperson wants to preserve or resurrect obsolete grammar “rules,” wants dictionaries to be prescriptive rather than descriptive, thinks that some languages are inferior to others, etc. And it’s equally striking that the same typical layperson advocates “back to basics” approaches in mathematics and thinks that math is all about memorization of facts, rote algorithms, and the like.
  2. Members of the general public are confused equally about what linguists and mathematicians do. They think that a linguist is someone who speaks several languages fluently, so why should they ask a linguist for an expert scientific opinion about language in general or English in particular? Similarly, they think that a mathematician is someone who calculates quickly and accurately, so why should they ask a mathematician for an expert scientific opinion on learning mathematical concepts?
  3. Because the general public understands neither subject, they are confused about the connections between the two. The fact that I moved from studying linguistics to teaching math sounds like a complete change of direction, not a natural evolution. It’s the rare person who sees cryptology as a connection or bridge between the two, or who understands that in some sense math is a language (only in some sense, I hasten to add), or who can imagine that one can apply mathematics in any way to the study of language.

So much for the similarities. Are there ways in which we can contrast the general public’s opinions about language and math? Sure. Here are a few:

  1. People freely profess ignorance about math. When someone at a party asks what you do, and you say that you’re a math teacher, the most common response is, “I was never any good at math.” Rarely are they ashamed. Often they even seem proud of it. But no one admits to be ignorant about reading, writing, and speaking.
  2. On what might be the same lines, people at least have some idea that there is such a thing as a mathematician, even if they don’t know what mathematicians do. (“A mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems,” according to Alfred Renyi.) But when I tell people that I majored in linguistics, the usual response is either a blank stare or “What’s that?”
  3. Perhaps as a consequence of the previous observation, a great many myths about language float around in the popular culture, but there are not nearly so many myths about math.
  4. Everyone thinks they can teach English — they can’t, of course — but very few people think they can teach math.

Perhaps in a later post I’ll give some citations to exemplify these seven points, but this will do for now.

Categories: Linguistics, Math, Teaching & Learning