Arabic numerals connect many languages, even if we use different names for them. Children who speak languages where the names of these numbers are shorter have a slight advantage at first. A child whose mother tongue is Mandarin, for example, has it easier because all numbers from one to ten consist of only one syllable. Then there are languages whose numbers are easier to use because there is more of a correlation between how numbers are written numerically and how they are said.
However, there are other factors that affect the difficulty of learning maths in a foreign language for primary school-age multilingual children. Of course, their situation also depends on how well they know the language used at school. It is obvious that it is easier to start reading and writing with the linguistic competence appropriate to their age. And what about maths? Knowledge of the language is no less necessary for mathematical studies. The situation there is even more complex, since they will need not only languages, but also logic to solve increasingly abstract tasks. In addition, they will also need to acquire the technical language of mathematics as quickly as possible, which is not always easy, especially if they already struggle to speak the language.
We can help a child who is preparing for school or who is already in primary school in numerous ways, of which I will focus on two today. Firstly, we can support them in the learning of mathematical terminology and, secondly, in promoting their numerical skills.
How should we practise mathematical terminology? By placing importance on the types of questions and answers in their notebooks or textbooks. Instead of focusing on the results of the exercises, reflect on the specialised vocabulary to make sure that the child has understood it.
If parents do not know the local language at a high level, or if they speak it, but are not really aware of its mathematical vocabulary, they can still provide great support to their children.
The next way to help your child is to enter the world of numbers to further your arithmetic proficiency. How can we do this in a fun way?
Numbers are everywhere. Drawing attention to house numbers, car license plates, and product prices on shop shelves will help your child routinely recognise the numbers themselves. The popular game UNO serves the same purpose.
If we also link the numbers themselves to real-world examples, we can help children even more. For example, you can count how many chicken nuggets are on a plate or how many dogs you see in the park. Of course this is still just counting and not calculating. What if we ask a child how much fruit is in a shopping basket that contains a bag of 3 pears and another bag of 4 apples? At first, of course, you need the objects to be added, and then you can move on to the abstract calculation. Subtraction is sometimes harder for 5-6 year olds, but if, for example, a child is having trouble calculating 9 minus 5 in an abstract way, ask them how many pieces of cake they would have left if they had nine, but their dad ate five. You will see how quickly they answer you. Do you know the Halli Galli toy? For this stage it is a perfect gift.
Another tip is to ask nursery-age children to say the numbers in their new languages, and then to say them again but starting from zero rather than one. In fact, you could ask them to say the numbers backwards. Maybe in twos. The faster and more skilfully they say the numbers in their other languages, regardless of the order, the faster they will be able to say the results of maths homework in school.
Have you practised arithmetic at home in your child’s language of origin? The child, sooner or later, will need to solve these exercises in the language used at school (if they are already enrolled in primary school in their new country). So, it is more useful to ask them the questions in their new language because if later at school they calculate in their native language, it will take longer to say the answer in their other language.