Is Mathematics a Language?

Most people hate math (including me of course). It’s because that ________ (guess what) math does seem to have its own language. Let’s take an example:

3 + 2 = 5

Automatically, we read that as three plus two equals five even without translating it into words. So, we understood those values as an equation and not just plain numbers. In fact, math is the only language understood by all human beings regardless of culture, religion, or gender.[1]

In short, both a Chinese and an English can read the equation above.

But some people, especially dyscalculics – people who cannot read mathematical concepts, cannot comprehend equations and formulas, as if they’re reading another language.

So, the question goes like this: is mathematics a language?

How do you read this equation?

But first, some definition of terms.

Mathematics – the science of numbers, quantities, and shapes and the relations between them[2], shortened to math or maths

Language – the system of words or signs that people use to express thoughts and feelings to each other[2]

Hmmm… if language means combinations of signs used for communication, and math has signs too like numbers and shapes, then math is a language.

Huh? But how is that? Math has no words, just symbols.

Yeah. Math does not have any words, phrases, or sentences, but they do have statements, equations, and formulas that can be understood by those who know it. In fact, math is far more accurate than any known language. Why? It is because that it has its own set of rules, syntax, all the semantics of a language. Math has its own terminology and jargon like group, ring, field, category, term, and factor, as well as taxonomy (hierarchy) of concepts such as axioms, conjectures, theorems, lemmas and corollaries.[3]

Let’s take an example:


Can you read this? If you can’t, then me neither.

Okay, maybe I got too far. Math wizards could only understand this. Nevertheless, some people could really comprehend math as a ‘language’ like we speak Spanish and so on.

Here’s the thing. If we can read numbers with ease, then we have a high numeracy.

What is numeracy?

Numeracy is the ability to reason and to apply simple numerical concepts.[4][5] Basic numeracy skills consist of comprehending fundamental arithmetics like addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Substantial aspects of numeracy also include number sense, operation sense, computation, measurement, geometry, probability and statistics.[4]

In short, it is the literacy of math and numbers.

Because math and numbers are substantial part of life (i.e., money budgeting, driving, even playing a musical instrument), a numerically literate person can manage and respond to the mathematical demands of life,[4][6] meaning he can deal with everyday problems that deals with numbers: budgeting from your salary, measuring ingredients for your food, even adding the number of your ex-lovers…lol…

However, if literacy has illiteracy, the same goes for numeracy. If a person does not comprehend any math concept or even just numbers, her or she is called numerically illiterate. The term for this is called innumeracy and this not good for the person who has it, like the dyscalculics.

Unfortunately, innumeracy causes trouble for dyscalculics because this affects their professional as well as personal lives. Having difficulty in comprehending numbers and equations means disaster in finances, cooking/baking, housework, even time management and so forth, which makes them at high risk for long-term unemployment, educational unachievement, and poverty, and also can cause depression/anxiety, substance abuse, and/or suicide, also to mention unstable relationships.


This is no joke. Usually, especially men who are poor at financial management, are prone to divorce because they cannot entirely support their families. Other risks include being prone to accidents, getting lost, wrong numeric judgement in time amd date, even wrong sport score statistics will be present.

What to do now with numerically illiterate people?

The author of the book Innumeracy, John Allen Paulos, stated that revision in high school math education should be revised (yeah, he’s right, topics like algebra and trigonometry should have not been introduced right away without even mastering arithmetic).

Ever wonder why Northeast Asians (Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans) are quite excellent at math? The answer is that they use a different set of numbering system vs in the West and the rest of the world (including here in my native Philippines), where we use Hindu-Arabic numerals (0,1,2,3…9…). The Northeast Asians use Shang[7] numerals:

Image courtesy of prezi.com

Here, when you add numbers, just place ones the ones digits after the tens digits, tens after hundreds, and so on[8].

For example, the number eleven is written like this: 11. We read this as “eleven.” For the Chinese, it is read as “ten one.” It is written like this: 十一.

Oh… it looks like an equation already huh? Let’s explain it further.

Since eleven in Chinese is read as “ten one,” it seems it’s loke tem plus one, which is an equation already. There is no need to carry out addition and waste time thinking about the right answer.

十一 (10 + 1)

Other examples:

24 = 二十四 ((2 × 10)+ 4 = 24)

365 = 三百六十五 ((3 × 100)+(6 × 10)+ 5 = 365)

1,987 = 一千九百八十七 (1000 + (9 × 100)+(8 × 10) + 7 = 1987)

Quite easy right?

987,654,321 = 九亿八千七百六十五万四千三百二十一
((9 × 100,000,000) + (8 × 1,000) × 10,000 + (7 × 100) × 10,000 + (6 × 10) × 10,000 + (5 × 10,000) + (4 × 1,000) + (3 × 100) + (2 × 10) + 1 = 987,654,321)


I do not know if they too have dyscalculia, but I think this is one part of the solution to better understand numbers.

Here’s another solution: magic math. This uses tricks to habve a solution in math equations without using your fingers or calculator.


15 × 13

Always place the larger number of the two on top in your mind.

Then draw the shape of Africa mentally so it covers the 15 and the 3 from the 13 below. Those covered numbers are all you need.

First add 15 + 3 = 18

Add a zero behind it (multiply by 10) to get 180.

Multiply the covered lower 3 x the single digit above it the “5” (3×5= 15)

Add 180 + 15 = 195.[9]

Easy, right?

But how about dyscalculics?

Since dyscalculia is the dyslexia of numbers (see my article dyscalculia here), the best way is to seek immediate help via the psychiatrist and/or SpED authority in order to help manage dyscalculia and better navigate the language of mathematics.

Sadly, I don’t know yet if there is a number font designed specifically for dyscalculics. Hope ther will be one.

Nevertheless, mathematics remain one of the most important tools in our daily lives in order to get by as well as to quantify truth. Threrfore, math is a language, sometimes understood, sometimes not.

Image courtesy of joyofeducation.wordpress.com

Even God used math to create the world.


1. http://www.learner.org/interactives/dailymath/language.html
2. Merriam-Webster Dictionary 2015
3. http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_of_mathematics
4. http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Numeracy
5. Brooks, M; Pui (2010). “Are individual differences in numeracy unique from general mental ability? A closer look at a common measure of numeracy.”. Individual Differences Research. 4 8: 257–265.
6. Statistics Canada. “Building on our Competencies: Canadian Results of the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey”. Statistics Canada. p. 209.
7. The Shorter Science & Civilisation in China Vol 2, An abridgement by Colin Ronan of Joseph Needham’s original text, Table 20, p. 6, Cambridge University Press ISBN 0-521-23582-0
8. http://www.mandarintools.com/numbers.html
9. http://www.angelfire.com/me/marmalade/mathtips.html

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