Teaching mathematics in Indigenous Australian languages

Teaching mathematics in Indigenous Australian languages has complex practical, political and theoretical considerations. In the early years of school, far from being an abstract matter of symbol manipulation, a great deal of mathematical learning occurs in and through language. Although children learn mathematics most easily in their first language, most Indigenous language speaking students in the Northern Territory are taught mathematics in English, even in some bilingual schools. One of the key arguments for the teaching of mathematics in Indigenous Australian languages is the aim of eventual transferring mathematical learning to English. This transfer is not automatic: differences in cultural mathematical practices and the ways that languages express mathematical concepts mean that mathematics must vary when learnt in different languages. Another motivation for teaching mathematics in Australian languages is as a contribution to language maintenance. Rapid shifts in language use are occurring in many communities and English-only education increasingly plays a role in the endangerment of Australian language.

In this seminar, I report on an educational-linguistic study in progress in a small Top End community, investigating how to teach about space, location and sequencing in the early years in the Mawng language. I draw on a range of research and teaching experience to consider the teaching of mathematics in Indigenous Australian languages theoretically, politically and practically.

About the speaker

Cris Edmonds-Wathen is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Research Unit for Indigenous Language at the University of Melbourne. She researches mathematics in different languages, with an interest in Australian languages. Much of her work in Australia focusses on spatial language. She has also worked on the use of local languages and culture in mathematics teaching in Papua New Guinea. Her teaching experience includes lecturing in Mathematics Education, and before that primary school teaching in Darwin and in remote communities.