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We Want to Learn English

I have been teaching mathematics in an Australian High School since 1982, and I am a contributing author to mathematics text books.


It is axiomatic that students partition their teachers into assumed areas of expertise. They do not expect a teacher of French to also teach advanced calculus, any more than expecting a chemistry instructor to be capable of teaching a course on Egypt and the pharaohs.

I decided to devote part of my Sunday evening to mark mathematics tests for distribution to students the following morning. It was the first test of the year, so I didn’t know what to expect.

The focus of the assessment was problem-solving skills, requiring a description of the steps taken at each stage of the solution process.

After two hours of angst, I stopped in frustration. The number of spelling and grammatical errors was disconcerting. I waded through tortuous grammatical errors such as,

“rashionilise the denomanater”

“take out a comon factter”

“difarentiate the equaytion”

And these gems impressed me for their ‘clear thinking’.

“divide the area of the round circle by its outside”

“split the answer and root and then power it”

“when the decimal answer goes forever, stop it”


As usual, after I distributed the tests next day, my students zeroed in on their grade and noisily turned to their friends to make comparisons.

When the class became calm, I began my hard sell.

“Everyone’s mark was reasonable,” I informed them, “but I am concerned that most of you think that poor grammar is acceptable.”

“It’s Maths, not English,” Jimmy protested. Everyone nodded their heads in agreement.

“And anyway,” he continued, “you’re a Maths teacher. You can’t teach English.”

This was stated so innocently that I could not take offence, but I had to disabuse the class of the misconception. I looked at Jimmy, but my response was aimed at the whole class.

“You see, Jimmy,” I began, “I teach mathematics, but should that preclude me from being able to teach English? Are they mutually exclusive events?”

Thoughtful faces meant I was getting through to them.

“Anyhow, good writing is universal,” I stated. “It is not the exclusive domain of any particular subject.”

They were still sceptical, so I persisted.

“From now on, we shall try hard to do the right thing. Let’s start with something that’s fun.”

There was groaning. For them, “fun” was a euphemism for “boring”.


“Who knows what alliteration is?” I asked hopefully.

“Is that a word in mathematics?” Petra asked.

“No,” I replied. “It’s something you may have met in one of your language classes.”

“Yes. We did do that in English,” Sally pointed out. “It’s something about everyone being able to read and write.”

“Alliteration doesn’t mean “all literate”,” I pointed out. Several students giggled. No-one else offered an answer, so I continued. “It is a style of writing where two or more words have the same sounding first consonant.”

Golden silence, meaning no-one understood the definition.

“It’s like this,” I said, waving my hands all over to stir them out of their lethargy.

“What do we call old data?” I asked rhetorically. “’Dated data’.”

I added, “And when you do too much maths homework, you suffer from ‘number numbing’.”

“I get it, sir,” Mario brightened, “like when you give us a ‘remainder reminder’.”

“Yes,” I said, feeling a lot better.

“Or when we get a ‘serious series’ question,” Marco contributed.

“’Probable probability’,” Enid offered with a smile.

“I hate ‘fractured fractions’,” Arnold called out enthusiastically.

“Great. I think you all have it!”, I stated proudly. I prepared my opening spiel for the next phase of my English indoctrination program, but I was too slow.

Jimmy sneaked in with, “What about ‘funny farts’?”

“Eh, yeah, okay. Let’s move on,” I answered quickly, knowing Jimmy as I did.

“And ‘vomit volume’,” he added gratuitously.

“Enough said, O wander wonder,” I teased. It was well known that Jimmy often roamed the corridors without permission.

It took some seconds for Jimmy to grasp my meaning and to join the laughter around the room.

“Do we go on with our English lesson?” I dared ask.

“We want to learn English,” was the loud response.

“Good,” I said. “Many words, including words we use in mathematics, are derived from other languages, such as French, Italian, Latin and Greek.”

“The word ‘mathematics’,” I explained, “comes from the ancient Greek word, ‘mathematike’, meaning to learn.”

“Is Greek the language where you have all those symbols we use in our formulas?” Eddie asked.

“Yes, indeed,” I replied. “That’s because the ancient Greeks played a major role in the development of mathematics.”

“I know one, sir,” Jimmy called out. “But it’s not from Greek.”

I knew I shouldn’t, but I replied with, “What’s your word, Jimmy?”

“Algebra,” he smiled, emphasing the BRA syllable. “It’s Arabic, and means to hold together.”

And then came his punchline. “Isn’t that what a bra does. Holds two certain things together.”

Even I had difficulty refraining from joining the class in healthy laughter.

“Well, sort of, Jimmy,” I admitted. “But I was thinking of Greek words such as polygon, meaning ‘many angles’, and geometry, meaning “earth measure.”

I turned to the class. “That’s your homework for tonight. List ten words relating to mathematics that are derived from Greek, and explain their derivation.”

Groaning and protestations ensued in the ilk of “No, no, no, sir,”, “What did you say?” and “You’re not serious.”


It was now time to pull the rabbit out of the hat.

“Now I have a surprise for you,” I stated, raising my voice to be heard.

“We will have a guest speaker for tomorrow’s lesson.” This revelation stirred some interest.

“Who is it?” asked Simon.

My reply was evasive. “All I can tell you is that it won’t be a mathematician recounting their lifelong love of mathematics and how it has led them down a virtuous path of righteousness and prosperity.”

Next day, I entered the classroom and observed my students waiting quietly and expectantly for our guest.

“I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news,” I spoke, with a sham expression of sadness on my face, “but our guest had to cancel.”

Accusations along the lines of “You let us down” and “You promised us” flowed freely. In the midst of this verbal deluge, the door was opened, and a male slowly entered, carrying a guitar. Recognition followed by total silence was immediate. I knew introductions were unnecessary, but it was the right thing to do.


“Class, this is Donny Detko, aka Donny Dee.”

There was loud applause, and Donny waved and smiled.

Donny was famous and very wealthy. His genuine modesty belied his extensive credentials as one of the world’s foremost social essayists, singer, songwriter, balladeer, poet, author and a downright nice guy. Several of his literary works have received prestigious awards.

For the next hour, Donny mesmerised us with amusing anecdotes and poems, punctuated by guitar and singalong ditties. He was articulate, speaking words that stirred the emotions. My students were enthralled, not wanting it to end.

And out of the blue, Donny stopped, winked at me and asked the class, “What is the formula for the volume of a square-based pyramid?”

I smiled back, watching the confused stares of students who could not offer a response to the question.

“Never mind,” Donny presently remarked. “Now let me tell you a little story.”

Donny turned to me. “Or do you want to do the honours?” he asked.

I nodded. Students were now in total confusion mode.

“Donny and I have known each other virtually all our lives,” I commenced.

“We’re good friends. We went to school together, and then to University.”

After a moment, I continued. “I became a mathematics teacher and, briefly, so did he.”

I was not surprised this information was not known. Donny had never mentioned it to the popular press. A wave of new-found admiration for Donny filtered across the room.

“The point your teacher and I are making,” Donny explained brightly, “is that learning is not compartmentalised. I studied mathematics, but this did not stop me from studying literature, poetry, and music. Embrace everything, and you will succeed.”

After the applause, Donny picked up his guitar and we all joined in to sing one of his favourite songs.

It was a day my students talked about many times.

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