Every math and science teacher of a certain age has seen it, probably multiple times. Many of us have shown it in our classes. It’s the scene from the movie Contact (Zemeckis, 1997) where the character played by Jodie Foster first hears from the aliens. It’s exciting, dramatic—the pulsing noise from space pushing through the ancient computer systems. A YouTube comment I saw called the sound “terrifying.”
How do the aliens communicate with Foster? Why, with prime numbers, of course.
As a career math educator, it feels completely natural. How else would an intelligence that is so completely “other” try to communicate with us? Why waste time with words when they could cut straight to the chase and make contact with the one guaranteed communication style in all the worlds? After all, everyone knows that mathematics is the universal language.
And yet, I want to propose that we stop saying that blithe phrase.
Yes, if and when the aliens ever reach out to us, it seems reasonable to assume that they will do so with something as rudimentary as a series of prime numbers. If you’ve seen the end of Contact, you know that Foster’s character inevitably gets to circles and the mysteries of pi; it has been suggested that this is another “universal” number we could use to communicate with alien intelligence. Well and good.
But here on Earth, we need to stop indoctrinating our math teachers with the notion that they are teaching a universal language. Yes, there is something inspiring about Galileo’s famous phrase—“Mathematics is the alphabet with which God has written the universe.” But when these high-minded words provide cover for us to keep our heads down and “just teach the material,” we do a disservice to our students. Allow me a story to serve as a caution.
I teach four classes of 8th grade Pre-Algebra every day. Two of those are “regular” track, for lack of a better term, and two of them receive push-in services for students who are learners of the English language. A specialized co-teacher works alongside me in those classes; the curriculum is the same, though sometimes we take different directions to cover it.
One day in the middle of the semester a new student was brought to one of my “regular” classes in the middle of the period. My school has a high percentage of Hispanic students, many of whom speak Spanish and English with equal facility. So, even though this new student presented as Hispanic, I thought little of language when I said hello. I showed him to his seat, caught him up briefly on the daily assignment, in English, and went back to running the class.
In the last few minutes as I was going through the routine of cleaning up and getting ready for the next class, I approached him. “You feel good about today?” I asked. He just looked at me without saying a word.
“Everything all right?” I asked again, pausing. Something seemed off. He smiled but still didn’t speak.
“Hablas ingles?” I asked, and he shook his head. “Un poco?” I hoped.
He smiled again and said, “Nada.”
Needless to say, we got his class switched immediately. Later that day he returned to my room, attended the push-in class where we had translation services ready and waiting. Happy ending.
Let’s explore the contours of this story just a bit, though. Only the most heartless among us would deny this young man access to a suitable class—he had literally moved to the country from Venezuela the day before. But at what point in this young man’s journey should his language-learner services cease? When do his Venezuelan culture and language cease to be a barrier in the American classroom?
The answer is, of course, that we’re not sure. At some point between day-old immigrant and 100%-assimilated citizen lies that magic moment. But anyone claiming to know exactly where that moment sits is something like a fabulist.
Herein lies the damage of our statements about mathematics being “the universal language”—we rush the process of learning for students like mine. We trivialize their language-acclimation process when we expect them to keep up because “math is math.”
It is not only students learning English who are harmed by this myth of the universal language, however. In fact, a teaching corps that is overwhelmingly white, working with a student population which is majority Black and brown, does a disservice to all our students when we obviate culture with talk of universality. Male teachers—overrepresented in the mathematics classroom—do a disservice to our female students in a similar fashion. Language and culture are not a binary, a switch that goes from “needs help” to “all good” one magical day. They are a continuum that affects classroom dynamics at all levels.
As Na’ilah Suad Nasir writes, “Race and culture are not only core to the learning process but also they are central forces that organize our society and determine access to high-quality mathematics instruction” (2016, p. 7). When we naively repeat the trope of math being a universal language, we disrupt the learning process by privileging our own way of being—organizing our classrooms along dominant lines and marginalizing those who don’t share our point of view.
Mathematics may be the best way to make contact with an alien civilization. In that sense, it is the best way to reach out to our literal universe. Go watch that scene from Contact; you will be inspired.
Mathematics is not a “universal language,” however. Any adherence to that old saw only provides cover for teachers to ignore the home culture of their students, a culture that is core to the learning process. It privileges whiteness, maleness, heteronormativity. It even privileges middle-aged ways of communication.
On my part, I’m trying something new this year. I’ve ditched the warm-up problem for what I’m calling the “cold open.” I’m foregrounding relationship and communication, trying to create a classroom culture that honors the students as individuals—not one that sees them as something merely “universal.” I’ve written about the benefits of this approach elsewhere (Wamsted, 2022); the benefits have been immediate and wonderful.
We can do better. Let’s give up talk of a “universal language.” The only universal language is the one we make by doing the hard work of communicating with each other.