Teachers realise that children whose first language is not English can find it difficult to understand new mathematical terms. However, mathematical terms in English can be tricky even for children who are native English speakers.
When learning a foreign language, words which look similar but have different meanings in each language are called false friends. Such words can mislead students who know one language. For example, the word “magasin” in French refers to a shop or store, but a native English speaker could easily mistake it for a published periodical because of its close resemblance to the word “magazine.”*
Primary school mathematics has its share of false friends too. These are words with a meaning in mathematics different from the word’s everyday meaning, which is familiar to native speakers. Take the word “face.” Let’s face it, we all have a face. That sentence has two meanings of the word in everyday usage, both of which differ from how the term is used in mathematics, where a face can be a component polygon on a three-dimensional polyhedron. If a teacher tries to build on the more widespread English meaning of face when introducing the term, and makes a connection between a child’s face and the face on a cube, the children are likely to be looking for eyes and a nose on the cube.
There are many other terms in mathematics which are false friends for people who speak the language. Think of angle, difference, even, factor, improper, mean, metre, negative, net, odd, of, positive, power, prime, product, rational, record, reflection , share, similar, sum, take away, variable, volume. Here are some more.
False friends remind teachers to be explicit in our use of language in mathematics. It’s good to highlight to students different meanings of words in maths and everyday life. Children can compile their own lists of words with different meanings in mathematics. And a list of such words could be displayed in the classroom, with or without definitions.
It’s good to build students’ learning on their prior knowledge. It’s equally important to be aware of how prior knowledge can interfere with new learning and understanding. False friends in primary school mathematics are an example of such possible interference.
*Indeed, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology (2003) the words share a Middle French, Italian, Arabic etymology where the original word means warehouse, depot or store; this was extended to the sense of a book as a storehouse of information on a particular topic and in turn to mean a periodical.