The Universal Language… Not So Universal?

Mathematics is often touted as The Universal Language. Supposedly, despite the many different symbols, definitions, notations, and conventions, the core principles of mathematics transcend cultural, societal, and even terrestrial differences. However, a language requires someone to speak it. And here, we find our universal language is not quite the same for everyone.

Coming into this week’s reading, I’ve been aware of the disparities for women in STEM. It exists, and there are multiple aspects to the problem. Personally, it’s just intiutive for me to think that equality is good. “Equal pay for equal work.” That just seems so obvious me. However, for me, I’ve always thought of striving for equality for equality’s sake. What I mean by that, equality is a right, and discrimination is bad. We should be more diverse in STEM, because everyone should have the opportunity to enter this field. It’s a question about morality and fairness.

Now, discrimination and racism can be a detriment to a student’s learning experience (and I will discuss that later). However first, one of the readings this week challenged my viewpoint that diversity is just a moral prerogative. The article, How Diversity Makes Us Smarter, speaks to the benefit of diversity in problem solving. When inter-disciplinary teams and experiences lead to innovative solutions, why do we not place the same importance in social diversity? I truly have never thought about this. Homogeneity excourages complacency. Novel ideas and solutions come about through constant questioning, and I never considered that diversity can have an impact on that.

In one of our additional readings, Whistling Vivaldi, Steele discussed the challenges women face in mathematics, as well as his attempts to understand what exactly is the cause. I’ve also been curious to find a reason for the disparities (and there are many). It’s important to acknowledge issues like harrassment. Part of me had some gut feeling that there was some gender biases that add extra obstacles for women in STEM. I feel like this chapter of his book really hit the tip of the ice berg. Without the presence of directly prejudiced people, Steele found that women can still feel negative consquences of gender biases. In addition, the effort to fight that stigma, itself, can hinder their ability to achieve. In my opinion, this really hits the nail on the head.

In terms of the classroom, how do we fight against this societal pressure? I feel like we can try to remove the stigma of “not understanding” material. Personally, I have times where I hadnot grasped subjects at first glance. When I don’t understand, I feel a stigma of asking questions in front of my peers during class. “I don’t want to seem dumb in front of others.” However, that doesn’t help me learn; it does the opposite. That pressure of trying to prove to others (or to society) of your abilities, while it  affects many more women in mathematics, it is not a unique feeling. We should strive to lower that pressure among our students in mathematics. Perhaps change the notion that only people who don’t know the material go to office hours.

Now, gender disparities in mathematics are not the only challenge that we face in our field. After some thought, I was starting to think about how language plays a part as well. Despite how we always think of math as transcending language, when it comes to expressing ideas to others, we have to use words in some way. For a direct example, think about foreign students who take proof courses. Is it more difficult for students to learn proof structure when they have to simultaneously learn English sentence structure, and grammer? For those new to proofs, those lexical aspects are absolutely required to learn how to express mathematical aspects . Native speakers have the luxury to focus entirely on the proofs, while non-native speaks have an additional handicap. This was a small thought of mine, but it would be interesting to explore the challenges to mathematics due to language barriers. Have there been major advances that took years to confirm because of difficulties in translation of mathematical papers?

Overall, I feel like Inclusive Pedagogy is much more relevant to mathematics than I initially had thought.

6 thoughts on “The Universal Language… Not So Universal?”

  1. You make so many important points here, Rom, starting with the realization that inclusive pedagogy is relevant to all subjects — even something as abstract as math! I really like your suggestion that as instructors we do what we can to mitigate the stigma of “not knowing the answer.” By not setting ourselves up as infallible oracles of truth (or at least the correct answer) and by recognizing that everyone learns from their mistakes I think we can do a lot to help different kinds of learners. Also, I’m really glad that the Whistling Vivaldi excerpts resonated with you.


  2. I really liked your post. As a women in a STEM field, its refreshing whenever I hear that men are thinking about gender issues as well. The last point you made about language as a barrier for learning math proofs is something I haven’t spent much time reflecting on, but one that is worth considering. I am in a statistics course now, and there is a fair amount of writing involved; so I’m sure for non-native speakers it would be much more cumbersome to learn. It is a good reminder that clarity in our explanations as educators can be helpful on multiple levels.


  3. Removing the stigma of I don’t know would be the best thing ever. I want to hear students be wrong, but not be afraid of being wrong. Maybe it is some really good logic that will lead to an even better answer. Or, even knowing that it’s okay to not know the answer because there is a lot information out there to help you learn what you need to know.
    For your last paragraph, I have a student in my woody landscape plants class that struggles with that. He knows the names of the trees in his native language, but struggles to translate them into English. It made me realize that the naming convention for species wasn’t as nearly universal as I thought.


  4. I really enjoyed your post and you brought up so many great points! Being a woman in engineering, I have definitely experienced gender biases in educational settings. And as a result of that, I never wanted to ask questions in class and let people know that I didn’t know the material. So I really appreciate your point about trying to reduce some of the barriers in classrooms that prevent students from asking questions. I think in engineering, and probably other STEM fields as well, there is this idea that you should be able to figure everything out on your own (or already know the material in some cases) in order to be successful in engineering. But engineering is about collaboration and working with others. So why don’t we incorporate more of that perspective in educational contexts and encourage students to ask questions and encourage students to work together to figure out the answer? Thanks for your post!


  5. Your comments about students facing challenges/barriers remind me of students with disabilities. I did some research on that topic. “Students with disabilities say the ignorance of faculty and staff members makes it difficult to get the help they need — and in some cases, makes them less willing to disclose their condition” (Grasgreen, 2014). I learned about Universal Design of Instruction (UDI), which can be used to address this issue. “The goal of UDI is to maximize the learning of students with a wide range of characteristics by applying UD principles to all aspects of instruction (e.g., delivery methods, physical spaces, information resources, technology, personal interactions, assessments)” (Burgstahler, 2018). It is important to note that UDI addresses several issues related to instruction. “Pre-college and college students come from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds. For some, English is not their first language. Also represented in most classes are students with a diversity of ages and learning styles, including visual and auditory. In addition, increasing numbers of students with disabilities are included in regular pre-college and post-secondary courses. Their disabilities include blindness, low vision, hearing impairments, mobility impairments, learning disabilities, and health impairments” (Burgstahler, 2018).

    Burgstahler, S. (2018). Universal Design of Instruction (UDI): Definition, Principles, Guidelines, and Examples. Retrieved from
    Grasgreen, A. (2014, April 2). Dropping the Ball on Disabilities. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from


    1. Thank you for your post. As an international student, I believe that you made a lot of great points what we should think of. I guess that not all foreign students have same problems that I have, but I always need to spend more time to catch-up course requirements, especially readings and writing assignments. I need time for searching definitions in the dictionary and for checking my grammar at the writing center. From my experience, a lot of time many international students don’t want to ask questions because of what you mentioned that “they don’t want to seem dumb in front of others” too.


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