Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

A Language Not Quite Universal

January 6th, 2010 · 2 Comments

Contrary to what we learned in Mrs. Glickman’s Algebra II class lo those many years ago, mathematics is not a language that transcends all cultural barriers. That’s because tackling math problems requires a willingness to give in to abstraction, a leap that not all cultures are equipped to make. Just check out how the Saora people of Orissa, India, react to word problems:

Saora school children took more interest in mathematical problems that depicted actual local events/facts rather than abstract problems. If it was a hypothetical question completely divorced from reality, the Saoras showed little interest in indulging in related mathematical discourses and to stretch their imagination to arrive at a mathematical solution. This confirmed our assumption that the physical and social realities constitute the ultimate metaphor with which the children and adults in this culture think and act.

So strong is the reality orientation that the Saora children and adults raise moral questions when the mathematical problems assume violations of social norms. For example, given the following question, three Saora children reacted to the moral assumptions rather than to the mathematical problem:

“A man named Raghu bought 100 kgs of rice at the rate of Rs4/- per kg. He mixed 5 kgs of stones with the rice and sold them at the same rate of Rs.4 a kg. How much of profit Raghu made at the end?”

The initial reaction of these Saora children was “why should anyone mix stones in rice? They should be punished by the village Mukhia (village head)”. However, two non-tribal Oriya children and one Saora child did attend to the mathematical problem going along with the “if” assumption therein. When the same question was asked of Saora adults, their first reaction was that such a man should be driven out of the village. None showed any interest in treating it as a hypothetical mathematical question. Nontribal children and adults did not raise such a value question as they treated it as a hypothetical mathematical problem. This makes it evident that cultural values and norms play an important role in determining the willingness among children to participate in a mathematical discourse. Clearly, mathematics does not mean the same to everyone.

The Saora are also well-known among anthropologists for occasionally suffering from a unique mental disorder, which can only be cured through “marriage” to an invisible spirit.


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