How learning Russian can make you better at math

Chekov makes you better at calculus
Chekov makes you better at calculus
Image: AP Photo/LM Otero
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At first glance, Russian seems to have no more connection to mathematics than any other language. But Barbara Oakley,  author of the book A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If
 You Flunked Algebra), says it was learning Russian that helped her finally grasp math at age 26—and eventually become an electrical engineer and education author.

Oakley wrote a piece for Nautilus explaining how, after a childhood of flunking through math classes, she was finally able to grasp and retain the skill. With Newton’s second law of f =ma, for example:

I practiced feeling what each of the letters meant—f for force was a push, m for mass was a kind of weighty resistance to my push, and a was the exhilarating feeling of acceleration. (The equivalent in Russian was learning to physically sound out the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet.) I memorized the equation so I could carry it around with me in my head and play with it. If m and were big numbers, what did that do to f when I pushed it through the equation? If f was big and was small, what did that do to m? How did the units match on each side? Playing with the equation was like conjugating a verb.

The trick was to approach math the way she had approached Russian: she memorized an equation the way she had memorized Russian verbs, and then tested them in every possible—and impossible—tense and conjugation. With equations, she tested what happens when you change the values in different scenarios.

Over time, Oakley—and Army veteran who is now an engineering professor at Oakland Universitytrained her brain to learn the different scenarios, which increased an understanding of the concept itself.

This is a different approach than the recent Common Core standards in the US, which sometimes emphasize understanding the concept more than practicing it.

Oakley didn’t realize it at the time, but she was engaging in a learning practice that has long been proven to work (pdf) among masters of many fields: chunking. Oakley describes the process in chess players:

Chess masters, for example, can recall tens of thousands of different chess patterns. Whatever the discipline, experts can call up to consciousness one or several of these well-knit-together, chunked neural subroutines to analyze and react to a new learning situation. This level of true understanding, and ability to use that understanding in new situations, comes only with the kind of rigor and familiarity that repetition, memorization, and practice can foster.

So in other words, practice really does make perfect.