My first language is English, and since all of my formal education has been undertaken in the USA, I have learned mathematics entirely in the English language. However, I have spent a fair amount of time abroad and I speak two other foreign languages, quite proficiently, one of which is Bahasa Indonesia. While searching Wikipedia for several math topics today (in English), I decided to compare the answers in Indonesian. I was surprised to find how little information was given on the corresponding responses, here are a few examples: Measure Theory, Abstract Algebra, Set Theory. There are many more examples like these. I then compared these same topics in western languages such as Deutsch, French, Russian and Spanish and I found that there was a lot more to be said about these topics there (though I couldn't comprehend anything written there).

I am now asking myself how important is it to be able to study mathematics in our first language? I know that most mathematicians and scientists these days are able to speak English very well (at times better than native speakers) and often publish books in English. So, I wondered is it worth while to even try to expand scientific literature into different languages. Or, should people from other parts of the world just be forced to deal with the fact the the language of science and mathematics is English (or at least some other western language)?

I personally find it a bit disheartening to think that in order for someone in Indonesia (or any other country with a similar issue) to get a first class education in Mathematics they must first learn English, or another language. I would like to hear what other peoples point of view on this? Thanks!

  • $\begingroup$ [I think I misunderstood your question on first reading. It's not for advice, is it? Sorry.] $\endgroup$
    – Shaun
    Nov 17, 2013 at 18:47
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps this would be better suited at academia.stackexchange.com. (E.g., this question shows some resemblance.) $\endgroup$
    – Řídící
    Nov 17, 2013 at 18:48
  • $\begingroup$ I once took a math course that was taught in English but for which the textbook was in French. I don't know French, but the amount you need in order to read a math book is very little. In particular, you don't need to know how to pronounce anything. $\endgroup$ Nov 17, 2013 at 18:52
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    $\begingroup$ Wikipedia need not be representative of an underlying issue. Wikipedia is driven entirely by its users. There are far more users of the English wikipedia than there are of the Indonesian one (I say that without having any statistics at hand, but with full confidence). It makes sense that information would be more widely available on the more widely used version. Especially coupled with the prevalence of English within the mathematics community. $\endgroup$ Nov 17, 2013 at 18:53
  • $\begingroup$ For my graduate thesis I had to go over the classic Lehrbuch der Algebra by Weber. I knew a little german before, but I needed some hefty help from dictionaries to make it work. I was surprised that's the it is done in many cases in the academy, in particular with important mathematical languages like russian, german or french, for which many paper have no translation. So don't be afraid of dictionaries, in particular with the web now, and while it'll take more time to cover something you'll have to dwell into it more deeply. That can't be bad. $\endgroup$
    – DonAntonio
    Nov 17, 2013 at 18:54

1 Answer 1


Given(?) that English is (nowadays) a compulsory subject in most middle and high schools in Indonesia, and assuming that it is sort-of effective (leading to rudimentary understanding), your concern seems only to apply to those who don't have such schooling. It seems somewhat unlikely that many of the less-schooled (or other-schooled) would have an interest in measure theory, abstract algebra, and set theory. Or would have the opportunity/qualifications to undergo "a first class education in Mathematics".

  • $\begingroup$ Srinivasa Ramanujan is an example of the kind of people that I am thinking about. Although, I am not sure if he learned mathematics from books written in English. If so, then I think the question is answered it is not so important to learn Mathematics in your first language, because Ramanujan was very successful in Mathematics. Although, since he grew up in India during a time in which it was still colonized by the British, he luckily would have been exposed to a lot more English than say some one from Indonesia. $\endgroup$ Nov 17, 2013 at 20:07
  • $\begingroup$ @JimmyJackson Bad example. "Just before the age of 10, in November 1897, he passed his primary examinations in English [...]" (Source) $\endgroup$
    – Řídící
    Nov 17, 2013 at 20:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Tranmission from Nonetheless, I think he is still a decent example since he was self educated in mathematics. However, it is not a great example since it appears that English would not have been a hindrance to him. $\endgroup$ Nov 17, 2013 at 20:48
  • $\begingroup$ @JimmyJackson He also wasn't "self-educated" in mathematics in the sense that he didn't have classes, read books, or consulted others. $\endgroup$
    – Řídící
    Nov 17, 2013 at 20:55
  • $\begingroup$ False, he did read books in English, this is explicit in your source. $\endgroup$ Nov 17, 2013 at 20:59

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