I was just reading this article over on The Guardian. It includes the following paragraph
Masahiko Fujiwara, a mathematician at Ochanomizu University, said: “The most important thing during primary years is Japanese and maths. It is important that children first learn their own country’s culture and traditions.”
Presumably this is an accurate translation, but has the grammar gone squonky [Hey! I’ve warned you about using techie terms in your blog. –ed.] with “The most important thing… is Japanese and maths”? Shouldn’t it be “The most important thing[s are]… Japanese and maths”? I don’t feel the original sentence as it stands is glaringly bad, but something seems a little off one way or the other.
[06.09.14. On second thoughts, a dual subject with a singular verb doesn’t always break English grammar. I assume that such subjects are regarded as a unit, although that may be more usual with things that naturally go together. In this case, I don’t feel that Japanese and maths form a natural set, not even “school subjects”. I’m sure Language Log has had a post about this.]
But that’s not the only thing that isn’t quite right. Language may have an intimate connection with culture and tradition, but I don’t remember maths ever being part of that. I’m saying this from two perspectives. One is that maths is universal in that π is π, i is i, and e is e whether you know about these things or not. The other is that most people don’t seem to need for maths beyond the four basic functions (helpfully noted in this post’s subheading). Except for a few occasions when my curiosity has been piqued about something mathematical, most of the maths I did at school never got beyond the gates of the school when I left.
This is not to say that numbers don’t play a part in culture. When I was at primary school we used to chant, “First the worst; second the best; third the lucky number; fourth the dirty dishcloth” when we were in line. Three is a special number; so are seven and nine. Thirteen is unlucky in the West, but here in China four is unlucky (because it sounds like the word for “death”). The lucky numbers here are six and eight. There are various special birthdays and anniversaries.
I’m sure that whatever Fujiwara said in Japanese, it wasn’t meant to be about the teaching of culturally significant numbers. To me, the alleged importance of maths in Japan sounds like China’s obsession with science. Both are a means of producing new generations of robots lacking the capability for independent thought.