In September 2016, Grammarly.com posted a blog entry titled “Why Being Good at Language Arts Means That You Can Do Math.” The post explains that, in a 2014 study, scientists discovered that the genes that determine one’s aptitude for language arts also determine one’s aptitude for math. In other words, the very same genetic programming that gives human beings a capacity for using language also gives us a capacity for performing math equations.
This discovery seems to fly in the face of everything we know about math and language arts. Chances are if you identify with one of these subjects, you don’t identify with the other. This divide is one version of what the British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow described as The Two Cultures (1959). “Two polar groups: at one pole we have the literary intellectuals, at the other scientists, and as the most representative, the physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension.” For Snow, this division—between the humanities on the one hand, math and science on the other—was a major problem that future generations would need to overcome.
Now, in 2017, we’re still grappling with this longstanding division, but we finally have the scientific basis for tearing it down.
Culture and training, rather than biology, are the biggest reasons people tend to identify with either the humanities or science and math. We tell ourselves we are either “right brained” or “left brained,” creative or rational, as if both math and language arts do not require both imagination and reason. Your high school schedule and standardized tests tell you to separate these subjects into distinct categories, isolated from each other in separate classrooms, separate textbooks, and separate test sections.
But what the science tells us is that these divisions are arbitrary—they have little to do with our genetic capacity for math and language.
This insight has important implications for students as they prepare for standardized tests. The aforementioned post from Grammarly reminds us that math is itself a language and that if you are skilled at language arts, you also have the capacity to be skilled at math.
But we should keep in mind that this works the other way, too: if you’re an algebra whiz, you have developed the very skills necessary to succeed in reading comprehension and grammar. Translating those math skills into language arts skills is a matter of identifying these subjects as aspects of the same genetic coding.
But what does this mean in a practical sense?
When first studying for the SAT, it’s important to approach each section as a foreign language, even—or perhaps especially—the Reading and Writing & Language sections. Students can master each of these sections the same way they would master a new language or a new branch of math:
1. Learn the abstract rules of each language.
One important aspect of learning a foreign language is learning its basic rules. If you want to master Spanish, for example, you’re going to have to memorize how to conjugate the verb “estar” (“to be”). The same goes for the SAT. Just as students need to know quadratic equations, they need to know how to properly connect clauses in a sentence and how to locate the main idea in a reading passage. The Reading and Writing & Language sections depend on rules and formulas just as the Math section does.
Often, students struggling in Reading and Writing & Language become frustrated because they are already fluent in English—I speak and write clearly, so why should I struggle with a test of my English language skills?
Students who ask this question are onto something: writing and speaking is, as John Trimble writes, “the art of creating desired effects.” If you can communicate clearly with your friends, family, and the larger world around you, then a grammar mistake here or there or a confusion about a complex piece of writing may not truly reflect your future college or career success.
But the SAT treats language like a science; it has rules that can be violated. To master these rules, approach these language arts sections as you would a foreign language—or as you would approach geometry, algebra, or calculus. The Reading and Writing & Language sections, like the Math section, are foreign languages you’ll have to become fluent in.
2. Practice, practice, practice.
As anyone who has studied math or language arts knows, knowing abstract rules only gets you so far. You need to put see these rules into action by reading, writing, and completing math problems. More importantly, you need to practice in order to unconsciously absorb the structure of each section the way you absorbed the structure of your native language as a child.
In chapter 1.2 of the Princeton Companion to Mathematics (2008), the contributors write:
It is a remarkable phenomenon that children can learn to speak without ever being consciously aware of the sophisticated grammar they are using. Indeed, adults too can live a perfectly satisfactory life without ever thinking about ideas such as parts of speech, subjects, predicates or subordinate clauses. . . . Nevertheless, there is no doubt that one’s understanding of language is hugely enhanced by a knowledge of basic grammar . . . and this understanding is essential for anybody who wants to do more with language than use it unreflectingly . . . The same is true of mathematical language.
It is indeed incredible how native speakers master their native tongue—not through studying rules and formulas for constructing sentences, but by being immersed in a language culture of family members and television shows that fill our homes with the rhythms and structure of language.
But there is a gap between how language is used and a language’s rules. Most people do not speak grammatically. So, in order to master the language arts sections of the SAT, students need to approach these sections much the same way we all first approach quadratic equations: with a spirit of curiosity and an admission of ignorance. Only then can we absorb not only new knowledge, but the structures of arranging words, parts of speech, and variables that are essential for success on the SAT.
The U.S. Foreign Services Institute estimates that it takes most native English speakers 480 hours to achieve even basic fluency (the kind you’d need to feel comfortable asking for directions in a foreign country) in most Romance languages (and about 720 hours for most Eastern languages). To put that in perspective: that’s five hours per day for over 96 days. That’s a lot of time.
Luckily, many high school students already have a basic fluency of the subjects tested on the SAT. But the fact holds that time—not just practice—is a central factor in learning anything new. It is never too early to begin preparing for the SAT. In fact, the more time students take with the test, and the more practice tests they expose themselves to, the more likely they are to absorb the test as they would absorb a new language while living in a foreign country.
Rules, practice, and time: the essential tools needed to master a language are the tools that unite the three sections of the SAT. If you’re already strong in one of the test sections, you have the tools in place to succeed on the others. It’s just a matter now of putting those tools to work.
Stephen P. is a writer and teacher based in Los Angeles. He has taught literature and writing courses at several universities and has taught writing and critical reading at Elite Educational Institute since 2010.