Introducing linguistics into maths classrooms: Edinburgh Maths circles are joined by UoE linguists

University of Edinburgh linguists Prof Graeme Trousdale and Dr Pavel Iosad have joined forces with Edinburgh Maths circles organizers Dr Francesca Iezzi and Dr Benjamin Goddard to help children see that maths is not about learning formulas off by heart but about solving problems – even linguistic ones!

Edinburgh Maths circles are inspired by the Cambridge Maths circles following a similar goal: to offer school children a space where they can explore maths outside the classroom. It’s a space where they can learn to think like mathematicians by learning general problem-solving skills without having to rely on specific knowledge.

Pre-COVID, events would take place at the University of Edinburgh inviting pupils who are interested in maths, especially focussing on underserved areas. Pupils would spend the day solving more general mathematical puzzles with a “low barrier but high ceiling”: the problem or question would be easy to understand but would not necessarily have a definitive solution – many of the questions are open-ended. With the start of the pandemic, things had to be moved online: now the Maths circles organizers are sending out their resources free of charge to schools that want to host a Maths circles event. They also offer workshops for teachers, where they demonstrate how to work with the material and emphasise the importance of teaching problem-solving.

But what does maths have to do with linguistics?

As part of their funding, Maths Circles organizers Ben and Francesca ran a dissemination workshop in February 2021. The general idea of this workshop was to inspire researchers in other disciplines to think about their disciplines in a similar way, to focus more on teaching general problem-solving skills.

Linguistics professor Graeme Trousdale, who was attending the workshop, was very taken with this: He liked the idea of putting more focus on learning transferable and logical skills. This is something that Graeme and his colleague Dr Pavel Iosad have already been doing in their undergraduate teaching and in their involvement in the Linguistics Olympiad. Both were enthusiastic to get involved in the Maths circles events.

Introducing linguistics into maths classrooms

Some of the more short-term aims of their collaboration are to integrate linguistics puzzles into Maths circles:

“Periodically, there will be a Maths circle event with a surprise puzzle which can be a linguistics puzzle.  At first the puzzles had some overt connection to maths, like using a number system for instance. ”  

 Graeme Trousdale

Now the linguistics puzzles might be about trying to understand unfamiliar languages or working out historical reconstructions. These hidden linguistics puzzles have now been integrated at a few maths circles events and have in general generated positive feedback: pupils were quite engaged with these linguistic surprise puzzles, though they did find them harder to approach at first.

Following this success, the organizers were even keener on focussing on problem-solving and integrating linguistics into a maths classroom. In early October, at a workshop aimed at teachers, they used more linguistics puzzles, which participating teachers were very enthusiastic about.

Introducing these linguistics puzzles into Maths circles shows teachers and pupils alike that Maths and ‘languages’ are not oceans apart but rather a stone’s throw away from each other.

Would you like to get involved?

The Maths Circles organisers are always looking for volunteers that help them plan, advertise and carry out their events. If you are interested in getting involved, contact the organisers at

About Nadine

Linguistics and English Language (LEL) PhD student Nadine Dietrich is the Student Public Engagement Ambassador for LEL at the University of Edinburgh. Keep an eye on the Linguistics & English Language at Edinburgh Twitter account @EdinUniLEL for more updates from Nadine.

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