Math as a Language

Illustration by Nino Mekanarishvili

Jianing Qi describes his progress with learning the language of mathematics. He shares his personal journey and valuable insights into how this dynamic language has been relevant to his world.

When I studied math, some people who were not familiar with the subject were worried that I would only find a job as a high school math teacher. Other people who had some familiarity with math said that I could earn a high income in financial institutions. While these people were worried about my future career, I was struggling with the math itself. All I was thinking about was how to understand what was explained during class and how to complete the homework in order to catch up. I was jealous of my friends who got intern positions at prestigious firms, but I do respect those who are able to comprehend fully and achieve their A’s in Analysis and Algebra.

The moment that I found math could be applicable to real life was when I took classes in data science and computer science. Beforehand, I had thought that the only applicable math was differential equations in physics. What is fascinating from those fields is that real world problems can be measured and quantified, and then it turns into a math problem after abstraction, such as text vectorization, naïve bayes for classification, etc. During the learning process of math, I always perceived math as a game on paper. I thought it was a fun way to train my brain, detached from reality. Rather than games to play with, I now find that math is more like a language, and the learning of abstract math is like learning grammar for a language so that one can use it properly in the future. I recall my painful experience of learning English grammar! Fortunately, right now I am not writing a sentence in broken English,  because I know a bit of grammar.

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

I am now involved with a startup business, trying to work with natural language processing. I am not going to say that math helped me to start this, but it is a necessary condition since the research papers I have to comprehend are normally heavy with math. Fortunately, I was trained in basic math literacy so it is not as if I have no clue at all. In my first Algebra class, I did not even know basic set theory. I worked hard to catch up in class and now it has paid off. The connection between math and a job is not so obvious that it could be a trivial proof, but learning math is meaningful to me as it teaches me a new language so I can comprehend more difficult papers. It lifts the limit where comprehension prevents any understanding. It is hard to see direct benefits from studying math, at least not like computer science or finance. However, math becomes essential when one needs it in the future to comprehend and solve complex problems and existing solutions.

Learning math does not have an obvious result in getting a job or applying to activities in daily life other than calculating meal tips, but it is absolutely essential in a business case and when quantification is required. There are so many interesting problems and subjects that can utilize math after the problems have been quantified, and I am glad that I can read and understand solutions with math literacy.

Jianing Qi

Math student (BA 2017, MS 2020) New York University, NY

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