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Teach the Greek alphabet

Many students don’t know what to call certain Greek symbols. They are happy with common ones like \alpha and \beta but show them a \xi or \zeta and they get a little shy.

This shouldn’t be a surprise but it is just their lack of familiarity. No one tells them what all the symbols are but as mathematics students they are expected to know them. If they don’t pick up the less common ones after hearing them just a few times, then embarrassment stops them asking — after all, they’re mathematicians, they’re expected to know.

Since the failing is that they are not taught the symbols, the easy solution is to explicitly teach them. Give them a pronunciation guide such as the one in my book, How to Think Like a Mathematician. After a few weeks, get them to test each other in pairs or threes. Doing it in small groups saves them from too much embarrassment. Saying the words is very important, students need to be comfortable saying them and the saying also helps them remember.

As a side note, the guide in my book is for British pronunciation. I have had some queries from the USA that were sceptical as to whether the pronunciations were correct (or should that be skeptical?). This is a problem that I may rectify in the next edition. However, I’m no expert in American pronunciation. We say bee-tah, whereas in USA they say something like bay-tah, and even bay-dah. I may need help…

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