Brains of Bilingual People Solve Math Problems Differently

For anyone who’s breezed through literature class yet struggled with algebra, it may surprise you that language and math skills are more closely intertwined than you might think.

Scientists from the University of Luxembourg have found that brain regions associated with visual processing are activated in bilingual people when solving math problems in their second language—something that’s not seen in monolingual people, and which has lifetime implications.

Bilingual people rely on visuo-spatial pathways when solving math problems—something not seen in monolingual people.

“The language in which you learn maths will influence your performance even into adulthood and even in well-mastered tasks like addition,” said Dr. Amandine van Rinsveld, one of the lead researchers.

They focused on adults who were fluent in both German and French, having been taught in these languages in primary and secondary school, respectively.

Despite their fluency in both languages, the participants answered faster and made fewer mistakes when tasked with math problems in their mother tongue.

With fMRI imaging, the scientists saw that the participants took longer to solve problems in their second language and were also using brain regions normally associated with spatial and visual thinking.

“Highly proficient bilinguals… rely to a greater extent on the visuo-spatial pathways when solving arithmetic problems in the language for which the verbal route might be more difficult to use,” the scientists said in their paper.

In an earlier study, bilingual Chinese students also solved math problems faster when these were spelled out for them in their mother tongue. But it was believed that they took longer to do the same task in their second language because they were translating the problems in their heads.

It seems to make sense that people would do math in the language that’s most convenient for them.

“One thing where [language] may come in handy is the units. For example, one hundred is ‘bai’ and ten thousand is ‘wan’ in Mandarin, so one million is just ‘bai wan’,” said Philip Nino Tan-Gatue, a Filipino-Chinese physician who grew up with English as his first language but who admits that he sometimes finds it useful to do math in his second language.

“That’s one of the big problems with brain scan studies. We don’t know what the activation of regions of the brains correspond to, either behaviorally or visually,” said Dr. Walter Secada, Professor of Teaching and Senior Associate Dean at the University of Miami School of Education and Human Development.

He said that it’s possible that the subjects were visualizing the problems in the way that they were taught in school.

“Have you ever seen an adult count on his or her fingers? They do it all the time. So I would say what they’re seeing is the brain analogues of what [the test subjects] were taught to do when they were little kids,” he said.

Further research is needed to understand what exactly is going on, van Rinsveld said. “What is certain is that it took them more time to do the additions in French for the complex problems and they solved it differently as the pattern of brain activations looks different than when they did it in German,” she said

In the meantime, van Rinsveld believes that her team’s study should at least make educators more considerate of language when teaching mathematics.

“This opens our perspective to the fact that maths are not as ‘language-free’ as is commonly assumed… Math teaching should thus pay attention to the language of instruction and careful for learners who do not master [it] well,” she said.