Bilingual brains work more on math when it’s presented in a second language
If you’re reading this website, there’s a good chance you do your math in English. As concepts, numbers can obviously exist in any language, but research has shown that dealing with quantities over four require parts of our brains normally reserved for language. For monolingual people, this isn’t a concern, but a study has now found how math can get harder if it’s not in your mother tongue.
The study took students from Luxembourg who went to primary school speaking German, but attended secondary school in French. They were all considered to have a high degree of proficiency in both languages, hopefully eliminating any kind of basic comprehension as a variable. The participants were then asked to do math presented in either German or French so that their time, accuracy and brain activity could be observed in either scenario.
Spotting the right brain structures
It had been previously established that people tend to make more mistakes and take longer to complete math problems that require their second language. These test participants followed that trend, having an easier time with math problems they read in German than French. These tests were conducted in an fMRI machine, so that researchers could also monitor what regions of the brain were activated for each task, hopefully giving insight as to why these differences in performance exist.
When doing math in a first language, a small language-oriented region in the left temporal lobe was seen supplementing efforts to solve the quantitative task. When things got trickier in French, the brains showed activity in new regions that weren’t directly related to either language or numbers, specifically visual centers associated with figurative identification. Interestingly, there were no signs that the test subjects were trying to translate problems back to their first language- they were instead relying on more abstract cognition to help work through tasks complicated by less ingrained grammar and vocabulary. This all may seem very intuitive, but the study aims to help us understand and measure the effects of making calculations in a second language in a time when more and more people are expected to do just that.