The Connection Between Math and Language

This morning I was reading an article titled “How to make math a key part of your ELL curriculum.” In the article the author writes,

It also helps that numbers are numbers, and working with them is natural to speakers of any language.

It is a common assumption that math will be easier for English language learners. It’s just numbers, right?

Wrong!

While it seems on the surface that math would be transferable between languages because of numbers, it is actually a lot more complicated than that.

In this post, I will discuss some of the research that addresses the issue of language and math.

How Languages Treat Numbers

Numbers do not naturally transfer between languages. The way a learner treats numbers, and subsequently math, can be influenced by their language.

Mark and Dowker (2015) studied how learning math in Chinese or English affected Hong Kong students who spoke Chinese at home. Those that learned math in Chinese demonstrated more ability at manipulating numbers on a number line than those who learned in English.

A possible reason for this is that numbers in English follow an irregular system, whereas numbers in Chinese follow a regular system based on a base of ten.

In another example of language and numbers, Yushau (2009) discusses how Arabic treats numbers differently than English and how this difference can cause problems for Arabic speakers when studying math in English:

“In Arabic units are mentioned first then the tenth (like 45 is called Khamsa wa Arbaeen, literally translated as five and forty). The conflict is that many times they write 54 while they meant 45…Similarly, many times one comes across students writing 13.6 in place of 1306, or 250 in place of 255. As the (.) in Arabic means zero, and (0) means five in Arabic.”

As Yushau points out, speakers of Arabic encounter two problems with English and math. First, simply reading multi-digit numbers presents difficulty because of the norm in their language of reading right to left. Second and perhaps more troublesome for learners, numbers are not just numbers as most assume. Zero is not 0, it is (.). Five is not 5, it is 0.

If you were teaching math to Arabic speakers, this would be critical information to know. Without knowing this, you may think your students were having math problems when really the problem is language.

Math, Language, and the Brain

So we have established that numbers ARE NOT just numbers.

But what about math? Is math just math?

Not according to a new study by researchers at the University of Luxembourg.

The researchers scanned the brains of twenty bilingual adults (L1 German / L2 French) while doing both simple and complex math problems.

Turns out math IS NOT just math. The parts of the brain that lit up and the degree of activity varied depending on which language was being used. In other words, the participants’ brains worked differently depending on which language they were doing math in.

The researchers conclude:

Our results thus highlight that highly proficient
bilinguals rely on differential activation patterns to solve simple and complex additions in each of their
languages, suggesting different solving procedures.

This study shows that math is not independent from language. The language one uses is tied to how the brain works, and subsequently, how math is done.

Conclusion

The common misconception that math can be an easier subject for language learners does not seem to be supported by the research. The idea is an oversimplification and a dangerous one for educators.

If educators continue to believe that language has little influence over math, they may misdiagnose the struggles of their students which could lead to student frustration and eventually disengagement.

It is important that we realize the potential barriers to learning math in another language so as to be more empathetic when our learners are struggling and be able to address not just math misconceptions but language ones as well.

How can this research help you in your classroom? Let me know in the comments.

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