Researcher finds language does matter when teaching math to bilingual people


LatinaLista — Last month on the campus of the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), scientists and researchers gathered for the 2011 Neuroscience Symposium: The Bilingual Brain.

Volunteer serves as part of a UTSA study to see how a bilingual person's brain reacts to solving simple math problems given in a particular language. (Photo: KENS5)

Among the many issues tackled at the day-long event was one that faces many teachers, students and families on a daily basis: When learning math, does it matter which language is used for bilingual students?

Over the last three years, researchers at the University of Texas at San Antonio have studied how a bilingual person’s brain performs simple mathematical problems — adding, subtracting, multiplying and word problems.

Volunteers wear special caps where 32 electrodes monitor brain waves and how the brain responds in solving a math problem in a given language.

The result is that almost half of the people studied performed mathematical problems quicker and more accurately when they did so in their first language.

“Bilinguals have the ability to perform simple arithmetic in 3 different formats, digits and words in each of their languages,” Dr. Nicole Y. Wicha, lead researcher on the project at UTSA, said. “It has been suggested that the language of learning establishes a stronger memory network for simple arithmetic facts that may lead to language-specific access to these concepts.”

However, Dr. Wicha’s study also found that when a bilingual person memorizes mathematical facts it “enhanced the speed of access in the language of use.”

Together these findings suggest that, at least in bilinguals with relatively equal proficiency in their languages, memory for and access to simple arithmetic concepts is more dependent on use than on the original language of learning.

So far, the study has only focused on bilingual adults but Dr. Wicha wants to focus next on bilingual children to see how language influences how their brains process math problems.