Health :: Your language may determine your maths skills

A recent study has revealed that the native tongue one speaks determines how the brain solves mathematical puzzles.

Researches, who conducted the study, found that brain scans revealed that Chinese speakers solved maths equations relying more on the brain?s visual regions compared to English language speakers.

For their study, Prof. Yijun Liu and his colleagues from the University of Florida McKnight Brain Institute, US recruited 12 local college seniors in the northeastern Chinese city of Dalian, where Mandarin is spoken. They also recruited 12 native English speakers from the US, Australia, Canada and England to teach in Dalian.

Tests were conducted using Arabic numerals, used by English-speaking cultures and taught to Chinese students at an early age.

Volunteers had to lie in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scanner while solving maths puzzles and push a button to indicate whether a third digit was equal to the sum of the first two numbers presented to them.

Brain scans revealed similar activity in the parietal cortex of both groups’ brains, a region thought to give a sense of quantity.

However, Chinese language speakers had more activity in the visual and spatial brain centre called the visuo-premotor association network, while native English speakers showed more activity in the language network known as perisylvian cortices in the left half of the brain.

“Native English speakers rely more on additional brain regions involved in the meaning of words, whereas native Chinese speakers rely more on additional brain regions involved in the visual appearance and physical manipulation of numbers,” said Prof. Eric Reiman of the Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona.

Researchers said that Chinese language’s simple way of describing numbers might make native speakers less reliant on language processing when doing maths. For example, “eleven” is “ten one” in Chinese “twenty-one” is “two ten one”, reports NewScientist.

“The results do suggest that learning to read in a particular way – or more generally, the cultural differences associated with different language groups may have an impact in other cognitive domains, in this case arithmetic processing,” added neuroscientist Barry Horwitz of the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders.

Scientists further said that different teaching methods across cultures, genes may also influence the brains of the Chinese and the English to solve equations differently. They said that the use of abacus in many Asian schools could also be a reason encouraging the brains of Chinese students to think spatially and visually about numbers.

The study however, found no difference in the reaction time and accuracy of the Chinese and English-speaking volunteers.

The study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Spirit India