Bilingual people process maths differently depending on the language

As if maths wasn't confusing enough...

Olivia Petter
Monday 18 September 2017 14:47 BST

People who speak more than one language fluently will process maths differently when they switch between languages, a new study has found.

Intuition enables the brain to recognise numbers up to four. However, when calculating mathematical problems, we depend on language.

This fact led researchers at the University of Luxembourg to explore just how the arithmetic skills are affected when bilingual people use different languages.

The study’s authors recruited students for whom Luxembourgish was their mother tongue and had carried on studying in Belgium and were therefore fluent in both German and French.

In two distinct tasks, participants were asked to solve a mixture of simple and complex maths problems in both languages.

While they were able to solve the simple tasks with equal proficiency, they took longer to calculate the complex task in French and made more errors than they did when doing the identical task in German.

Their brain activity was measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging and the results showed that different regions of the brain were in use when the participants were solving problems in different languages.

For example, when solving the simple task in German, a small section of the left temporal lobe was activated.

However, with the complex French tasks, the part of the brain that processes visual information was active.

Thus, researchers concluded that “extra effort” was needed to solve mathematical problems when doing so in their non-native tongue.

“The research results clearly show that calculatory processes are directly affected by language,” the author’s wrote.

They noted that this evidence will gain importance in due course thanks to increased migration and an expanding globalised job market.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in