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Bilingual people process maths differently

People who speak more than one language fluently process maths differently when they switch from one language to another, as a new study shows.

Intuition allows the brain to recognize numbers up to four, but when calculating mathematical problems, it is language we depend on, as the Independent reports. Researchers at the University of Luxembourg based their research on this fact when they began exploring how the arithmetic skills are affected when bilingual people switch between languages.

For the study, the researchers recruited students whose mother tongue was Luxembourgish and had carried on studying in Belgium and became fluent in both German and French. The participants were asked to solve a series of simple and complex maths problems in both languages. They were able to solve the simple tasks with equal proficiency, but it took them longer to calculate the complex task in French. Furthermore, they made more errors than they did when doing the identical task in German.

The brain activity of the participants was measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging. The results proved that different regions of the brain were in use when the participants were solving problems in different languages. For instance, when solving the simple task in German, a small section of the left temporal lobe was activated, while with the complex French tasks, the part of the brain that processes visual information was active.

Researchers concluded that, in order to solve mathematical problems that were not in their non-native language, participants had to put in “extra effort”. “The research results clearly show that calculatory processes are directly affected by language,” the author’s wrote.

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