The bilingual brain calculates arithmetic differently depending on the language

People can intuitively recognise small numbers up to four; however, when calculating, they depend on the assistance of language. This presents a fascinating research question: How do multilingual people solve arithmetical tasks in different languages of which they have fluency? The question will is important, as an increasingly globalised job market and accelerated migration means that increasing numbers of people seek work and study outside of their native linguistic areas.

In two separate test situations, the study participants solved very simple and slightly more complex addition tasks, both in German and French. It became evident that the subjects were able to solve simple addition tasks equally well in both languages. However, for complex addition in French, they required more time than with an identical task in German. Moreover, they made more errors when attempting to solve tasks in French.

During the tests, imaging (fMRI) was used to measure the activity of the subjects. This demonstrated that, depending on the used, different brain regions were activated. With additional tasks in German, a small speech region in the left temporal lobe was activated. Solving complex calculatory tasks in French activated additional parts of the subjects’ brains responsible for processing visual information. However, during the complex calculations in French, the subjects additionally fell back on figurative thinking.

The experiments do not provide any evidence that the subjects translated the tasks they were confronted with from French into German in order to solve the problem. While the test subjects were able to solve German tasks on the basis of the classic, familiar numerical-verbal brain areas, this system proved insufficiently viable in the second language of instruction, in this case, French. To solve the arithmetic tasks in French, the test subjects systematically relied on other thought processes not observed so far in monolingual persons.

The study documents for the first time, with the help of measurements and imaging techniques, the demonstrable cognitive “extra effort” required for solving arithmetic tasks in the second language of instruction. The research results clearly show that calculatory processes are directly affected by language.

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More information: Amandine Van Rinsveld et al. Mental arithmetic in the bilingual brain: Language matters, Neuropsychologia (2017). DOI: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2017.05.009