The Impact of Language On Learning Multiplication
If memorizing arithmetic tables is so difficult, how does our brain eventually manage to do it? One of our strongest innate talents is the ability to acquire spoken language. We have specific brain regions in the frontal and temporal lobes that specialize in handling language. Faced with the challenge of memorizing arithmetic facts, our brain responds by recording them in verbal memory, a sizable and durable part of our language processing system. Most of us can still recall items in our verbal memory, such as poems and songs, that we learned many years ago.
Teachers have long recognized the power of language and verbal memory. They encourage students to memorize items such as rhymes and the multiplication tables by reciting them aloud. As a result, calculation becomes linked to the language in which it is learned. This is such a powerful connection that people who learn a second language generally continue to do arithmetic in their first
language. No matter how fluent they are in the second language, switching back to their first language is much easier than relearning arithmetic from scratch in their second language.
Brain imaging studies carried out by Dehaene and his colleagues provided further proof that we use our language capabilities to do arithmetic. Their hypothesis was that exact arithmetic calculations involved the language regions of the brain because it required the verbal representations of number. Estimations requiring approximate answers, however, would not make use of the language facility (Dehaene et al., 1999).
The subjects of the experiments were adult English-Russian bilinguals who were taught two-digit addition facts in one of the two languages and were then tested. When both the teaching and the test question were in the same language, the subjects provided an exact answer in 2.5 to 4.5 seconds. If the languages were different, however, the subjects took a full second longer to provide the exact
answer. Apparently, the subjects used that extra second to translate the question into the language in which the facts had been learned. When the question asked for an approximate answer, the language of the question did not affect the response time.
During the experiment, the researchers monitored the subjects’ brain activity. Questions requiring exact answers primarily activated the same part of the left frontal lobe where language processing occurs. When the subjects responded to questions requiring approximate answers, the greatest activity was in the two parietal lobes, the regions that contain number sense and support spatial reasoning. Amazingly, these findings reveal that we humans are able to extend our intuitive number sense to a capacity to perform exact arithmetic by recruiting the language areas of our brain.
If you need more personal evidence of this connection between language and exact arithmetic, try multiplying a pair of two-digit numbers while reciting the alphabet aloud. You will find that this is quite difficult to do because speaking demands attention from the same language areas required for mental computation and reasoning.
Yet despite this seeming cooperation between the language and mathematical reasoning areas of the brain, it is still important to remember that these two cerebral areas are anatomically separate and distinct. Further proof of this separation comes from case studies showing that one area can function normally even when the other is damaged (Brannon, 2005). Teachers, then, should not assume that students who have difficulty with language processing will necessarily encounter difficulties in arithmetic computation, and vice versa.
Brannon, E. M. (2005, March). The independence of language and mathematical reasoning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102, 3177–3178.
Dehaene, S., Spelke, E., Pinel, P., Stanescu, R., & Tsivkin, S. (1999, May). Sources of mathematical thinking: Behavioral and brain-imaging evidence. Science, 284, 970–974.