Are bilinguals better at math?


Bilingualism can impact cognitive functioning , including executive functions such as logic, strategizing, planning, problem solving, and reasoning. Associated with the prefrontal areas of the brain, these allow the management of our social behaviors, the adaptation to new situations and the regulation of our emotions.

Executive functions therefore allow us, on a daily basis, to manage situations that require reflection and creativity. Thus, they are closely associated with school learning, and particularly highlighted for the development of literacy and the learning of mathematics.

This strong connection between the regular practice of a second language and the greater efficiency of executive functions invites us to examine, in a more specific way, the impact of bilingualism on mathematics learning and problem solving in children.

The impact of bilingualism on problem solving

Sebastian Kempert, Henrik Saalbach and Ilonca Hardy explored the cognitive benefits of bilingualism in primary school students, focusing on mathematical problem solving. The authors demonstrated that bilinguals with high fluency – that is, great ease in reading and expressing themselves with precision – were more likely to obtain superior performance in problem solving compared to bilinguals. monolinguals and bilinguals with low fluency.

Thus, the benefit of bilingualism on math skills is not generalized to all participants considered bilingual, but limited to those who have a good level of language proficiency.

These results are in line with other work emphasizing the importance of language skills in learning mathematics. This is particularly true when mathematical problems are extracted from a meaningful context, as in the statements of arithmetic problems.

Thus, emerging bilinguals, or allophone students (with a foreign mother tongue) with a low level in the language of schooling may encounter difficulties when confronted with mathematical problems.

The study by Sebastian Kempert and colleagues further highlights that bilingual students may encounter additional challenges when solving math problems due to the need to juggle multiple languages. While this can be a challenge, with regular practice the cognitive benefits seem to outweigh the costs, at least when it comes to solving math problems.

Another study by Mark Leikin, Esther Tovli and Anna Woldo explored the interaction between bilingualism, executive functions and creativity in problem solving, here in university students. The results showed that bilinguals whose skills between the two languages ​​were balanced performed better on creative thinking tests.

In the study by H. Lee Swanson, Genesis D. Arizmendi and Jui-Teng Li , it is the impact of working memory that is examined. Associated with executive functions, this plays a role in maintaining and processing information, making it possible in particular to link the elements of a statement to the knowledge and resolution strategies present in long-term memory.

Conducted among Spanish-speaking children living in an environment where American English is spoken, the study showed that increases in working memory capacity were significantly correlated with solving math problems in both spoken languages .

The question of bilingual education

Conceptions of what bilingual education is are quite varied depending on the approaches and the countries. This results in a lack of results and universal prescription in this area. According to Colin Baker, the conception of what bilingual education should be depends quite largely on the point of view, and at present the studies carried out in a given context may prove more or less relevant in another context. .

Ellen Bialystok has drawn up a synthesis, mainly oriented towards North American practices, and shows that the expression “bilingual education” is generic , corresponding to a multitude of particular circumstances. This term thus refers to any school program in which more than one language is used to teach non-linguistic academic subjects, or where the language of schooling does not correspond to the language of the home or community.

However, the explicit reasons for language integration, the specific languages ​​chosen, the structure of the curriculum, and the relationship between school languages ​​and the community vary widely and influence academic outcomes.

This nevertheless results in a distinction between “bilingual education”, aimed at promoting two languages ​​as teaching media for significant parts of the school system, and that intended to teach allophone students to read and write in their language. kindergarten, while developing this learning in the second language. For allophones, teaching content in their mother tongue would allow a gradual transition to the language of schooling over a period of several years.

In a study including students in kindergarten through second grade, Kathryn Lindholm-Leary evaluated 283 Hispanic students of low socioeconomic status (SES) in English or bilingual programs . Students entering English kindergarten programs had higher language scores than those entering bilingual programs, but these differences disappeared after one or two years and then reversed. Students in the dual language program then outperformed the English-only instruction group in both English and Spanish test scores at the end of second grade.

These results are consistent with a long-term beneficial effect of bilingual education, particularly on linguistic skills and literacy in both languages. In the meta-analysis by David J. Francis, Nonie Lesaux, and Diane August , it was found that bilingual education had a small to moderate positive effect on English reading achievement.

What then are the reasons that could explain better performance in mathematics of bilingual students? An explanation that Viorica Marian, Anthony Shook and Scott R. Schroeder propose to analyze the better mathematics results of children in bilingual programs is that the level of bilingualism achieved in these programs made it possible to train executive functions, whose effectiveness supports, among other things, performance in mathematics.

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Several studies on young students in the first school years have in fact highlighted a direct relationship between the executive abilities of students and results in mathematics and a large body of research has established that bilingualism promotes the development of executive functions in young people. children . It is important to note that the level of effectiveness of children’s executive functions is a predictor of academic success . Therefore, bilingual education can have a beneficial effect in that it promotes not only language practice, but also a crucial aspect of cognitive performance.

Research shows that the link between bilingualism and success in mathematical performance is not linear, and requires considering different factors, cognitive, linguistic, social and environmental, to name just a few. They also lead to the development of reflection in terms of educational policies, relating to the learning of mathematics on the one hand but also to the place of languages ​​in teaching and learning.

By analyzing Ellen Bialystok’s synthesis three possible results are identified regarding bilingual education:

  • no measurable difference between bilingual programs and standard programs;
  • a certain advantage in participating in a bilingual program;
  • difficulties for students in bilingual programs which lead to poorer results than those that would be obtained in traditional programs.

If the majority of studies seem to show a benefit from bilingual programs, the question arises of the evaluation of linguistic skills in a context where the mother tongues of children vary considerably. It therefore seems essential to develop studies, systematically integrating learners’ languages, to identify more precisely the benefits that regular language practice can bring to learning in general, and mathematics in particular.

Author Bio: Xavier Aparicio is University Professor of Cognitive Psychology at Paris-Est Créteil Val de Marne University (UPEC)