When It Comes to Numbers, Words Count

Despite using the same numerals in computing, English and Chinese speakers displayed different brain activities in processing them, according to a new study conducted by a China-US research team.


This supports the idea that culture plays an important role in processing numbers, say scientists.


Researchers compared 12 native English speakers living in China and 12 local Chinese, all in their 20s and equally divided by sex during four sessions between 2002 and 2004.


They were first shown three symbols and told to judge the spatial orientation of the third in relation to the first two.


For example, the participants might have been shown symbols of an erect scythe and a cleaver and asked to figure out the visual orientation of a tilted knife in relation to the first two.


"No difference of brain activity was found between the two language groups," said Tang Yiyuan, the lead author of the report, which was published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a US science journal.


When scientists replaced symbols with Arabic numbers, however, significant differences emerged.


Brain scans showed that while Chinese still relied on a region of their brains involved in visual information processing, English speakers largely employed their language-related brain areas.


To confirm the finding, Tang, a neuroscientist at Dalian University of Technology, and his team performed two more tests. The differences were even more appreciable when participants were asked to perform simple addition and compare numerical values.


"These results raised an interesting question," said Tang, who also works for the State Key-Lab for Brain and Cognitive Science, Chinese Academy of Sciences.


"Is it a basic cultural difference or perhaps a difference in language processing, since Chinese characters are a more visual form than alphabetic words, that led to such differences?"


Cognitive scientist Michael Posner, who evaluated the report, said in a written reply to China Daily that the difference in language could have encouraged different styles of computation.


"But cultural factors such as math learning strategies taught and trained in school as well as educational system may also contribute to the differences," added Posner, who teaches at University of Oregon.


Another co-author, Eric Reiman of the Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona, suggested that the use of the abacus in many Asian schools may encourage the brains of students in the region to think spatially and visually about numbers, according to New Scientist.


Nonetheless, all the scientists insisted that the research results do not conclusively prove which is more effective in doing maths.


And they emphasize that the difference in brain activity does not lead to an answer to the question "which brain is smarter in maths, English or Chinese?"


Liu Yijun, an associate professor of University of Florida McKnight Brain Institute who was also in the research team, said US educators have long noticed that Asian students perform better in maths than their Western counterparts.


"But this may be a result of a combination of factors including genetic difference, family education and personal effort. Our findings may provide a direction for primary education," he said.


The neuroscientist suggests his team members conduct similar research among Chinese children adopted by US families. "They are native Chinese speakers but are educated in the Western way. There might be more interesting discoveries," he said.


Posner added that the discovery may help scientists adopt different strategies of working with numbers.


"It could well turn out that certain strategies may be optimal even when used with a different type of language," he said.


This way, educators in different language groups may work out the best method to help young students improve their ability to solve maths problems.


(China Daily June 30, 2006)