Speakers of Different Languages Employ Different Portions of the Brain to Do Arithmetic

On June 26, 2006, MSNBC reported that scientific research shows speakers of different languages engage different parts of their brains while doing even simple arithmetic:
WASHINGTON - Things add up differently for native English speakers, compared with people who learned Chinese as a first language.

Simple arithmetic was easily done by both groups, but they used different parts of the brain, a new study shows.

Researchers used brain imaging to see which parts of the brain were active while people did simple addition problems, such as 3 plus 4 equals 7. All participants were working with Arabic numerals, which are used in both cultures.

Both groups engaged a portion of the brain called the inferior parietal cortex, which is involved in quantity representation and reading.

But native English speakers also showed activity in a language processing area of the brain, while native Chinese speakers used a brain region involved in the processing of visual information, according to the report in Tuesday’s issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The difference “may mean that Chinese speakers perform problems in a different manner than do English speakers,” said lead author Yiyuan Tang of Dalian University of Technology in Dalian, China.

“In part that might represent the difference in language. It could be that the difference in language encourages different styles of computation and this may be enhanced by different methods of learning to deal with numbers,” Tang said in an interview via e-mail.

“We believe language plays a role in the calculation,” Tang said. But Tang added that cultural factors may also play a part, such as math learning strategies and school training.
We know nobody has cared to do such a research about Kannadiga brains and English brains, but we have reason to believe that the results won't be totally off. Anybody who has struggled to find the equivalent of "eshtane?" in English won't struggle too hard to get the point.

We Kannadigas are a different people. We speak a different language. We think differently. We look at the world differently. We can build a different world. We understand things differently. We analyze things differently. We have had different experiences in the past, which has shaped our composition differently.

Only, we aren't exercising our unique strengths because the part of the brain which needs to light up on the brain scanner for this realization to happen has suffered a few decades of disuse.

But yeah, we'll get there eventually. We're already lighting up that part of the brain, y'see? It's a different kind of "Hachchaevu Kannadada Deepa" - this time on a brain-scanner.

For the full news story, read: Chinese, English speakers do math differently


Anonymous said...

This is too deep man! I think in english & I speak Kannada in between english. If I could have understood maths better in my mother tongue then I would have been an engineer by now.

dandapinda said...

I had schooling in English but it is still convenient for me to do simple math in Kannada. 'eradu moorla aaru' is what I do rather than two three 'za' six.

But is this good or bad?? This research doesn't say anything about that.

Kannadiga said...

I see kids mugging 12 onza 12..12.. 12 two za. & feel very bad about it.
Maths is one thing which should not be mugged for christ sake.

Jockey said...


As long as you can tell 'eradu moorla' as 'aaru', or that 'two three za six' (it's really 'two threes are six') instead of 'elu' or 'seven', I don't think you have a problem :-)

Jokes apart, I think the article points out anthropological evidence that one's language plays an important role in learning. The research has to be applied to whole linguistic peoples instead of to particular individuals.

dandapinda said...


There is something called sarcasm: which is why I have written za within quotes. :)

How should a layman like me sum up this article? Gist has been understood but what next?

Harish said...

now that the brain mapping has been done & after agreeing what is best, we need to implement it. Do what is really beneficial.

Jai Veerupaksha said...

Just sharing my personal experience.Basically my education throughout has been in ICSE Board in another state and unfortunately for the same reason to an extent I'm handicapped in writing very well in Kannada. However here are some of my very recent experiences...

In one of the very complex IT implementations abroad(German speaking client)...I was leading one track from onsite and had Kannada speaking guys at offshore as my counterparts. I realised that I was most comfortable in dissecting and analysing Client requirmements best when we used to discuss in Kannada because somehow we were intuitively able to connect to a lot of known things without too much of effort. Also we were at our creative best when coming out with solutions to really complex problems as well. I also realised that somewhere the urge to speak even Business in my mother tongue subconsciously came to me when I could see that most of the meetings with the Business were in German and only the final summary would be in English.

Secondly,the project was an SAP implementation project. I observed that Germans had an edge in understanding Business processes modelled in SAP and in reading the logical code behind it like reading a novel because it is intuitively modelled along the lines of their language.The project really had a tremendous impact on me and I have realised that the language of education should always be the one where the native intelligence can be harnessed and enhanced...not just in a language that one markets as being Socially and economically mobile.

When I also look at my other elderly relatives ( previous generation) who were almost entirely education in Government Schools in Kannada medium, their ability to absorb new concepts or their practical understanding of various things was significantly better ( may be they were best able to present their knowledge in Kannada and not English)than us of the present generation. I fully acknowledge that administratively Kannada Schools need to significantly improve but just correlating English education to superior Knowledge acquistion without doing a thorough root cause analysis is wrong.

English is also required to may be get the thought processes on the other side of the world, but for true knowledge assimilation the primary language of education should always be in ones own mother tongue.I rest my case here.

Jockey said...


I think the next step is for interested folks to get together and repair Kannada textbooks. There's lots of crap in them which stems from translating English textbooks into Kannada. Are you interested?

dandapinda said...

@ Jai Veerupaksha,

Couldn't have said it better myself. Totally agree!

@ Jockey,

I am quite proficient in Kannada but not to a level of translating text books. Probably a LKG text book, yes, can try my hand. :)

Jockey said...

@ dandapinda,

Can you manage 1st standard? There aren't any L[U]KG textbooks, really.

Besides, the you may involve yourself in translating the "technical terms" alone. Forget sentences. Words only. Are you game?

Anyone else?

dandapinda said...

@ Jockey,

I can give it a shot and we can see how it works out later on.
But, shouldn't we be really careful as this is the stepping stone for a kid?

I can be reached at dandapindagalu@gmail.com

sandhya said...

@Jai Veerupaksha

You have brought so much hope into minds of all those people who are urging for atleast primary education to be given in mother tongue. Can you please write about this to some news papers who usually sport articles which make kannada seem to be some kind of threat. It may change minds of lots of people

Clangorous said...

@ Jockey,
I would love to be part of the repairy of Kannada Textbooks...

You can reach me at : clangorous@gmail.com

Jockey said...

@dandapinda, @Clangorous,

I'll contact you shortly.


We'll be a lot more careful than the paid professional ones have been. I'm sure of that.

Anonymous said...

Good article.

It would be very hard to translate this Kannada sentence
"ಧರಣಿಮಂಡಲ ಮಧ್ಯದೊಳಗೆ ಮರೆಯುತಿಹ ಕರ್ನಾಟದೇಶದೊಳು ಇರುವ ಕಾಳಿಂಗನೆಂಬ ಗೊಲ್ಲನ ಪರಿಯ ನಾನಿಂತು ಪೇಳ್ವೆನು."
This sentence has only around 10 words. If we try to translate this, we need a lot more words in English.

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