Chinese, English Speakers Vary At Math

AP, June 28, 2006

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.

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Richard E. Nisbett, co-director of the Culture and Cognition Program at the University of Michigan, said “the work is important because it tells us something about the particular pathways in the brain that underlie some of the differences between Asians and Westerners in thought patterns.”

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“They literally are seeing the world differently,” he said.

The new work extends his findings, Nisbett said, “in that it indicates that the reasoning differences that we find between Asians and Westerners are really quite deep.”

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