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Chinese and English speakers process numbers differently.

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Numbers on the Brain

Brain scans have shown that speakers of English and Chinese process language somewhat differently. Now a new study has extended this finding, showing that English and Chinese speakers also process numbers differently--even though they use the same Arabic symbols. The authors believe it is not just language but mode of language learning that makes the difference.

When reading, Chinese speakers tend to rely on visual-spatial brain areas, while English speakers rely more on language-related brain areas. To see whether the same applied to number processing, a U.S.-Chinese research team led by Yiyuan Tang of Dalian University of Technology in China compared 12 native English speakers living in Dalian with 12 local university students. The subjects, all in their 20s, were equally divided by sex, and their brains were scanned while they performed simple tasks. One involved looking at three meaningless symbols and judging the spatial orientation of the third in relation to the first two. This task, which activated both visual and language pathways, elicited no differences between the two language groups.

But when this task was repeated with numbers rather than symbols, "remarkable differences" emerged, the authors report online this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. There was more activation in the language areas for the English speakers, and much more in the visual-spatial areas for the Chinese speakers. The differences were more pronounced in two other tasks that required arithmetic and comparing numerical values.

The authors speculate that it's not only language that shapes the different approach to numbers but also the methods used to learn language. For example, children rely heavily on visual copying to learn Chinese, but English speakers rely more on sounds. The Chinese use of abacuses also makes arithmetic more visual, the authors note.

The study contributes to the "surprising conclusion that culture ... shapes brain-behavior relations," says Charles Perfetti of the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, who has found that American students to some extent recruit "Chinese" brain areas when they study Chinese.

And cognitive scientist Michael Posner of the University of Oregon thinks the study could contain a message relevant to the teaching of math. Could a different strategy for processing numbers help explain why Chinese students seem to do better at math than English-speaking students do? "It could very well be," he says.