Bilingualism, Math, and the Brain

Published by patrick honner on

This is a short summary of recent research into how bilingualism strengthens the brain.

The details are a bit fuzzy, as is always the case in social science, but these results would not surprise me.  In fact, it’s surprising to me that people ever thought bilingualism would be a hindrance to cognitive function, as opposed to an aid.

I think about bilingualism often as a math teacher.  I try to consistently preach mathematical bilingualism, imploring students to train themselves to see problems both algebraically and geometrically.  Being able to see a situation in two (or more) ways not only creates great flexibility in problem solving, but it strengthens the overall inter-connections between mathematical ideas.

It seems only natural to me that traditional bilingualism would do the same.  Not only does it offer multiple filters for processing the world, but the development and maintenance of the cognitive systems is a real intellectual workout.

Categories: Teaching

patrick honner

Math teacher in Brooklyn, New York


chrisharrow · March 27, 2012 at 4:30 am

Even better, sometimes being able to translate a problem from one mathematical perspective into another (numeric, algebraic, geometric) reveals solutions or properties that weren’t at all obvious in the original perspective. Mathematical bilingualism (or trilingualism) is critical!

MrHonner · March 27, 2012 at 6:43 am

Excellent point. On the flipside of that, being able to re-cast a problem in a different perspective can often eliminate what’s extraneous and emphasize the true nature of the situation.

Marissa Masden · July 10, 2012 at 12:56 am

It has always been second nature for me to turn algebra problems into geometry ones, and vice versa. It wasn’t until this year (when I became a math tutor) that I realized that many people aren’t being taught to do so. Such an important skill!

MrHonner · July 11, 2012 at 3:27 pm

Curricular structure can be a culprit here: if a course is called “Geometry” and only minimally emphasizes algebraic interpretations and techniques, teachers may be uncomfortable (or essentially prevented) from doing too much “off task”.

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