Many of us grow up thinking that we’re better suited to maths or languages, numbers or words. ‘Maths people’, the theory goes, are more analytical and introspective, whereas ‘language people’ are more creative and outgoing. The two realms are so different and inhabited by different people, it seems!
But is it really true? Are we really that different? Or is it all just an urban myth?
What the research says
If the two disciplines were really that different, we would expect study in one to have little or no effect on learning in the other. In fact, the opposite is true.
Numerous studies have shown that learning a second language benefits academic performance in a whole range of subjects – most notably in maths. In fact, even just one semester of learning a second language can result in increased standardized maths tests. Moreover, research by Hakuta and others indicates that “language learners show greater cognitive flexibility, better problem solving and higher order thinking skills.”
In terms of how learning maths (or how mathematical performance) can affect language learning, there is sadly a lack of data. However, it stands to reason that if skills are transferable at all, then it should be in principle a two-way street. This idea is borne out by SAT results. According to LiveScience.com, based on 2010 SAT data, out of 1.5 million test takers, only 159 students scored highly (700-800 points) in maths and poorly (200-300 points) in critical reading, or vice versa. That’s 0.01% of the student population!
In short, it seems that this idea of ‘maths people’ and ‘language people’ is a myth. Learning in one field is likely to bring positive results in the other.
What skills are transferable, then?
It is often said that mathematics is a language in and of itself. It has its own alphabet, vocabulary, and “grammar” rules. Whether it’s the memorisation of formulae, the interpretation of meaning through critical thinking, or simply the act of expressing meaning through a different medium, there are tons of transferable skills between maths and language learning.
For instance, formulae and grammar rules are extremely similar. In maths, we know that the area of a circle is found by following the formula πr2. Similarly, in the English language, we know that the second conditional is formed by following this formula:
If + subject + past simple, subject + would + infinitive
As expertly pointed out by FluentIn3Months.com founder Benny Lewis, we also use the same critical thinking skills in maths and languages to work out rules and meaning from previously unseen materials.
Why does the myth persist, then?
There can be no doubt that some people dislike a subject because of how they were taught in school. Countless people turn to languages only when they are older, perhaps as a result of their classroom experiences. And while fewer people might turn to maths as adults, many educators are concerned that the way maths is taught is the root cause for the high levels of students’ displeasure as well as the low levels of performance.
Another possible answer may relate to personality type. Maths is more of an individual pursuit than are languages. Although reading, writing, listening, speaking, grammar, and vocabulary acquisition can all be done alone, the beating heart of a language is face-to-face communication. Simply put, some people are more introverted, and others are more extroverted. This may affect their desire to study maths or languages – but certainly not their ability.
The myth of ‘maths people’ and ‘language people’ may persist, but the transferable skills learned in one will boost performance in the other. Stacks of statistics back this up – and those numbers really ought to be the final word!