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UTSA researcher to study how bilingual children process math

Bilingual Math

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(June 16, 2015) -- UTSA’s Nicole Wicha has just received a grant from the National Institute of Health to study how the brains of bilingual children process math. Wicha, a professor of cognitive neuroscience, has previously studied at length the links between brain activity and language. Now, she will study how the brain processes mathematics in bilingual third to fifth graders here in San Antonio as they learn their multiplication tables. She hopes to uncover how the brain links math and language.

“Multiplication tables are building blocks to larger equations. Recent research has shown that children who develop an effective strategy to recall multiplication tables from memory do better in math through high school,” Wicha said. “We are asking, ‘What happens when bilingual children need to access this information from memory? Does having two languages affect how efficient they are at recalling these critical building blocks for math?’”

Her research involves children who speak both English and Spanish. While wearing electrodes on their head that monitor their brain activity, the children will see a multiplication problem and press a button to indicate whether the answer is correct or incorrect. The results will be compared to those of monolingual children to show how a bilingual brain processes math.

“It’s possible that a bilingual child could have a harder time recalling math concepts compared to their monolingual peers,” Wicha said.

The test will also show how quickly a bilingual child is able to respond to the math problem in English and Spanish. Ultimately, Wicha said, her research could affect how bilingual children are educated.

“Almost 20 percent of the U.S. population speaks a language other than English when they begin schooling,” she said. “How does this affect the ability to succeed academically? Our education system is based on how to teach the monolingual child. Our basic science research may inform future education research to develop the best teaching practices for all children.”

Wicha is now in the planning stages of her research, working with school districts to find students to test and acquiring a mobile EEG scanner to record brain activity in a school setting.

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