Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The role of language in mathematical development: Evidence from children with specific language impairments

Although language and mathematics are distinct skills, some studies suggest that these two cognitive processes are related. One view suggests that language plays a bootstrapping role in numerical cognition, in which development of number concepts is dependent on number-related language experience1. An alternate view proposes that number concept development is independent of number word knowledge2. Children with specific language impairment (SLI) have impairments in receptive and expressive language but have non-verbal cognitive abilities within the average range. By studying numerical cognition in children with SLI, the present study aims to examine whether language impairments contribute to difficulty in mathematical cognition. Specifically, the paper differentiates between procedural mathematical knowledge (counting and basic calculations) and conceptual mathematical knowledge (understanding of place value and arithmetic principles) to examine the relative contributions of language and non-verbal abilities to these aspects of numerical cognition.
The present study examined three groups of children: children with SLI, typically developing children matched to the SLI group based on age, and typically developing children matched to the SLI group based on language comprehension. These participants all completed the following tasks: counting aloud, simple calculations, multi-digit magnitude comparison, and arithmetic problems using unfamiliar symbols. The counting and calculations tasks were categorized as procedural tasks, while the magnitude comparison and arithmetic problems tasks were categorized as conceptual as they were designed to measure understanding of place value principles and arithmetic principles.
Results demonstrated that on the counting and calculation tasks, the SLI group performed similarly to the language controls and more poorly than the age controls. On the magnitude comparison tasks, the age controls outperformed the SLI group and the SLI group outperformed the language controls. On the arithmetic principles task, the SLI and age controls performed similarly and both outperformed the language controls. Counting skills were a significant predictor of calculation and magnitude comparison performance. These findings suggest that the children with SLI are able to achieve conceptual understanding of mathematical principles, but that their language weaknesses may contribute to difficulty developing procedural mathematical skills. The authors suggest that conceptual understanding of arithmetic may be supported by a system separate from language but that language may support learning of the counting sequence, which, in turn, supports understanding of calculation and number notation.

1. Carey, S. (2004). Bootstrapping and the origin of concepts. Daedalus, 133, 59–68.
2. Gelman, R., & Butterworth, B. (2005). Number and language: How are they related? Trends in Cognitive Sciences 9, 6–10.

Blogger: Alex Cross is completing a combined MClSc and PhD in speech language pathology. Her work focusing on reading will be part of both the Language and Working Memory and the Language, Reading, and Cognitive Neuroscience labs.

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