Natural math versus foreign language aptitude

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drewster1829
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Natural math versus foreign language aptitude

Postby drewster1829 » Sun Jun 28, 2009 4:45 pm UTC

I searched for the forums and couldn't find a similar thread. If this doesn't belong in the math forum, feel free to move it.

I've met numerous people who have a difficult time learning math, even with good teachers, about the point of basic algebra or so, but have a natural intuition when it comes to foreign languages. The most recent person I'm thinking of learned Spanish and Russian to a level of near-fluency by spending time around people (in the United States) who spoke these languages where he worked. He has never taken a formal foreign language class, but he admits to having a very difficult time learning math...it's takes him a lot of time to learn and apply new concepts in algebra.

I have the opposite situation...for me, math comes very naturally, whether it's applied computation or more abstract concepts involving the systems themselves. I'm a junior at Eastern Washington University after dropping out 7 years ago, and I've decided to major in math because it comes so easy to me and because I love it. Foreign language, on the other hand, was very non-intuitive for me. I took a little bit of Spanish in high school, and then Japanese when I went to college before, but I had a very difficult time. It just doesn't come naturally.

I've thought about reasons for this, and for me, things have to make logical sense. I'm very analytical, and I'm a visual learner. I can remember a picture way better than I can remember a lecture. I have excellent spatial reasoning and analytical abilities, but my language abilities are mediocre (even in English).

I'm wondering if ease of learning math and ease of learning foreign language are mutually exclusive, for the most part. I'm not saying that it can't be done, I'm just asking if there are a lot of people that I haven't met who have an easy time learning both.

Does language use a different part of the brain than math? Even though both are using symbols to represent meaning, language is primarily phonetic, and we learn it from a young age and we learn to speak before we learn to write, while math, for me anyway, is more visual and abstract. Can anyone here think of examples of people who easily excel at both learning a new language and learning math? Thanks for your responses!
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Re: Natural math versus foreign language aptitude

Postby Mathmagic » Sun Jun 28, 2009 5:04 pm UTC

I'd say the same thing applies to me as well. I took French through elementary/junior high/high school (being in Canada), and currently my girlfriend is teaching me Spanish. I wouldn't say I can "speak" French (or Spanish; not yet anyway), but I knew enough vocab and verb/conjugation rules to string together a sentence or two, but never got to a conversational level.

Math (and Physics) on the other hand, came very naturally to me, and things just made sense. I can extrapolate concepts and apply them in more advanced ways than we were learning in classes, and I just had an intuition for the techniques and methods used to solve problems.

I find that when learning Spanish, I'll ask a lot of questions like "Why is $word pronounced that way?" or "Is there a general rule for $word.type ?" I wanted to try to develop a math-like system for the Spanish language, and I find that such a system just isn't possible, at least not one that is satisfactory to my desires. I couldn't handle the answer "Because that's the way it is" or "No, there really isn't a general rule". To me, things needed a reason for being a certain way, and I find that language systems don't have the kind of structure/rules that cater to my learning.
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Re: Natural math versus foreign language aptitude

Postby stephentyrone » Sun Jun 28, 2009 5:25 pm UTC

drewster1829 wrote:Can anyone here think of examples of people who easily excel at both learning a new language and learning math? Thanks for your responses!


I'm a professional mathematician. I speak fluent English, French and German, and I'm working on my Chinese. I know some other mathematicians who are amazingly good with languages (far better than me), and some who can barely write fluently in their native language. I think the distribution is about the same as it is in the general population, honestly.
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Re: Natural math versus foreign language aptitude

Postby gmalivuk » Sun Jun 28, 2009 5:34 pm UTC

I agree with stephentyrone on this. I majored in math (and philosophy), and if I'd had time for one more I'd have added linguistics. I'm more or less fluent in Spanish, studied both Russian and Sanskrit a bit without any problems (though not long enough to become fluent in either), and can get by somewhat passably in Portuguese just from what I've picked up from the Brazilian students I teach English to.

Language is made of (what I find to be) pretty intuitive patterns, and figuring out what those are in the new language you want to speak gets you a long way toward being able to learn it relatively easily.
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Re: Natural math versus foreign language aptitude

Postby Something Awesome » Sun Jun 28, 2009 6:05 pm UTC

I've always felt that my aptitude in mathematics has aided and driven my interest in things like language and games. For me, they're all a matter of comprehending the general framework (math: axioms and logic, language: grammar, games: rules) and then the rest are just details that follow (math: theorems and proofs, language: vocabulary and synthesizing complete sentences, games: strategy). Like gmalivuk, to me it's all about recognizing patterns that make sense to me intuitively.

I just wish I had more time and the opportunity to learn more languages, since my French is getting rusty and my Russian was limited to a single semester. I'd love to pick up a bit of German and Italian too.

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Re: Natural math versus foreign language aptitude

Postby drewster1829 » Sun Jun 28, 2009 10:08 pm UTC

Thank you for blowing my stereotypical view out of the water! I knew they must be related, and maybe it was just a sample bias to help support my view that the two abilities were mutually exclusive, but I honestly can't recall meeting people who had both abilities before now. Perhaps they are independent things...
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Re: Natural math versus foreign language aptitude

Postby Quenouille » Mon Jun 29, 2009 5:27 am UTC

It's weird, I've always felt that music, writing and math used the same brain area. When I write an essay I usually see each paragraph or sentence as having their own rhythm, color and geometrical spacing, and each (written) language has their own. I became interested in math because I thought I recognized this in it. I'm french, fluent in english and learning spanish over the summer.

Also, I think Gauss was said to pick-up foreign languages with extreme ease.

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Re: Natural math versus foreign language aptitude

Postby Secateurs » Mon Jun 29, 2009 10:41 am UTC

I'd say I'm pretty reasonable with maths (not as good as some of the people here, but one of the top in my school) but I've found learning Italian pretty easy. I used to learn French too, but I ran out of time to do it =/ I still wish I had time to try and pick up Japanese/Spanish/German.

On the other hand, I find it extremely diffifcult to analyse something in literature, I cannot do creative writing, and I'm pretty bad at history too. I've always attributed it to the fact that I'm good at rote memorisation, which helps me A LOT in chem/maths/Italian, but is useless when you need to write essays on the spot... however, I've been finding more often that it seems to just be an intuitive thing for me - as someone said before, I can somehow predict what happens based on what I already know in those subjects (patterns!).
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Re: Natural math versus foreign language aptitude

Postby Talith » Mon Jun 29, 2009 12:55 pm UTC

Secateurs wrote:I'd say I'm pretty reasonable with maths (not as good as some of the people here, but one of the top in my school) but I've found learning Italian pretty easy. I used to learn French too, but I ran out of time to do it =/ I still wish I had time to try and pick up Japanese/Spanish/German.

On the other hand, I find it extremely diffifcult to analyse something in literature, I cannot do creative writing, and I'm pretty bad at history too. I've always attributed it to the fact that I'm good at rote memorisation, which helps me A LOT in chem/maths/Italian, but is useless when you need to write essays on the spot... however, I've been finding more often that it seems to just be an intuitive thing for me - as someone said before, I can somehow predict what happens based on what I already know in those subjects (patterns!).


I would argue that the values needed to critically analyse literature, write a creative essay or form creative ideas as a piece of writing are the values needed in university level maths and that the rote memorisation that you might think helps with learning maths at the moment won't be nearly as important to understanding maths if you ever take it at this level. I'm not insulting you by any means (if that's what you thought I was doing), rather i'm pointing a flaw in the teaching of mathematics.

I personally find it fairly difficult to learn languages and am certainly in awe of those that find it easy to move to a foreign country for 2 years and come back speaking their language fluently, I learned french and german at school and was only able to pass those subjects by memorizing large chuncks of writing to use in exams (in essays I definitely over used my dictionary) because it wasn't intuitive to me why certain rules were used (much as Mathmagic said) and when i tried to form a set of rules it was never something i liked as I do in maths (I'd compare it to the difference between a nasty piecewise function and a nice continuous function).

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Re: Natural math versus foreign language aptitude

Postby Ended » Mon Jun 29, 2009 8:18 pm UTC

I'm good with maths and bad with foreign languages (although I'm fine with English, English literature analysis and so on). Part of why I'm not good at learning languages is that I'm a perfectionist, so I dislike conversation practice (in which I invariably make a lot more mistakes than with written stuff because of the impromptu element of conversation). As far as I know it is very hard to gain fluency in a modern language without oral practice, so this is a stumbling block for me.
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Re: Natural math versus foreign language aptitude

Postby Bassoon » Wed Jul 01, 2009 1:38 am UTC

I think I'm in the same boat, or so. I've tried to learn numerous languages, but it never really sticks. I can learn words and everything, but then it comes the grammar applications, I completely fail. It's really weird, considering all of it is pretty much memorizing conjugations and their applications. I'm really good at memorizing stuff, but for some reason, language doesn't really stick in my mind. Conversely, I'm great at English grammar and whatnot. Weird.

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Re: Natural math versus foreign language aptitude

Postby poxic » Wed Jul 01, 2009 2:16 am UTC

Someone once told me that music, math, and language ability tend to come as a package. I have all three facilities (if not actual abilities, since practise does matter). I have friends who can do math and music but not language. My father and one brother can do math, but suck at music and languages. My mother seems to suck at all three. (I'm adopted. :wink: )

I would be interested in a formal study about this, though we'd have a hard time defining what it means to be "good at" a particular subject. Simply being able to speak a second or nth language doesn't matter as much as how quickly and well it is learned after childhood, I'd guess.

I also knew someone who was passable at music (no dexterity, so he took up trombone), good at a second language because he went to an immersion school, and good at math because he liked it and stuck with it. He was convinced he was slower to pick up on it than other students, though he had certainly learned it well by the time I met him. (He helped me did all the work for me when I was trying to derive a present-value equation for an application at work.) I have no idea if that means he was naturally good at those things, or if interest (i.e., willingness to work hard) in a subject is really what matters.
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Re: Natural math versus foreign language aptitude

Postby vector » Wed Jul 01, 2009 3:31 am UTC

I'm strong in the abstract part of mathematics, but can't handle applications for beans (consistently scraped the B/C border in high school, and then went to college and started getting A+ grades). I also do music decently well, but had a lot of problems with violin and piano because 1. my hands seem to have stopped growing after elementary school and 2. my tendons are generally far too stiff/short. I speak a few languages fluently, and have managed to pick up bits and pieces of some others (the multilingual abilities are partially because I've been in programs since I was five). Interestingly enough, "language abilities" do not seem to equal "communication abilities;" I find it extremely difficult to explain my thought processes, even if I can provide a reasoned argument and read novels in the target language.

If we're going to get into genetics, my father is completely tone deaf, with decent language and math ability. My mother is okay with all three, but not great (never got past trigonometry due to some absolutely horrific teachers and that sort of thing). The cluster doesn't really show up in my many aunts, uncles, and cousins, either... current suspicion is that I'm a throwback to my grandfathers, one of whom was a mathematician (though not professional) and the other of whom held a PhD in linguistics.

In any case, I'd be interested in any kind of study, either formal or informal. I think there have been multiple studies about the math-music connection being positively correlated, but I've never heard anything about linguistic acumen being related as well. My suspicion is that it would be unrelated, save under an umbrella "logical abstraction" tendency.
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Re: Natural math versus foreign language aptitude

Postby Secateurs » Wed Jul 01, 2009 12:23 pm UTC

Talith wrote:
Secateurs wrote:I'd say I'm pretty reasonable with maths (not as good as some of the people here, but one of the top in my school) but I've found learning Italian pretty easy. I used to learn French too, but I ran out of time to do it =/ I still wish I had time to try and pick up Japanese/Spanish/German.

On the other hand, I find it extremely diffifcult to analyse something in literature, I cannot do creative writing, and I'm pretty bad at history too. I've always attributed it to the fact that I'm good at rote memorisation, which helps me A LOT in chem/maths/Italian, but is useless when you need to write essays on the spot... however, I've been finding more often that it seems to just be an intuitive thing for me - as someone said before, I can somehow predict what happens based on what I already know in those subjects (patterns!).


I would argue that the values needed to critically analyse literature, write a creative essay or form creative ideas as a piece of writing are the values needed in university level maths and that the rote memorisation that you might think helps with learning maths at the moment won't be nearly as important to understanding maths if you ever take it at this level. I'm not insulting you by any means (if that's what you thought I was doing), rather i'm pointing a flaw in the teaching of mathematics.

No, don't worry - I know and understand this. But I'm beginning to develop those kinds of things, and learning to rely less and less on memorising formulas/rules.
My lit marks still aren't where I'd like them to be, though =/
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