St. Olaf College | News

Students study mathematical learning from a linguistic perspective

St. Olaf College seniors James Lodovic (left) and Katherine Canon teamed up to research the role bilingualism plays in mathematical processing.

James Lodovic ’14 and Katherine Canon ’14 aren’t as interested in whether their research subjects know that “1+1=2” as they are in how quickly they can identify the accuracy of “1+ dos = three,” “five – 4 = one,” or “drei + 3 = 6.”

The two St. Olaf College students are using unique mathematical equations like these to study the role bilingualism plays in mathematical processing.

Though both Lodovic and Canon’s interests in linguistics stem from different academic backgrounds, independent undergraduate research allows them to pursue, for academic credit, a topic of interest that would otherwise fall outside their respective disciplines.

Lodovic and Canon have spent the semester soliciting bilingual St. Olaf students and Northfield community members to take part in a study that combines mathematics, psychology, and linguistics.

Participants are asked to look at math problems that may be written in the participants’ native language, the participants’ learned language (English), and/or mathematical symbols and then identify whether they are “true” or “false.” Lodovic and Canon record how quickly the participant can identify the accuracy of the problems in the varying languages, and then ask them to reflect on their thought process.

Lodovic and Canon have also sent out various forms of their tests and reflection questionnaires to bilingual speakers around the globe, utilizing St. Olaf and familial connections to reach a variety of ages and languages. Participants in the study have a wide range of native languages, including German, Chinese, Russian, Turkish, Spanish, Dutch, and Swedish.

“Many studies claim that people tend to think in their native languages, but math acts like a language all its own,” says Lodovic. “We want to know if this symbolic language interacts with native or learned languages at all, or if it acts completely on its own.”

The pair hypothesize that because their study utilizes elementary math problems and simple numbers, participants will revert to the language they learned those simple numbers in while processing the equations. Their preliminary studies thus far seem to support this hypothesis, but more analysis is needed.

The study could be especially useful for developing teaching strategies for a growing number of bilingual students in American classrooms.

“We know that there is research that shows that knowing two languages will help your entire pursuit of education,” Canon says. “But knowing how to properly engage a student to make full use of both languages is less understood at this point.”

An integrated pursuit
Lodovic was taking part in summer research opportunities at St. Olaf in psycholinguistics and cognition when he and Canon began casually reflecting on the nature of his research. Lodovic and Canon, whose interests lie in sociolinguistics, found immediate connections between their interest areas, and began to discuss ways in which they overlapped and could be expanded upon.

Canon, who studies Spanish and music, and Lodovic, a psychology and music major, bonded over this shared interest in linguistics. Both will graduate with a concentration in the subject, but they have each pursued the interdisciplinary concentration in different ways.

Lodovic’s coursework has focused primarily on psychological understandings of language and cognition, whereas Canon has been studying the discipline across the verbal and written forms of varying languages, focusing especially on bilingualism.

“James and Katherine each bring a different background and area of specialization that allows such an integrative project to work,” says St. Olaf Assistant Professor of Psychology Jeremy Loebach, who is supervising the students’ research.

“The interdisciplinary nature of the linguistics concentration has allowed them both to approach the discipline in their own ways, and then combine them to create a project that builds off of their combined knowledge.”