Language makes all the difference to understanding number concepts, researchers find. Jill Tunstall reports
Children who are taught maths in the Welsh language learn quicker and have better number recognition even if it is not their first language, according to new research. A study by Oxford university psychology researchers discovered children in Wales who are taught maths in Welsh have the advantage of a more logical counting system.
The benefits are the same for all children taught in Welsh, regardless of their mother tongue, and are in common with children from Pacific Rim countries whose number systems are also regular, the research reveals.
The crux, the survey discovered, was that Welsh numbers above 10 are more obvious. Whereas "11" is simply a word in English, "un deg un" - one 10 one - explains exactly what the number is made up of.
Professor Ann Dowker, a psychology research lecturer, and Delyth Lloyd, a postgraduate researcher, studied three state primary schools in south Wales.
One was a Welsh-medium school in a predominantly Welsh-speaking valley, the second a Welsh-medium school in an English-speaking area, and a third an English-medium school in an English-speaking area.
The results of the study are published this week in the journal Trafodion Addysg (Education Transactions).
The principal finding was that, although calculation skills were similar, the children taught in Welsh "find it easier than English-speaking children to read and compare two-digit numbers".
Because of this, they made fewer errors when confronted with misleading numbers. For example, they were able to distinguish that 51 is bigger than 47 even though the latter contains a bigger digit. And they understood reversible numbers such as 76 and 67.
"The simplicity of the number-naming process in Welsh, as in Korean, may encourage easier acquisition and earlier competence, leading to better test performances," the report concludes.
"We were inspired by the fact that work had been done which shows that Chinese children do better in maths than others. And they have a regular counting system where 11 is 10 and one, 12 is 10 and two, and so on," said Professor Dowker.
Delyth Lloyd's Welsh roots drew the researchers closer to home, and they followed Welsh children between the ages of six and eight with similar mathematical ability.
"It appears that there is an advantage for children speaking Welsh in learning some skills, even if Welsh is not the child's first language,"
said Professor Dowker. "This is particularly interesting because you might expect children to be disadvantaged dealing with numbers in a second language."
Gruff Hughes, general secretary of UCAC, the Welsh-medium teachers union, said: "I hope that people don't think that it's 'alright for Welsh children' because it's easier for them to learn to count. There is always a need for more resources in this area.
"But I know my grandson, who is three-and-a-half and whose mother speaks to him in English while his father talks to him in Welsh, finds it easier to count in Welsh."
And Professor Ian Williams, professor of physics at Queen's university Belfast, who was taught maths in Welsh at Ysgol Gynradd Groeslon, Caernarfon, credits the interesting structure of Welsh numbers, which include complex small numbers and multiples, with his choice of career.
"My experience was that I found the concepts very straightforward. This background, which may well have been aided by my Welsh heritage, has led to my lifetime love of mathematics and to a career as a physicist," he said.
* Around 12 per cent of all primary school pupils in Wales take key stage 2 maths assessments in Welsh.
* The first O-level maths in Welsh was taken in 1975.
* Maths is the most popular GCSE subject taken through the medium of Welsh, except for Welsh itself.