Research Article: The role of early language abilities on math skills among Chinese children

Date Published: July 27, 2017

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Juan Zhang, Xitao Fan, Sum Kwing Cheung, Yaxuan Meng, Zhihui Cai, Bi Ying Hu, Mitchell Rabinowitz.


The present study investigated the role of early language abilities in the development of math skills among Chinese K-3 students. About 2000 children in China, who were on average aged 6 years, were assessed for both informal math (e.g., basic number concepts such as counting objects) and formal math (calculations including addition and subtraction) skills, language abilities and nonverbal intelligence.

Correlation analysis showed that language abilities were more strongly associated with informal than formal math skills, and regression analyses revealed that children’s language abilities could uniquely predict both informal and formal math skills with age, gender, and nonverbal intelligence controlled. Mediation analyses demonstrated that the relationship between children’s language abilities and formal math skills was partially mediated by informal math skills.

The current findings indicate 1) Children’s language abilities are of strong predictive values for both informal and formal math skills; 2) Language abilities impacts formal math skills partially through the mediation of informal math skills.

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Recently, increasing attention has been drawn to the development of early mathematical skills due to its importance on academic achievements and future occupational preparation. Based on previous studies, early mathematical skills are not only associated with later mathematical abilities, but also predictive of other academic aspects such as reading abilities [1, 2]. In addition, those who are functionally innumerate or suffering from dyscalculia, have more difficulties and obstacles in job hunting [3, 4]. As the poor performance in mathematics in early age can persistently hinder the academic development at school and influence the employment prospect in adulthood [3], it is important to understand the factors that may influence the development of mathematics from the early years.

The study generated two main findings. First, language abilities were important for developing math skills in Chinese-speaking children. Specifically, language abilities were able to significantly predict both informal and formal math skills. Furthermore, language abilities were linked differently to different math skills, being more closely associated with informal math than with formal math. Second, the association between language abilities and formal math skills was partially mediated by informal math skills. There could be several possible explanations for the first finding. First, given that math is a special kind of language [16], the process of acquiring informal math skills shares some level of similarity with that of language skills [53]. To build up vocabulary, young children connect words to objects, events and concepts. When they come to acquire number words, they have to understand that each number word represents a certain amount of quantities and with richer vocabulary, young children might practice more and performance better [53]. Second, young children’s general language abilities can support their understanding of the meaning of terminologies involved in informal math, such as “larger”, “smaller”, “more”, “less”, “equal to”, “ascending” and “descending” [53]. Thirdly, given that linguistic transparency of the Chinese numeration system may facilitate the learning of place value [54], young children with better Chinese language abilities might have better mastery of counting and number sequences.

Though further work is required to obtain a more comprehensive understanding of the developmental precursors of math skills of children from different linguistic backgrounds, the present study has provided a good start for untangling the relations among language, informal math, and formal math skills among young children speaking Chinese, which is non-alphabetic and semantically transparent. As shown in the present study, language abilities seem to have a closer connection with informal than formal math skills. Moreover, language abilities have both direct and indirect influences on formal math skills. These findings are believed to provide important insights on ways to promote young children’s different types of math skills.