Maths anxiety and the cognitive benefits of language learning

by Dr Maria Pampaka, Professor Bencie Woll FBA and Professor Li Wei

31 May 2016


The British Academy has recently launched two Special Research Projects on areas of particular interest and relevance to its ongoing work on Languages and Quantitative Skills (L&QS): The Cognitive Benefits of Language Learning and Maths Anxiety. The aim of the projects is to provide an overview of existing research, analyse its implications for policy and practice, and identify potential interventions and gaps in our knowledge.

We asked each project lead to explain the issue, why it’s important and timely and how the two projects are interlinked.

Unsettling understandings of maths anxiety: A critical synthesis to inform policy and practice

Dr Maria Pampaka, University of Manchester (lead), University of Edinburgh, Loughborough University, Julian Williams, University of Manchester, Jackie Carter, The University of Manchester, Kevin Woods, The University of Manchester, Paul Hernandez-Martinez, Loughborough University, and Kevin Ralston, University of Edinburgh.

What’s the issue with maths anxiety?

Mathematics anxiety has been the focus of various research studies in various disciplines. Most frequently this has been undertaken in the domains of (mathematics) education and psychology, along other emerging fields. The concept of math anxiety has been in use for about 30 years; despite this there remains no clear consensus and work is spread across the different research communities. In this project we thus aim to bring together and critically review literature from various fields in a multi-layered synthesis of available evidence in order to better inform future research agendas but also policy and practice.

Why is this work important and timely?

Having numerate citizens who are confident with numbers is important as quantitative skills and mathematics play an increasingly crucial role, not only at school and university but also in participation in wider society, on student access to students’ educational and socioeconomic life opportunities. This has hitherto been reflected in status associated with Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (known as STEM), but now recognised as important for various aspects of citizens’ life and participation (e.g. as set out in the Academy’s Count Us In report[i]). ACME[ii] had also previously recognised this important issue and advocated ‘tackling the perceptions of mathematics’ as a particularly important issue in the current economic climate, placing emphasis on the importance of mathematics as a ‘powerful analytical tool’, with inherent ‘pervasiveness’ and a ‘key workforce skill’.

Beyond the traditional and ongoing need for maths/numeracy skills in life and in careers like engineering as mentioned above, the topic is especially timely with the increasing focus on data and the analysis and management of data (underscored by mathematical models, routines and algorithms) generated by the growth of digital technology and the internet. This is also related to the rise of data science and importance of maths in this new field.

What links are there with the issue of the cognitive benefits of language learning?

We see five interrelated links:

1. The issue of language acquisition and skills has been occasionally associated with mathematics competence, especially in domains where language plays an important role, such as problem solving or solving word problems (or even problem solving).
2. There is a literature on language anxiety, which parallels maths anxiety.
3. There is a relationship to be explored between maths anxiety, general anxiety, school anxiety and test anxiety, and it is also envisaged that there will be links to be explored within the reviews of the two projects
4. Approaches based on models of language anxiety have been used as the basis of approaches to modelling statistical anxiety – so there is the direct crossover from language anxiety models.
5. There is a school of thought that maths should be taught as a language.

The Cognitive Benefits of Language Learning

Professor Bencie Woll FBA, University College London: Deafness, Cognition and Language (DCAL) Research Centre, and Professor Li Wei, University College London: Institute of Education.

What’s the issue with the cognitive benefits of language learning?

There is a lack of definitive research on the socio-economic and cognitive benefits of language learning. This project will identify what is known and set the agenda for future research in this area. Existing research on the relationship between bilingualism, executive function, literacy, and health will be collated and combined with systematic reviews, analysis and syntheses of such areas as creativity, and social and affective cognition, in relation to language learning and bilingualism in signed as well as spoken languages, linking bi/multilingualism and language learning with broader perspectives on cognition including intercultural understanding. We intend for our research to contribute to small body of literature and evidence, help form a broad picture of the what the benefits are, and positively influence policy change.

Why is it important and timely?

This Special Research Project is part of the British Academy’s initiative to deepen awareness and demonstrate the importance of languages. By having a strong and clear picture of the cognitive benefits across the lifespan, we can offer evidence-based research to support public and societal understanding of the importance of language learning in relation to broader cultural, community, educational, and workforce benefits, including modern and community language education, language skills, employment/ ability, community cohesion, and public policy. We will also explore cross-curriculum and cross-societal benefits to individuals and various SEC groups.

Uptake of modern languages learning in the UK has seen a decline, accompanied by the effect of current economic trends leading to a decline in modern language education funding. As well as the languages gap identified by employers and the government, there is emerging evidence of the range of benefits of language learning, paralleling the findings for the lifetime cognitive benefits of bilingualism (for example, there is evidence that the onset of dementia is delayed by approximately six years in bilinguals). Preliminary literature searches by the project also suggest that in areas with migrant communities, language education can lead to greater cohesion, integration, and cultural understanding.

What links are there with the issue of maths anxiety?

There are two clear links to the associated British Academy Mathematics project. Anxiety about mathematics and individuals’ beliefs that maths is too difficult for them parallel many of the views put forward by those with anxieties about language learning. Additionally, mathematics learning may also provide broader cognitive benefits, for example in relation to problem-solving.


[ii] ACME. (2009). The Mathematics Education Landscape in 2009. A report of the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME) for the DCSF/DIUS STEM High Level Strategy Group Meeting (12 June 2009) retrieved from [March, 2010].

Dr Maria Pampaka, Principal Investigator, Unsettling Understandings of Maths Anxiety, currently holds a joint position, as a Lecturer at the Institute of Education and the Social Statistics group, at the University of Manchester, UK. She is substantially interested in the association between teaching practices and students’ learning outcomes, focused in STEM related subjects. Methodologically, her expertise and interests lie within evaluation and measurement, and advanced quantitative methods, including complex survey design, longitudinal data analysis, and missing data and imputation techniques

Professor Bencie Woll FBA, Co-Principal Investigator, The Cognitive Benefits of Language Learning, holds the Chair in Sign Language and Deaf Studies at University College London and is the Director of the ESRC-funded Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre. She is a linguist by training and took up her professorship at UCL in August 2005 having held the first ever chair in the field in the UK at City University London. Before moving to London, she was at Bristol, where she first worked on language acquisition and then was a co-founder of the Centre for Deaf Studies, pioneering research on the linguistics of BSL and on Deaf Studies. She was elected as a Fellow of the British Academy in 2012.

Professor Li Wei, Co-Principal Investigator, The Cognitive Benefits of Language Learning is Professor of Applied Linguistics at the Institute of Education, University College London. He worked for many years in the Department of Speech of Newcastle University where he received his PhD in Speech Sciences and then as Professor of Applied Linguistics at Birkbeck College, University of London. His main research interest is in the broad area of bilingualism and multilingualism, which includes Bilingual and Multilingual First Language Acquisition (BAMFLA), early second language acquisition (ESLA), speech and language disorders of bilingual and multilingual speakers, the pragmatics of codeswitching, bilingual education, and intercultural communication. His current work focuses on the creativity and criticality of multilingual and multimodal language users.

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