A Surprising Look at How Language Affects Math

Transcription: Laura Budler




Transcription > Communication Companies > Communication > Words > Numbers??

In his 2008 book entitled Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell presents some fascinating information to explain why, in general, Asians perform better in math than English-speaking kids around the world. In fact, he debunks the myth that Asians out-perform their English-speaking counterparts because of some innate Asian proclivity for math, though that is undeniably the typical assumption.


Have a look at this list of numbers, Gladwell challenges: 4, 8, 5, 3, 9, 7, 6. Read them aloud. Look away. Spend 20 seconds memorising the sequence. Now say them out loud in order. Someone who speaks English, Gladwell asserts, has about a 50% chance of remembering that sequence perfectly. But someone who speaks Chinese, on the other hand, is almost certain to get it right every time.


Why? “Because as human beings we store digits in a memory loop that runs for about two seconds.  We most easily memorize whatever we can say or read within that two-second span.  And Chinese speakers get that list of numbers – 4, 8, 5, 3, 9, 7, 6 – right almost every time because, unlike English, their language allows them to fit all those seven numbers into two seconds”.


This above example comes from Stanislas Dehaene’s book The Number Sense:


Chinese number words are remarkably brief.  Most of them can be uttered in less than one-quarter of a second (for instance, 4 is ‘si’ and 7 is ‘qi’).  Their English equivalents – “four” and “seven” – are longer: pronouncing them takes about one-third of a second.  The memory gap between English and Chinese apparently is entirely due to this difference in length.


But there’s even more: Gladwell explains that there is also a big difference in how number-naming systems in Western and Asian languages are constructed. In English, we say fourteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, and nineteen, so one might expect that we would also say oneteen, twoteen, threeteen, and fiveteen.  But we don’t. We use a different form: eleven, twelve, thirteen and fifteen.  Similarly, we have forty and sixty, which sound like the words they are related to (four and six). But we also say twenty, thirty and fifty, which only sort of sound like two and three and five.  And for that matter, for numbers above twenty, we put the ‘decade’ first and the unit number second (twenty-one, twenty-two) whereas for the teens, we do it the other way around (fourteen, seventeen, and eighteen).  The number system in English is clearly highly irregular.

Not so in Chinese, Japanese and Korean.  They have a clear, simple and logical counting system: eleven is ten-one; twelve is ten-two; twenty-four is two-tens-four.

That difference means that Asian children learn to count much faster and much easier than English speaking children.  Four-year-old Chinese children can count, on average, to forty.  American children at that age, by contrast, can only count to fifteen.

The regularity of their number system also means that Asian children can perform basic functions such as addition far more easily.  Ask an English-speaking seven-year-old to add thirty-seven plus twenty-two in her head, and she has to convert the words to number (37 + 22).  Only then can she do the math: 2 + 7 is 9 and 30 + 20 is 50, which makes 59.  Ask an Asian child to add three-tens- seven and two-tens-two and the necessary equation is right there, embedded in the sentences. No number translation is necessary: the answer is five-tens-nine.

For English-speaking children, math doesn’t seem to make much sense – its linguistic structure is clumsy, its basic rules seem arbitrary and complicated.  Asian children don’t feel that same bafflement – they can hold numbers in their heads and do calculations faster, and the way fractions are expressed in their language corresponds exactly to the way a fraction actually is.

So when it comes to math, in other words, Asians have a built-in advantage.  But it’s an unusual kind of advantage: a language advantage!



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