I’m currently reading Outliers: The story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell and in one chapter there is a brief extract from Stanislas Dehaene’s book, The Number Sense. This chapter discusses why pupils in China, Japan and Singapore experience less confusion when learning elementary maths. Gladwell states that “a part of the disenchantment is due to the fact that math doesn’t seem to make sense; its linguistic structure is clumsy, its basic rules seem arbitrary and complicated.”

Here are a few key differences  between number-naming systems in Western and Asian languages:

1) Chinese numbers are brief

For example, 4 is ‘si’ and 7 is ‘qi’ which takes a quarter of a second to say compared to pronouncing the same numbers in English which takes a third of a second. Dehaene believes that “the memory gap between English and Chinese apparently is entirely due to this difference in lengths”. The Cantonese dialect of Chinese allows a memory span of about 10 digits.

Here is an experiment conducted in Dehaene’s book. Attempt to memorise this list of numbers: 4, 8, 5, 3, 9, 7, and 6. English speakers will have a 50% chance of remembering this list perfectly. Chinese speakers will list the numbers correctly every time. This is simply because “as humans we store digits in a memory loop that runs for about two seconds. We most easily memorise whatever we can say or read within the two-second span.” Chinese speakers are able to fit all those numbers into two seconds

2) The English number-naming system is highly irregular

The numbers above twenty such as twenty-two, thirty-five etc all follow the structure where the ‘decade’ comes first and then the unit number second. Compare this to the teens (18,16) which is the other way around where the unit number comes first fifteen, eighteen. China, Japan and Korea have a logical counting system, examples:

Eleven: ten-one

Twelve: ten-two

Thirty-five: three-tens-five

3) Asian children can perform basic functions (e.g. addition) far more easily because of the regularity of their number system

English speaking children need to convert the calculation of thirty-five plus twenty-three from words into numbers to then complete the addition. Compare this to adding three-tens-five and two-tens-three makes it easy to do the calculation since the order of the digits is within the sentence.

These are just a few facts that I was not aware of before reading Gladwell’s book. I highly recommend it for many more reasons as well as this one section about mathematics.

References:

Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success.

Dehaene, S. (1997). The Number Sense: How the Mind creates Mathematics