Linguistics & Math?

Asian countries routinely surpass Western nations in math achievement. Some researchers maintain that the Asian school systems place more emphasis on mathematical ability. Others believe that Asian students simply work harder. But Stanislas Dehaene poses a different theory: The very structure of Asian languages may facilitate mathematical ability. Malcolm Gladwell quotes him in Outliers: The Story of Success: “In languages as diverse as Welsh, Arabic, Chinese, English, and Hebrew, there is a reproducible correlation between the time required to pronounce numbers in any given language and the memory span of its speakers.” For instance, a typical English speaker can remember seven digits, but a Cantonese speaker can remember 10. Saying “four” and “seven” takes longer than saying their equivalents in Chinese (“si” and “qi”).
The number naming system in Asian languages makes the math task easier than it is in English. Gladwell contends that “The number system in English is highly irregular . . . They have a logical counting system. Eleven is ten-one; twelve is ten-two. Twenty-four is two tens four, etc.” The inherent logic of their system makes numbers more accessible from a very early age. Chinese children can count to forty by age four, whereas American children can count to fifteen by the same age. So even before they reach kindergarten age, American children are a year behind their Chinese counterparts, simply due to the structure of their language.
The Chinese number system also allows children to do calculations much more easily than their Western counterparts. “Ask an English-speaking seven year old to add 37 + 22 in her head, and she has to convert the words to numbers. . . Ask an Asian child to add three-tens seven and two-tens two, and the necessary equation is right there, embedded in the sentence.”
The relationship between language and math is fascinating, especially when one considers right-brain/left brain theories. But the immediate question facing educators is how to make mathematics more meaningful and more accessible to children. Instead of “dumbing down” the curriculum with constructivist concepts, they need to impose more skill work so that our children can become globally competitive.

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