Why East Asians do well in math

By Murray Bourne, 28 Jan 2009

Here's an interesting article Why East Asians do well in math (link no longer available) from the Philippine Daily Inquirer. It's by Queena Lee-Chua, who talks about how her Chinese background, especially her linguistic background, made math easier for her than it is for English speaking students.

Lee-Chua points out that it is quicker to learn multiplication tables in Chinese than in English.

For example, the English phrase “2 (times) 7 (is) 14” consists of anywhere from five to seven syllables, depending on how you say it. The Mandarin equivalent, er qi shuqi, is just four syllables, taking less than two seconds to say.

(BTW, the term "Fookienese" is mentioned in the article. This is the dialect spoken by a majority of the 1 million or so Chinese who live in the Philippines.)

Lee-Chua questions (as I do) why we have such an inconsistent naming system for numbers:

To add to the confusion, since 14 is four-ten, why is 21 twenty-one, and not one-twenty? In 14, ones are placed first, while tens place last, which is the reverse for 21.

Chinese (and Japanese) have much more logical naming for numbers. "14" is "十四" (pronounced juu yon in Japanese) or "10 plus 4" and "21" is "二十一" (pronounced ni juu ichi in Japanese) or "2 lots of 10 plus 1".

Quoting from Malcolm Gladwell's “Outliers: The Story of Success”:

“Four-year-old Chinese children can count, on average, to forty. American children at that age can count only to fifteen, and most don’t reach forty until they’re five. By the age of five, in other words, American children are already a year behind their Asian counterparts in the most fundamental of math skills.”

The article goes on to surmise that other positive influences on mathematics performance outcomes are the Confucian ideal of hard work and the attention that East Asian parents bestow on their children's education .

It's an interesting article.

See the 5 Comments below.

5 Comments on “Why East Asians do well in math”

  1. Muhammed says:

    Hmmmmm..........
    I found this article fine and a new area of thinking was added to my outlook reading this article. . .

  2. Karthick says:

    This still does not explain how Indians are good in math. Most of us study in english and math is no exception.

    Goes to prove that the people from western countries should stop saying that eastern countries have super natural powers and starting to look into the real reasons why they are not as good as other country people.

    The reason if you ask me is that math requires a lot more practice than many other subjects and eastern countries stress a lot more on repetitive practice to get these things (formulae, steps et al) into children's head. The reliance on calculators and computers is another reason too.

  3. Philip Petrov says:

    "To add to the confusion, since 14 is four-ten, why is 21 twenty-one, and not one-twenty? In 14, ones are placed first, while tens place last, which is the reverse for 21."

    This is clearly a remainder from a duodecimal numeric system. Somewhere in the past people were mostly using a duodecimal system (we have lots evidences for that in Bulgaria). Then a big change to decimal numeric system was made; however the regular people did not accept the new system well. Since they use mostly small numbers in their every day work - the old duodecimal numeric counting remained for the numbers from 1 to 20 and it was fixed later.

    This is clearly visible in France. Their numerical system is all messed up.

  4. The Problem of Math, Sleep, and Keyboards | mino wrimos says:

    [...] The number of syllables in Cantonese number words are less than the number of syllables in English number words… therefore making Cantonese people memorize faster as opposed to English people. [1] Or, the fact that the Asian number system is so simple (21= two tens one) it allows a child of four to count to 40… whereas in English, a child of four can count to about 15. [2] [3] [4] [...]

  5. Bob says:

    I recall counting to 100 in front of my my parents at 5 years old, probably the benefit of a couple of years at my British-government run "nursery school" at which I can vaguely remember also learning letters before I left for primary school at age 5. I make absolutely no claim to being a mathematician. Australia starts primary teaching at age 6, which means at least 2 years of opportunity have been lost.

    I also recall being able to understand the British Pounds, Shillings and Pence system before I was led at primary school to the decimal system. I could not understand why 10 became 1 and got carried across let alone why ten tens became 1 and got carried across. I was told to leave the class until I understood it; such was teaching arithmetic in those days. But thinking in 12 pennies to the shilling etc seemed quite logical to me. It simply stood to reason that 16 pennies were one shilling and fourpence etc.

    One can count to either 12 or 16 using the joints of the fingers on one hand and the thumb for doing the counting; if one brings the other hand into play in a similar manner, one can attain quite high numbers.Or one can use four fingers and a thumb to count to nine on one hand and bring in the other hand to get to 99. With a bit of thought and practice who needs a calculator or an abacus? One could also use one's fingers to create powers of ten, twelve or sixteen if one put one's mind to it, and I am sure there are other possibilities in simply using finger and thumbs to count and do arithmetic.

    As for east versus west in mathematical capabilities; look to how things are taught and at what age teaching children begins; then factor in parents' expectations and backgrounds.

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