Skip to main content
Search IntMath

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.

Leave a comment

Comment Preview

HTML: You can use simple tags like <b>, <a href="...">, etc.

To enter math, you can can either:

  1. Use simple calculator-like input in the following format (surround your math in backticks, or qq on tablet or phone):
    `a^2 = sqrt(b^2 + c^2)`
    (See more on ASCIIMath syntax); or
  2. Use simple LaTeX in the following format. Surround your math with \( and \).
    \( \int g dx = \sqrt{\frac{a}{b}} \)
    (This is standard simple LaTeX.)

NOTE: You can mix both types of math entry in your comment.


Tips, tricks, lessons, and tutoring to help reduce test anxiety and move to the top of the class.