Since elementary school, we learned basic mathematics skills as little children. As we grew older, our math improved as we learned new concepts. Yet have people ever wondered why Americans lag behind Eastern Asian countries, such as China, in math? The answer might not easily be what you think:
The answer lies not only in the practice that Asian students receive but also, surprisingly, in the language we speak. Examine the following numbers: 8,2,4,6,7,5,1. Now look away for twenty seconds, and try to memorize the order of the numbers presented. Research has shown that you have a 50% chance of accurately memorizing that sequence perfectly, if you speak English.
Yet for those who speak Chinese, it is almost assured that you will get that sequence right. The reason is not due to intelligence, but actually the phonetics of our languages. Our brain is programmed to store numbers in a repetitive loop that lasts for only a short period of time. Chinese speakers are able to fit those 7 numbers into that span of time, while English speakers cannot. Hence, the Chinese speakers can memorize those numbers at a much more efficient rate than English speakers. How is this important?
According to The Number Sense, at the age of 4 years old, a child living in the United States who speaks English on average has the ability to count to 15. The same age child living in China has the ability to count to 40, based purely on their efficiency of memorization. To count to 40, a child living in the United States on average would be 5 years old. This means that already, at the age of 5, American children are already a year behind their Asian counterparts in basic arithmetic fundamentals, in which a study done by the European Journal of Psychology of Education in 1998 concluded is essential to future mathematical development.
Furthermore, the complex language in which we pronounce our numbers hinders our ability to do the very easiest of mathematical tasks, such as addition and subtraction. Take a number like 23 (twenty-three). Notice how our language adds an additional part to the tens place? 20 becomes twenty, 30 becomes thirty, 50 becomes fifty. etc.
In the Chinese language, 20 is pronounced two-tens, 30 is pronounced three-tens, 50 becomes five-tens, etc. This is a much simpler, straight-forward, and easier way to deal with numbers.
In order to add 23 + 45, an American child would have to convert 23 to twenty-three, and 45 to forty-five, then add those two together. A Chinese child would just add two-tens-three and four-tens-five together, equaling six-tens-eight. The answer is in the way the language is phrased – much easier for children to learn.
The ease at which these Asian counterparts learn basic mathematics allows these kids to learn math at a much more rapid pace, which over the countless years of school, compounds into more knowledge and better math skills for these Chinese children.
This isn’t the only example where underlying systems impede a culture’s long-term success. The United States is the only first-world country that still uses the Imperial standard as a standard unit of measurement. Even though scientists in America generally use metric, the Imperial standard slows down science in multiple ways. One of NASA’s space probes disintegrated when one team used metric and another used Imperial units. Students need to learn metric before they can fully participate in science courses. Again, these disadvantages compound, putting the United States’ education system behind.
I’m sure there are many other examples of this in different cultures and countries around the world. I’d like to ask the readers to put some comments below: what are some other examples of this phenomenon, and what strategies can communities take to mitigate underlying disadvantages? Or is it unavoidable, like some sort of cultural Innovator’s Dilemma?
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