In recent years, research has shown that languages like Mandarin Chinese, Korean, Turkish, and Japanese use more simple number terminology and express math concepts like fractions more clearly than English. This makes it easier for speakers of these languages to grasp basic concepts of arithmetic at an earlier age.
English has more than two dozen unique number terms. In contrast, Chinese has only nine. This means that, right off the bat, English-speaking children are tasked with learning nearly three times as much number vocabulary as Chinese-speaking children. Add to this the fact that the English counting system is fraught with irregularities and logical inconsistencies, and you start to understand why the average four-year-old in China can count to forty, while the average four-year-old in the United States can only count to fifteen.
Threeteen, Fourteen, Fiveteen?
The trouble with English starts with the number ‘eleven.’ If we jump ahead, we get the numbers fourteen, sixteen, and seventeen, which give us the assumption that we should also have oneteen, twoteen, threeteen, and fiveteen. Instead, we have the irregular words: eleven, twelve, thirteen, and fifteen. These may harken vaguely to the ones values they contain, but not in any clear way.
Jumping up the ladder again, we run into other oddball numbers like twenty, thirty, and fifty. Again, none of these explicitly contain the numbers to which they are vitally related (two, three, and five), even though it’s been shown that understanding the relationship between tens values and ones values is critical to early math comprehension. Rather than giving eleven its own unique linguistic term, languages like Chinese, Korean, and Japanese render eleven as ‘ten-one.’ This makes the relationship between ten and eleven explicitly clear – eleven is a concept that cannot be separated from ‘ten plus one.’
Additionally, having the ten first makes it easier to understand the idea of place value. The first number in a two-digit number, a Chinese speaker quickly realizes, represents the number of tens. The second number represents the number of ones. Thus, twenty-five is ‘two-tens-five’ and forty-seven is ‘four-tens-seven.’ This also makes it clearer from the get-go that the number system is organized into units of tens, which becomes a vital concept when children get to addition and subtraction of two-digit numbers.
In English, however, number names beyond ten don’t make clear the place value rule. Once we get past pesky eleven and twelve, there are the teen numbers, a sloppy group of seven that require us to read the ones place first, followed by the tens place. Then when we get to twenty and above, the order switches. Suddenly we start to read the tens place followed by the ones place (if this isn’t clear, think of the way you read 16 versus 26: You are reading the number from right to left in 16, where teen – for whatever reason – denotes ten, but from left to right in 26, where twenty denotes ‘two-tens’). This flip-flopping makes it difficult for children to catch onto the place value rule, and in turn makes it easy for them to confuse numbers like, say, 14 and 41.
When students get up into more abstract math concepts like fractions, the American system again requires students to learn a whole new vocabulary: halves, thirds, fifths, eighths, etc. Says Karen Fuson, a Northwestern University psychologist who focuses on Asian-Western differences, “For fractions, we say three-fifths. The Chinese is literally ‘out of five parts, take three.’ That’s telling you conceptually what a fraction is. It’s differentiating the denominator and the numerator.” Where Chinese succeeds in providing clarity, English remains clumsy and seemingly arbitrary.
What’s Happening in the Brain?
The messy relationship between the linguistic representation of a number (i.e. ‘eleven’ for 11) and the actual value of the number also means that people who speak English use different cognitive processes to solve math problems than people who speak other languages with more logical numerical systems. In one study, MRI brain scanning technology was used to monitor the brain activity of twelve English-speaking students and twelve Chinese-speaking students as they solved a series of math puzzles. Similar levels of activity were recorded in the parietal cortex, which is the region of the brain believed to give a sense of quantity. However, the English-speaking students also displayed high levels of activity in the parts of the brain involved in the meanings of words, whereas the Chinese-speaking students showed more activity in the visual and spatial centers of the brain. This led researches to conclude that Chinese’s straightforward way of describing numbers may make native speakers less reliant on language processing when solving math problems.
We must be careful, though, not to jump to one-stop conclusions when we examine all these differences. Although it’s likely that language differences do play a role in determining cognitive processing methods and the early success of children in understanding math and number concepts, cultural differences also certainly play a role. For example, the popularity of the abacus as a learning tool in many Asian countries may encourage young people to start thinking about math from a visuo-spatial perspective from a young age. Similarly, a greater emphasis on the importance of math in other cultures may lead to more class time spent on math concepts as well as more math-related practice at home, culminating in overall better math outcomes.
One thing is for certain though: In math, one concept builds on another. By age four, there’s already a twenty-five-number counting gap between English-speaking children and their Chinese-speaking counterparts. By the time they reach high school, students in the United States rank thirtieth out of sixty-five nations on international achievement exams.
So is math harder in English than in some languages? Yes, but it could be worse. Around the world, there are a whole roster of counting systems that make English look like a walk in the park. The Arara people of the Amazon, for example, only count in pairs. Here’s how they count to six:
3: Adak Anane
4: Adak Adak
5: Adak Adak Anane
6: Adak Adak Adak
Now imagine trying to multiply seven by twenty-four.
Janet Barrow writes about the places where language meets history, culture, and politics. She studied Written Arts at Bard College, and her fiction has appeared in Easy Street and Adelaide Magazine. After two years in Lima, Peru, she now lives in Chicago.