The Chinese, Mathematics And Language

Have you ever wondered why the Chinese are so good at Maths? I know I have… Malcom Gladwell, the author of the extremely interesting book Outliers (he is also the author of The Tipping Point and Blink), solves the mystery for us…According to him, the Chinese (and other South East Asians) are not more intelligent than Westerners; all they have is a more developed number sense because of the way their language is structured…

“Take a look at the following list of numbers: 4,8,5,3,9,7,6. Read them out loud to yourself. Now look away, and spend twenty seconds memorizing that sequence before saying them out loud again.

If you speak English, you have about a 50 percent chance of remembering that sequence perfectly If you’re Chinese, though, you’re almost certain to get it right every time. Why is that? Because as human beings we store digits in a memory loop that runs for about two seconds. We most easily memorize whatever we can say or read within that two second span. And Chinese speakers get that list of numbers—4,8,5,3,9,7,6—right every time because—unlike English speakers—their language allows them to fit all those seven numbers into two seconds.” [Link]

Chinese words for numbers are extremely short…For example, 4 is ‘si’ and 7 is ‘qi’ (takes 1/4 of a second to pronounce each number) while in English they are ‘four’ and ‘seven’ respectively (takes 1/3 of a second to pronounce a number)…As a result of shorter names for numbers and the memory loop, the Chinese especially the Cantonese are better able to memorize digits than English speaking people…

“It turns out that there is also a big difference in how number-naming systems in Western and Asian languages are constructed. In English, we say fourteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen and nineteen, so one would think that we would also say one-teen, two-teen, and three-teen. But we don’t. We make up a different form: eleven, twelve, thirteen, and fifteen. Similarly, we have forty, and sixty, which sound like what they are. But we also say fifty and thirty and twenty, which sort of sound what they are but not really. And, for that matter, for numbers above twenty, we put the “decade” first and the unit number second: twenty-one, twenty-two. For the teens, though, we do it the other way around. We put the decade second and the unit number first: fourteen, seventeen, eighteen. The number system in English is highly irregular. Not so in China, Japan and Korea. They have a logical counting system. Eleven is ten one. Twelve is ten two. Twenty-four is two ten four, and so on.

That difference means that Asian children learn to count much faster.

The regularity of their number systems also means that Asian children can perform basic functions—like addition—far more easily. Ask an English seven-year-old to add thirty-seven plus twenty two, in her head, and she has to convert the words to numbers (37 + 22). Only then can she do the math: 2 plus 7 is nine and 30 and 20 is 50, which makes 59. Ask an Asian child to add three-tens-seven and two tens-two, and then the necessary equation is right there, embedded in the sentence. No number translation is necessary: It’s five-tens nine. 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.

The much-storied disenchantment with mathematics among western children starts in the third and fourth grade…a part of that disenchantment is due to the fact that math doesn’t seem to make sense; its linguistic structure is clumsy; its basic rules seem arbitrary and complicated.

Asian children, by contrast, don’t face nearly that same sense of bafflement. They can hold more numbers in their head, and do calculations faster, and the way fractions are expressed in their language corresponds exactly to the way a fraction actually is—and maybe that makes them a little more likely to enjoy math, and maybe because they enjoy math a little more they try a little harder and take more math classes and are more willing to do their homework, and on and on, in a kind of virtuous circle.” [Link]

Edited to add:

I didn’t realize that campaign speeches were all one needed to win the Nobel Prize for Peace…Long live the Nobel Committee! I hope you are sleeping peacefully now…


47 thoughts on “The Chinese, Mathematics And Language

  1. This is extremely interesting Sraboney. And hats off to you, you were able to explain this to a maths-phobe like me.

    Never paid much attention to how disorganisd english counting is (just like the rest of this amazing language 😉 )… very interesting!

    If you get the opportunity, read Gladwell’s books – they are all very interesting…
    He has another theory about the Chinese…According to him, their penchant for hard work relates directly to paddy cultivation…I’ll have to write a post explaining the correlation…

    The portions in italics are from his book so although I would like to take credit for explaining the concept well, I can’t…He’s done it so well that I could only copy-paste…


  2. That is so interesting, Bones! Absolutely fascinating!

    And who knows, our Indian languages might have that sort of advantage – which we might have lost because we now do everything in English..

    Absolutely fascinating, I will definitely pick up this book to read.


    • i don’t about languages – but some of our cuisines have helped in making the brains sharper.

      it was loong long time ago i read this.

      the baungs have been seen as intelligent because of the constant diet of fish – and so are the tamilians – with tamarind being an everyday ingredient in their food .

      direct relation of both these foods – brain food.


  3. What an interesting post. Thanks Bones. I am beginning to love blogging more and more. Come to think of it, there so much logic in what that gentleman has explained. Atleast now, I am not going to beat myself up over it! 😀


  4. I dont remember where but I read one of the reasons for analytical superiority is also the struggle we have to face in normal life…
    There’s a section in the book which deals with this…Again the example taken is that of the Chinese…Their paddy cultivation background (paddy cultivation requires a lot of thought, analysis and effort unlike wheat or corn farming) has made them more analytical and hard working…

    we have so much to think and plan and arrange… where as the westerners have so much more ease they dont have to twist their brain too much…

    not sure if entirely true…

    P.s. about Ihm… well… I came here when there was no comment.. but I was trying to stay away from blogs… !!!! so i didnt comment… but well I couldnt resist whole day and now back to blog commenting… sigh… 😦


  5. A very interesting observation, Bones.

    As for the part you have added after editing, I think all of us should be eligible for the Nobel prize. IHM, for example, has always wanted peace and harmony. I wrote a post that can be said to be anti-war. And I am sure, so did many others…we should all collectively win the prize!


    Quirky Indian


  6. As always you have produced another gem.

    From the little that I have read, I think even Indians are very good at maths – not the ones who do it in English, of course! And Vedic maths also enables getting some solutions in a jiffy. – I’m sure it does but fortunately or unfortunately, we study in English…But studying science and Maths in English has its advantages too – most of the reference books are in that language
    Now, of course, it doesn’t really matter. Everything’s turned binary and machines do the job for you.


  7. interesting Bones,
    and i thought that we indians had the upper hand in maths 😛 😛

    one thing that I see here in sunnyvale is that the chinese people are all in major companies and in major positions……………….. they really are brilliant!!! Not only are they brilliant, but they are hard workers too…

    and yes, Nobel peace prize is a shocker……………


  8. Off-topic: A very dear American friend whose wife is Principal of one of the prestigious schools in US told us that he felt embarrassed on talent search day seeing American kids performing Britney Spears whereas Chinese and Indians were playing Beethoven and Mozart.
    Do you watch the spelling bee contests? Indians do very well in them…


  9. Interesting. In fact I wonder if there is something about our Indian languages too. My parents schooled in their native language and I was always amazed at their proficiency with mental maths, tables etc.

    Maybe but I also think the reason why our parents are better than us at mental maths is that they didn’t have calculators and computers…


    • I am of the older generation and I grew up without calculators and computers and so did a lot of my friends. Most of us were first generation english medium. There have been studies which have proven that studying in one’s native language is easier and kids do better.


    • True…But Indian kids are generally better than American kids in maths because we are not allowed to use calculators from class 1 or 2…We have to memorize the tables and calculate in our heads…


  10. Even Indian languages use a similar concept

    Let us take Marathi…

    Upto eighteen we have separate words

    Number like 19,29,39, 49, 59……are known as 19= One less twenty or 29 = one less thirty…

    Numbers from 21 – 28 have a refernce to 20…..and 31 – 38 have a reference to 30.. e.g. 21 = one – twenty…..etc..In Marathi this is just three syllables (Ek-vi-sa)

    Further, i remember my grandfather laying a lot of emphasis on multiplication tables upto 25 or 30. So we had to commit to memory tables from 1×1=1 to 30×20=600. This strong emphasis meant that we had to be sharp and fast at mental maths.

    This post now highlights the Chinese emphasis on maths and how their language structure itself makes things easy. Very interesting and informative.


    • Thank you for sharing the Marathi counting system…

      I think the problem with Westerners is that they are introduced to calculators too soon…I don’t think they learn the multiplication tables, which help in doing arithmetic mentally…

      Even log tables – how many know that these even exist?


  11. oops!what a disappointment.I used to feel puffed up about our(Asian) superior intelligence and one has to deflate it by attributing it to the structure of our language.

    But jokes apart i felt that we Indians train our rote memory and ignore logic and reasoning and that was perhaps the reason why spell bee contests and Maths olympiads don’t baffle us.Am I wrong again?


    • Actually, in Maths Olympiads, Indians (from India) don’t do too well…Russia, US and China lead the pack…In fact, some smaller African countries have started doing better…It’s not as if Indians don’t win any medals but their overall tally is low…For instance, in the 2008 Olympiads held in Madrid, India bagged 5 bronze medals but came 31st. out of 97 countries…I don’t know if this is due to the quality of contestants sent or what…

      Yes, Indian Americans do well in spelling bees because they are good at memorizing…


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