Michael Tsen's Saga




Monday, June 15, 2009

Why Chineses are good at Math ?

Although this may sounds like another ethnical (racism) write up but actually this is a "language" article.

I grow up with 3 languages around me so I can speak for them rather personally, they are Malay, English and Chinese. Or more precisely Bahasa Malaysia, English and Mandarin.

Its not an absolute truth but rather a more than 50% accepted stereotypes that Chineses are better in Maths. And this is why ...

In Malay, the numbers are pronounced as such :

Sa-tu, Du-a, Ti-ga, Em-pat, Li-ma, E-nam, Tu-juh, La-pan, Sem-bi-lan, Se-pu-luh

The shortest number of pronounciation is 2 and the longest is 3. Total number pronounciation for all 10 numbers is 22; An average of 2.2 pronounciation per number.

In English,

One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Se ven, Eight, Nine, Ten

Shortest : 1
Longest is 2
Total : 11
Average 1.1 pronounciation per number. Half of Malay's speed

In Chinese,

Yi, Er, San, Si, Wu, Liu, Qi, Ba, Jiu, Shi

Shortest : 1
Longest is 1
Total : 10
Average 1.0 pronounciation per number. Slightly faster than English but nonetheless the fastest among these 3.

Number pronounciation is one of the earliest toddle speech education. The small difference between 1.0 and 2.2 pronounciation per number for 1 to 10 may not seem significant at the beginning. But as one is growing up and start to deal with higher complexity in numbers aka Math, this minor difference may start to exponential up.

So in primary school, it may not make much differences in Addition, Substraction or even Multiplication and Division. However, the gap will get wider in secondary and colleges.

The reason this is only a stereotype and NEVER a TRUTH is because all a Malay-speaking-math-person need to do is to spend TWICE the EFFORT "at the beginning", then she will be able to be as good as anyone else she wants to be.
There is another saying that once you pass 30,000 repeatence of one action, you become an expert on that field. So despite this 1.0 vs 2.2 pronounciation differences, the gap will become small again once any language speaking person pass a 'certain' level. Hence, a Math degree holder or a PHD in relevant field will have minimum gap on what their native languages are. But one thing for sure, the Malay must have been much more hard working than the others at their younger ages, as they always take twice the time and effort to express the same messages ... in numbers.

So, do you think it matters what language to use to teach Sciene and Maths ?

If you started to think there is not much difference between English (1.1) and Chinese (1.0), then that is because I haven't told you the whole story about numbers yet. If you are smart, you should have observed the real 10 numbers in Math are 0 to 9 and not 1 to 10. Some English may pronounce Ze-ro (2), some others may use Nought (1) but in Mandarin, its always 'Ling' (1). Don't even get me started on :

100 Hun-dred (2) vs Bai (1)
1,000 Tho-u-sand (3) vs Qian (1)
10,000 Ten-Tho-u-sand (4) vs Wan (1)

The digits in parenthesis indicate the number of pronounciations.


chilicandy said...

Insightful thoughts.
I've never given these 'pronounciations' or rather 'syllables' in their differences between these languages.

Michael Tsen said...

is it supposed to be called syllables ? thanks ... :D

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