Recent research (such as a 2014 comparative study by Jo-Anne LeFevre) has suggested that students from an Asian-language background have a greater mathematical ability than English-speaking students of the same age. This phenomenon has led some to speculate that there are intrinsic advantages to learning Math in languages other than English – the Wall Street Journal has even written a recent article on the subject.
This post will outline the basic theory of this line of thought before offering some potential alternative explanations for this ability gap. If you’re involved in the translation process, then hopefully this post will help you appreciate the differences that language could make to learning math.
The main reason why some people think that English is bad for learning Math, is that the English language presents a much broader scope of words to describe number units. In fact, English has more than twenty-four different names for number units, requiring students to memorise more words to perform arithmetic, and obscuring the fact that the number system is based on units of ten.
In contrast to the English language, Asian languages such as Chinese only have nine words to describe number units. For example, the English word ‘thirty-one’ is literally ‘three-ten-one’ in Chinese.
The advantage of only having words for nine number units, so the theory says, is that the Chinese language makes it obvious that the numerical system is based on units of ten. It also goes without saying that having to remember fewer words will allow students to focus more on performing the arithmetic and less on recalling the names of different number units.
In Asian schools, the ‘make-a-ten’ arithmetic strategy is taught, whereby students focus on making the numbers into a ten first, and then adding the remaining figures to that ten. For example, the equation ‘9 + 5’ would be interpreted as ‘9 + 1 + 4’. Asian students would subtract 1 from the 5 and add it to the 9 to make 10, leaving them with ‘ten-four’. This strategy is helpful when dealing with more advanced equations, and doesn’t require the student to memorise words such as ‘twenty, thirty, forty etc.’.
Although it may seem that the simplicity of Asian languages provides a greater advantage for learning mathematics, it’s possible that other factors could account for the achievement gap between English and Asian-language speaking students.
For example, there are significant cultural differences that could contribute towards the achievement gap: Chinese parents could be more willing to use math in daily life than English speaking cultures, and number-based games are more popular in Asian cultures than they are in English speaking ones.
Moreover, the potential for significant differences between the Asian and English education systems shouldn’t be overlooked, and could be another potential explanation for the ability gap. For instance, the former might place a priority on teaching math from an early age, whereas the latter might prioritise other academic subjects.
Regardless of the potential for other explanatory factors, there does seem to be an advantage to having fewer words to describe number units. However, whether or not that makes one language inherently better than another for learning math is still up for debate.
What do you think? Feel free to leave a comment below.