Language and numeracy

Daniel Tammet’s Embracing the Wide Sky mentions some interesting research — though he unfortunately neglects to mention who performed this research or where I can read more about it.

[R]esearch suggests that the counting words we use in English (and many other European languages) can have a negative side effect on some young children’s numeracy and arithmetic skills. Studies consistently show that Asian children learn to count earlier and higher than their Western counterparts and can do simple addition and subtraction sooner. The reason is that the teen and ten numbers in English and other languages are irregular and difficult for children to learn. In contrast, the number words in most Asian languages are much more consistent; in Chinese, the word for eleven is ‘ten one’, twelve is ‘ten two’, thirteen is ‘ten three’ and so on. . . . The language helps rather than hinders early understanding of the base 10 system. (pp. 134-35)

Knowing how the current intellectual climate systematically deemphasizes racial differences in everything except skin color, I tend to overcompensate, assuming when I read something like this that of course boring genetic differences are probably the real explanation. Just because it’s crimethink, though, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true, and the language theory is an interesting possibility. Here’s how you could test it:

  • Limit the sample to a single ethnic group. For example, see if Chinese-speaking Chinese people are better at math than ethnically Chinese Americans who speak only English.
  • Look at non-Asian languages with regular number terms. While I don’t know of any examples off the top of my head, it seems unlikely that this feature would be exclusive to East Asian languages. Are there any African or European languages, for example, that express numbers in a regular way? Do speakers of those languages excel at math in the same way that Asians do?

I haven’t been able to track down the research Tammet alludes to, so I don’t know whether such tests have already been performed. It would be fascinating to discover that language can have such a strong influence on thinking.

There’s no question, though, that Chinese way of expressing numbers is much better-designed than the English and matches the decimal system more closely. In English, if I say “three hundred seven–,” you have no idea what the second digit is going to be; the number could turn out to be 307, 317, or 370, among others. If someone is dictating the number to you, you have to wait until they’ve said the whole thing before you can write the second digit. Chinese is much clearer; 307 is “three hundred zero seven,” 317 is “three hundred ten seven,” and 370 is “three hundred seven (ten)” (the final “ten” is optional). The assumption that if you say “three hundred seven,” the seven is the next digit rather than the final one, is a convenient one. We deal with numbers with zeroes at the end (like 6,500) more often than those with zeroes in the middle (like 6,005), so it makes sense to reserve the short form “six thousand five” for the former.

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