Gladwell: Why Asian children are better at maths

November 17, 2008 at 11:33 pm 22 comments

In his forthcoming book Outliers (available tomorrow), Malcolm Gladwell offers another provocative investigation into curious social phenomena. An extract is published in yesterday’s Guardian, which asks and answers the question, What explains Asian superiority in academic subjects?

While the likes of controversial professor and psychologist Richard Lynn advance the thesis for variation in IQ along racial and ethnic divisions, Gladwell says the superior performance and achievement in maths has nothing to do with innate ability. Rather, performance and achievement in mathematics can be explained by the structure of our languages, which gives the East a cultural advantage over the West in certain academic subjects. 

The words for Asian numbers are shorter than in English, allowing children to remember more content — they can “hold more numbers in their heads and do calculations faster”; the Asian number system is also more “transparent,” clarifying the structure of numbers and the purpose of a problem. In short, where the English linguistic system is “clumsy” with “arbitrary and complicated” rules, there is an intuitive pattern and conceptually compelling structure to the Asian system.

Here is an excerpt from the Guardian‘s extract:

Take a look at the following list of numbers: 4, 8, 5, 3, 9, 7, 6. Read them out loud. Now look away and spend 20 seconds memorising that sequence before saying them out loud again. If you speak English, you have about a 50 per cent 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 memorise 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 almost every time because, unlike English, their language allows them to fit all those seven numbers into two seconds.

That example comes from Stanislas Dehaene’s book The Number Sense. As Dehaene explains: Most Chinese number words can be uttered in less than one-quarter of a second [whereas] their English equivalents takes about one-third of a second. The memory gap between English and Chinese apparently is entirely due to this difference in length. In languages as diverse as Welsh, Arabic, Chinese, English and Hebrew, there is a reproducible correlation between the time required to pronounce numbers in a given language and the memory span of its speakers.

There is also a big difference in how number-naming systems in Western and Asian languages are constructed. … [In] China, Japan, and Korea,  they have a logical counting system. Eleven is ten-one. Twelve is ten-two. Twenty-four is two-tens-four and so on.

[This allows] Asian children learn to count much faster than American children. Four-year-old Chinese children can count, on average, to 40. American children at that age can count only to 15, and most don’t reach 40 until they’re five. By the age of five, in other words, American children are already a year behind their Asian counterparts in the most fundamental of math skills.

The regularity of their number system also means that Asian children can perform basic functions, such as addition, far more easily. Ask an English-speaking 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 9 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.

When it comes to math, in other words, Asians have a built-in advantage. But it’s an unusual kind of advantage. We assume that being good at things like calculus and algebra is a simple function of how smart someone is. But the differences between the number systems in the East and the West suggest something very different – that being good at math may also be rooted in a group’s culture. Here we have a legacy that turns out to be perfectly suited for 21st-century tasks, and it’s hard not to wonder how many other cultural legacies have an impact on our 21st-century intellectual tasks.

For more on Outliers, click here.

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood


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The “entitled mediocrity” of an elite education “I Crossed Your Path”

22 Comments Add your own

  • […] Outliers, practice, sports, success, superstar athlete, the Beatles, TIMSS, white matter As I mentioned a few days ago, Malcolm Gladwell has a provocative explanation for why Asian children are better at maths. The […]

  • 2. Ben R  |  November 25, 2008 at 8:07 pm

    I think Dan Seligman’s book “A Question of Intelligence” does a better job explaining the performance of East Asians on math/science subjects. Essentially, if you look at the group average, they do particularly well on the non-verbal component of psychometric tests.

    This is consistent with their performance on math/science subjects. Seligman also notes possible explanations of this including:

    “Severely compressed, his explanation goes about like this: Some sixty thousand years ago, when the lee Age descended on the Northern Hemisphere, the Mongoloid populations faced uniquely hostile “selection pressure” for greater intelligence. Northeast Asia during the Ice Age was the coldest part of the world inhabited by man. Survival required major advances in hunting skills. Lynn’s 1987 paper refers to “the ability to isolate slight variations in visual stimulation from a relatively featureless landscape, such as the movement of a white Arctic hare against a background of snow and ice; to recall visual landmarks on long hunting expeditions away from home and to develop a good spatial map of an extensive terrain.” These, Lynn believes, were the pressures that ultimately produced the world’s best visuospatial abilities.”

    Also, Gladwell’s explanation for Jewish legal success on working in the garment industry in NYC isn’t convincing. Seligman notes jewish performance on the verbal component of psychometric tests is above average. The Cochran/Harpending paper on Ashkenazi Jewish intelligence suggests this is partly genetic. See Charles Murray’s commentary on the paper:

    “Assessing the events of the 1st century C.E. thus poses a chicken-and-egg problem. By way of an analogy, consider written Chinese with its thousands of unique characters. On cognitive tests, today’s Chinese do especially well on visuo-spatial skills. It is possible, I suppose, that their high visuo-spatial skills have been fostered by having to learn written Chinese; but I find it much more plausible that only people who already possessed high visuo-spatial skills would ever devise such a ferociously difficult written language. Similarly, I suppose it is possible that the Jews’ high verbal skills were fostered, through secondary and tertiary effects, by the requirement that they be able to read and understand complicated texts after the 1st century C.E.; but I find it much more plausible that only people who already possessed high verbal skills would dream of installing such a demanding requirement.”…/jewish-genius-10855

  • 3. Fernando  |  December 17, 2008 at 8:22 am

    Actually the reason that Asian country students perform better at math is that the
    curriculum for 4th grade students in these countries include being taught
    in some fashion the math concept that the Identity Rule is the CORE MATH CONCEPT. This understanding is why they perform so well as a group in math. The argument that the asian languages create some intellectual advantage does not explain why other non-asian speaking countries also perform at high levels. Those countries that understand the importance of the Identity Rule refer to it as The Golden Rule of Math.

    Any person with good math skills knows the Identity Rule. What appears to be
    less obvious to educators in the U.S. (based on U.S. student math performance)
    is that the IDENTITY RULE is the CORE MATH CONCEPT, and that it can be easily
    taught. My contention is that these concepts can be understood by a student
    within an hour to an hour and a half, and that once understood (the Gestalt) by
    the student, the student can then easily understand all subsequent math
    instruction, without any further tutoring. An understanding of how to use the Identity Rule to manipulate fractions gives the student the ability to perform in math in the 98th percentiles, throughout elementary and high school just like students in asian countries.

    I can provide a two page tutorial that only takes an hour to an hour and a half to walk a fourth grade student through.

    • 4. Colin Dant  |  February 16, 2011 at 7:53 am

      What is the identity rule?

  • 5. Fernando  |  December 21, 2008 at 10:11 pm

    Some additional thoughts on the argument that the asian languages create some intellectual advantage to perform better at math. This argument does not explain cause. It is merely an observation after the fact. The same is true about after the fact observations that differences in socio-economics, race, gender, intelligence, environment, single families, nutrition, homogeneous groups, etc., etc., explain why some perform better at math than others. These variables are not causal either. They make for good reading, but do not explain causality.

    I argue that the obviously causal variable is BORDERS. Within some borders/(countries) the school systems include in the curriculum, teaching their students in some fashion, the CORE MATH CONCEPT, the Identity Rule, and how to use the Identity Rule to manipulate fractions. After the 4th grade, all math involves manipulating fractions Students that are taught this CORE MATH CONCEPT easily, (I emphasize), EASILY, learn all subsequent math instruction. The result then is that in spite of differences within BORDERS of differences in socio-economics, family structure, gender, etc. their students as a group excel at math

  • 6. mathew  |  March 5, 2009 at 7:14 pm

    Interesting premise but this doesn’t explain why asian americans who can’t speak their native tongue excel at math?

    • 7. fbarcena  |  November 12, 2009 at 6:27 am

      The asian americans that excel at math were tutored the identity rule by their parents or other family members. This could easily be shown through an analysis of what amount and content of home tutoring asian american children receive at home compared to other racial and ethnic groups in America.

  • 8. Owen  |  May 18, 2009 at 2:57 am

    There are other factors that have not been mentioned here. Asian students have a very strict lesson plan and there are not many that can go to university unless they have high marks. The USA students have short days at school, little or no motivation for math when they could be a radio DJ. and listen to music and drink beer all day. These are very big cultural factors because they go to motivation of the student and the adults who put pressure on them to do the homework. In the US many parents gave up for fear of charges of abuse. Teachers gave up because the are expeted to be
    all things to all students when they are payed
    very little. They also fear assault from the students or charges of assault. The invironment of fear has crippled the US system.
    There must be three things in place for a
    student to learn math. The Teacher, The student\
    and a clear understanding of what is to be expected and respect (rules). The US system has
    no respct for the teachers. The students are not mental in school. They have TV, movies, Computers, and a hundrend other things the would rather do than math. You can not teach an unmotivated student.
    When asian students move to the US culture of
    exccess they do about the same as US students.

    • 9. Colin Dant  |  February 16, 2011 at 7:59 am

      Same problems in the UK. That’s why I teach Mathematics in South-East Asia!

  • […] How about cuz figure skating is formulaic. […]

  • 11. psipeter  |  August 21, 2011 at 1:38 am

    Yes I notice a familiar pattern happening here in Australia, but what do you do?I am not sure anymore.

  • 12. ChristianIamРбс  |  November 24, 2012 at 4:21 pm

    Каждому Доброе утро! Мне одна пожилая женщина рассказала кошмарную историю, как вам она? Я делала в жизни 2 аборта и теперь больна раком прямой кишки, я почти не сплю по ночам больше года, мучаюсь от боли, а днём лежу на кровати, почти не встаю. Моя сестра делала аборты, она умерла от рака груди, метастазы были и в лёгких, она лежала в больнице, она была музыкантом, выступала, играла на пианино, аккордеоне. У неё была дочка Аня, она умерла в малом возрасте. У меня племемянница также делала аборты, сейчас страдает от онкологичекого заболевания кишечника. Моя мама умерла от рака желудка. Милые люди, не делайте, пожалуйста, аборты! Кстати, как вам моя страница? Христианская страница против абортов. +++ IHM

  • 13. stolik01  |  August 4, 2013 at 10:56 am

    Каждому Доброе утро!Всем привет,живу в Волгограде заказывал Шторы здесь.

  • 14. mathtuition88  |  August 30, 2013 at 9:25 am

    Reblogged this on Singapore Maths Tuition.

  • 15. Elegant Counting System | TIMEOC  |  May 6, 2015 at 2:38 pm

    […] After reading the book Outliers (actually I listened to the audiobook), I was intrigued by the author’s observation that, in math, Western language speakers’ children are already a year behind Asian language speakers by the age of 5. If you haven’t ever heard this before, you can read a synopsis here. […]

  • 16. Elegant Counting System Part I | TIMEOC  |  May 6, 2015 at 3:28 pm

    […] After reading the book Outliers (actually I listened to the audiobook), I was intrigued by the author’s observation that, in math, Western language speakers’ children are already a year behind Asian language speakers by the age of 5. If you haven’t ever heard this before, you can read a synopsis here. […]

  • 17. Lori Jackson  |  September 27, 2016 at 5:52 pm

    Great read.

  • 18. Rodney Warran  |  October 26, 2016 at 6:47 am

    This is a very interesting explanation of why I struggle with math in America. Almost as if we teach theory as a basic step rather than mathematical function. Maybe I didn’t say that right, but the idea for me is that there is too much being taught at one time. As if engineers are trying to teach construction laborers why we should think a certain way.

    I see myself using the other way described in this article. I receive information from professors, but have to translate it before I can solve it.

  • 19. John Doe  |  March 17, 2017 at 3:26 pm

    The language has nothing to do with math. It is simply that Asians care and put in effort, while other children do not put in any effort, instead sit and whine about how math is hard.

  • 20. Andrew Smyth  |  April 2, 2017 at 1:54 pm

    East Asian children who were adopted at birth by American and European families also show a slightly higher IQ on average than there adoptive white siblings— they show a greater advantage in there ability at math(s)

  • 21. A spoken language for planet Earth | dev @ theodorus  |  June 12, 2017 at 1:45 pm

    […] are also very important. Inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s observation on Math and Chinese, I would like my numbers to be short words as well. So rather than re-inventing […]


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Jason R. Atwood

I'm an avid trail runner and doctoral student at U.C. Berkeley who studies motivation and the relationship between the mind and body. This blog is a forum to share research, news, and musings about these topics of interest. More

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