Is the Japanese writing system the key to teaching better maths?

The characters and symbols used in the languages of the Far East may make concepts such as fractions, multiplication and the properties of shape easier to grasp – giving students from the region an advantage over their British peers, finds Sally Kawagoe
13th September 2019, 12:04am
Is The Japanese Writing System The Key To Maths?


Is the Japanese writing system the key to teaching better maths?

Teaching in Japan was certainly different to what I was used to. Each morning, when I arrived at the school I would be working in that day (I worked across six junior schools during my five-year stay in the high mountains of the country), I would swap my outdoor shoes at the immaculate entrance hall and squeeze on brightly coloured plastic slippers that were three sizes too small for me. I would watch, fascinated, while students cheerfully mopped their own classroom floors. And later I would observe those students serving their own school lunches.

It was the linguistic differences, however, particularly in regard to mathematics, which really struck me.

The Japanese writing system combines different scripts: predominantly Chinese kanji - characters or symbols - used in combination with hiragana and katakana - Japanese phonetic scripts.

To my outside eye, kanji were at first beautiful, mysterious and impregnable. It took many, many hours of careful study before I could begin to differentiate and recall any but the most simple symbols. Once I could, however, it was a lightbulb moment.

Unlike Western writing systems that are phonetic, kanji are symbols imbued with meaning all on their own. I became increasingly struck by the simple logic of this visual language in relation to mathematical concepts that I knew British children frequently found difficult.

I began to wonder if the Chinese writing system provided an advantage when it came to understanding maths.

Far East tops the Pisa charts

Every three years, the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) ranks children from all over the world according to academic attainment at the age of 15. In 2012, the Pisa survey focused on mathematics and, in this survey, the UK was ranked 26th in the world.

The top seven rankings were dominated by countries in the Far East, all of which use Chinese kanji (to some extent) in their written script. The top four: Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, are all Chinese speaking. South Korea (ranked number 5) uses a mixture of the Korean phonetic script Hanguel and Chinese characters Hanja - of which students are expected to know approximately 2,000 by the end of high school.

Macao - at number six - is again Chinese speaking and like Korea, Japan, ranked seventh, uses a mixture of its own phonetic script combined with Chinese characters.

In 2015, while the main focus of the Pisa survey shifted to science, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macao and Japan still dominated the top five positions for mathematical attainment.

Clearly something was working in the Far East when it came to the teaching and learning of maths. The Department for Education funded the England-China Mathematics Education Innovation Research Project and sent teachers from England over to Shanghai to observe what is known as “mastery” teaching in practice.

The teaching strategy of mastery, whereby all children are exposed to the same curriculum content, at the same pace, was promoted as the way to narrow the gap in mathematical attainment between the UK and countries in the Far East.

As many independent studies have shown, the factors influencing attainment in mathematics are various and multifaceted, with teaching approach and pedagogy undoubtedly being key. However, are we missing a trick when it comes to the linguistics of mathematics? My time in Japan suggests we might be.

Language makes maths simpler

Teachers know that place value crucially underpins understanding of the number system and yet, while an English-speaking child is grappling with the concepts of the teen numbers between 10 and 20, as well as the multiples of 10, and what these actually mean numerically, to the Chinese or Japanese learner, the numbers translate logically from the written kanji as: “ten-one” (11); “ten-two” (12) etc. The same applies for multiples of 10, where 20 is “two-ten”, 30 is “three-ten”, and so on.

This logic extends wider across other areas of maths. Learning properties of shape becomes much simpler when both your visual (written) and oral language describe a square as “four-corners”, a pentagon as “five-corners”, a hexagon as “six-corners” and so on - the kanji for “corner” being conveniently the same as for “angle”.

Fractions is similarly logical. A half? In Japanese it’s simple: ni bun no ichi (one of two parts). A quarter is yon bun no ichi (one of four parts), while two-thirds is san bun no ni (two of three parts).

Interestingly, in recent years, I have heard leading maths teachers tentatively begin to talk about quarters as fourths, which is more logical, although one of four parts would be even more explicit.

But could all this really give students in the Far East a meaningful advantage?

Several academic studies have supported the view that the superior mathematical attainment of Chinese and other East Asian students could be partly explained by the linguistic transparency of their counting systems (Miller et al, 2005; Ng and Rao, 2010). In 2016, Dowker and Nuerk suggested in an editorial on linguistic influences on mathematics that “linguistic influences on number processing are ubiquitous” and called for further, more specific research in this area.

I agree. In an increasingly globalised world, it is crucial that our young people can compete among their international peers. My feeling as a classroom teacher is that, currently, too many children fall down at the hurdle of place value.

Would these children not go on to achieve more if this crucial gap in understanding could be avoided? In recent years, partly inspired by the mastery approach, we have already seen a slight tweaking of the language used in place value charts: it is sensible to talk about hundreds, tens and ones as opposed to hundreds, tens and units. Would it be such a travesty, therefore, to learn from kanji and rename the teen numbers and multiples of 10 to make them explicit in both written and spoken forms? Why not “ten-one” for 11 or “ten-two” for 12?

Brave decision

In the 1960s, the government made a brave decision to formally support metrification in the UK. We moved as a nation (my father being a notable exception!) from describing units of measurement in a uniquely British way to the standardised metric system used by much of the rest of the world.

We could make a similar leap again. The language systems of the Far East support mathematical understanding by making mathematical concepts transparent in a way that our own language system currently does not. Could a new approach to the linguistics that we use to discuss mathematics improve our children’s learning and understanding in this area?

Sally Kawagoe is a primary school teacher in the East Midlands. Prior to this, she spent several years teaching in Mexico, Spain and Japan

This article originally appeared in the 13 SEPTEMBER 2019 issue under the headline “Is Chinese writing system the key to better maths?”

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