Asia's mathematical advantage runs deep

25th April 2014 at 01:00
Numbers are at the heart of communication in China, but the West should not use cultural differences as an excuse for lagging behind

How many British citizens would admit that they struggle with reading and can barely write a sentence? Pretty much none. Illiterate people go to enormous lengths to hide the fact. However, there is little embarrassment in Western society in professing that you hate maths and don't understand your children's homework. In fact, there is often bravado.

This double standard would be baffling to Asian parents, who would be shamed by such an admission. In China, friends and colleagues frequently discuss whether their children are receiving As in maths and where their offspring rank in class. Extra tuition is commonplace all over the Far East. In Hong Kong, young, glamorous maths tutors enjoy such celebrity status that their pictures appear on the sides of buses.

Is it surprising, then, that Asian pupils regularly outperform Western students in maths?

The picture goes much deeper. Just as wordplay is integral to Western society - with our subtleties of communication and our sense of humour that relies on puns, idioms and double entendres - numbers are at the heart of language and culture in Asia.

Mandarin gives children an advantage even before they begin to calculate: for example, 11 and 12 are written as 10-1 and 10-2, helping students to understand the concept of place value. In Mandarin, 23 is 2-10-3; the unit in front of the 10 is the multiple. It is easy, then, for Chinese children to grasp that 23 is two 10s and a 3, making adding and subtracting straightforward.

Mandarin has four tones and more than 40,000 characters, so the skills of memory training, observation and careful listening are fostered naturally in Chinese children simply through immersion in their language. Even the building-block style of Mandarin, in which two-syllable words are formed from the meanings of two single-syllable words, helps children to develop logical thinking. If d means big, d rn (big people) means adult and d ji (big family) means everyone.

There are no plurals in Mandarin and the phrases "some", "few" and "many" are used with less frequency than in English. Thus, numbers feature more prominently in conversation. If you can't ask someone to pass the plates, you need to quantify the statement with a number: three plates or five plates. Counting is therefore something that Chinese people do more often. Similarly, days of the week are Week 1 (Monday), Week 2 (Tuesday) and so forth, just as Month 1 is January and so on until Month 12. It is very logical.

Numbers also figure prominently in Chinese superstition. While 13 is seen as unlucky in the West, 4 sounds like the word for death in Mandarin and is avoided to the point that tower blocks miss out level 4, as well as 14, 24 and all the numbers from 40 to 49. Singapore's public transport system even omits 4 from number plates.

Conversely, 8 is considered lucky as it sounds like the word for wealth: in 2003, a telephone number of eight 8s sold for US$280,000 (pound;166,000) to Sichuan Airlines. The Beijing Olympic Games started at 8.08pm on 8 August 2008, and 8 August is thought to be an auspicious date for births and weddings.

Symbols say it all

Like algebra, Mandarin is a symbolic language in which big ideas can be expressed with very few characters. Chinese idioms assume knowledge of the narratives at the heart of them. Therefore, a lot of information can be conveyed in just four characters.

One example is the saying zi xiang mao dun, which can be translated as "one's spear contradicts one's own shield". To understand this idiom, one needs to know the backstory, which is thought to be more than 2,000 years old. A market seller claims that his spear is the sharpest under Heaven, able to pierce anything. He also boasts that the shield he is selling is the strongest under Heaven, able to withstand any weapon. But when challenged, he is unable to explain to the crowd what would happen if his spear attacked his shield. His potential customers laugh and walk away.

Is this not the same as when Pythagoras' theorem is simplified as a + b = c? Here we also need to know the backstory: that the sum of the squares of the two shorter sides of a right-angled triangle is equal to the square of its hypotenuse.

So, if Chinese language and society are conspiring to advance children's mathematical development to such an extent, should the West graciously accept defeat, give up and go home? Of course not. There are a hundred ways in which we can approach a solution. Improving mathematical understanding is a multifaceted issue and requires a similarly broad range of measures. However, let the first solution be the simplest and one we can all agree to.

It is not accepted in Asia that you can either do maths or you can't. But that myth, which has been debunked over years of educational research, persists in the West. And studies have proved that just by admitting that they are no good at maths, mothers unwittingly lower their daughters' attainment. Most women would be horrified to know this.

Whether we are male or female, young or old, let us replace this sentiment with a different attitude that we can also apply to any other subject: if I am not good at maths yet, I can learn if I work hard. If we change our mindset, we can develop our mathematical ability, just as we can train our bodies and minds to run a race or play a musical instrument.

Corinne Wolfe teaches maths at the British International School in Jakarta, Indonesia

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