Chinese Numbers

China has won the International Mathematics Olympiad eleven times – nine more than any other country. Is this due to their education system, or might there be a more fundamental reason?

There’s a disparity between the average memory of people living in China, Japan and Korea, and those in the west. What makes this interesting is that it may indicate a correlation between memory and numbers – that is, how easy it is to say the numbers in the language.

As a rule of thumb, most people can remember what they read or hear in a two-second window of time. If we take the number „seven“ in English, or „sieben“ in German, this takes about a third of a second to say. Compare this with the Chinese equivalent „qi“, which on average takes less than a quarter of a second to say. Research across languages as diverse as Welsh, Arabic, Chinese, English and Hebrew has shown that this fractional difference has had a direct impact on memory abilities in language contexts. It also explains the difference in the mathematical abilities of children from China, Japan and Korea when compared to the same age group in the west

The English numbering system has irregularities. For example, English has ten, eleven, twelve, and then it falls into a system of saying the single-digit number followed by „teen“, i.e. fourteen, sixteen, etc. Even then, this has irregularities because thirteen and fifteen don’t exactly follow the pattern. German sees zehn, elf, zwölf, and then falls into the same pattern as English: dreizehn, vierzehn, etc. However, moving up through the system, English has the tens first, followed by the digit: twenty-one, twenty-two, and so forth, whereas German has the opposite order: ein-und-zwanzig, zwei-und-zwanzig.

The Scandinavian languages are even more irregular. The teen numbers follow no pattern at all, before sharing the Germanic pattern from twenty onwards.
By the time we get to the hundreds English has stayed true to its principles and is reading the numbers in order: one-hundred-and-twenty-three; German has a compromise: ein-hundert-drei-und-zwanzig.

You can see that this is all getting a bit of mouthful. So turning our attention back to the Orient, if the Chinese have single digits which can each be said in less than a quarter of a second, how do they say the higher-order numbers? Perfectly logically. Eleven is ten-one, twelve is ten-two, and the pattern doesn’t deviate. In English the number 74 is said as seventy-four, in German vier-und-siebzig; in Chinese it’s seven-tens-four. And remember that those words can be said fractionally quicker.

It’s this regularity that gives Chinese children the advantage. By the age of four, Chinese children are already a year ahead of their western counterparts in terms of computational ability.
We take a person’s ability to perform calculus and algebra as an indicator of intelligence, but the difference in pattern regularity and length of numerical words between the eastern and western number systems suggest something different – that mathematical ability may also be rooted in a group’s cultural and linguistic history.

Bild: Supertext

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