Math Mondays: Bad at Math? It’s not you–it’s your English.

There’s a lot of hubbub and headscratching about the repeated performance of Asian countries on the TIMSS tests (Trends in International Math and Science Study) in comparison with the results from the US. The top 4 performing countries in the Math section are Singapore, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, for every year of their included results. And the US? Well, I won’t sugarcoat it.

In short, the tests showed U.S. fourth-graders performing poorly, middle school students worse. and high school students are unable to compete. By grade 4, American students only score in the middle of 26 countries reported. By grade 8 they are in the bottom third, and at the finish line, where it really counts, we’re near dead last. Its even worse when you notice that some of the superior countries in grade 8 (especially the Asians) were not included in published 12th grade results.

Different people have their theories–up till now, I’ve believed that I am so bad at Math that I, alone, have depressed the scores on the TIMSS for our entire country since 1972. I still think there’s something to that.

However, I just read a fascinating chapter in the book Outliers: The Story of Success (an excerpt of it here) and it brought so much together for me in my quest to understand why I can’t do math, why Naturalist struggles with it as well, and how to take a different look at numbers.

First, he starts off the chapter talking about digit span, and memory, things I brought up last week. Basically, digit span memory (or, how many numbers you can remember consecutively) affects a persons ability to perform math easily. Gladwell takes it a step further, in a direction I hadn’t thought about:

Take a look at the following list of numbers: 4,8,5,3,9,7,6. Read them out loud to yourself. Now look away, and spend twenty seconds memorizing that sequence before saying them out loud again.

If you speak English, you have about a 50 percent 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 memorize 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 every time because—unlike English speakers—their language allows them to fit all those seven numbers into two seconds.

It has a lot to do with the sounds the numbers make in Chinese vs. English. In Chinese, the numbers are pronounced faster, which leads to a digit span of about 10 numbers vs. our 6. Fascinating…but it gets better…

It turns out that there is also a big difference in how number-naming systems in Western and Asian languages are constructed. In English, we say fourteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen and nineteen, so one would think that we would also say one-teen, two-teen, and three-teen. But we don’t. We make up a different form: eleven, twelve, thirteen, and fifteen. Similarly, we have forty, and sixty, which sound like what they are. But we also say fifty and thirty and twenty, which sort of sound what they are but not really. And, for that matter, for numbers above twenty, we put the “decade” first and the unit number second: twenty-one, twenty-two. For the teens, though, we do it the other way around. We put the decade second and the unit number first: fourteen, seventeen, eighteen. The number system in English is highly irregular. Not so in China, Japan and Korea. They have a logical counting system. Eleven is ten one. Twelve is ten two. Twenty-four is two ten four, and so on.

That difference means that Asian children learn to count much faster. Four year old Chinese children can count, on average, up to forty. American children, at that age, can only count to fifteen, and don’t reach forty 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.

I’ve always felt like math was like speaking a different language…I hear “48 plus 87”, have to decode the words to make numbers, then take those numbers and make them do stuff. I don’t do this very well, or very quickly. But to think of them as “four tens 8 plus eight tens 7” just clicks faster. Why didn’t I think of that before? There is a math curriculum, Math U See, that encourages the younger kids to call the teen numbers “one-ty (11), two-ty (12), three-ty (13), etc.” which, while we didn’t use the curriculum we did use that method to help Naturalist with her mental blocks with those numbers.

He continues:

The much-storied disenchantment with mathematics among western children starts in the third and fourth grade, and Fuson argues that perhaps a part of that disenchantment is due to the fact that math doesn’t seem to make sense; its linguistic structure is clumsy; its basic rules seem arbitrary and complicated.

Or, more to the point…that’s when math made me cry. Every time I had to do math in 3rd grade and up, I would end up crying. Every time I had to take a timed test while trying to translate the foreign language of math into something I understood, I cried. I just thought that everyone felt that way…I know very little people who sing the praises of math, so I assumed everyone struggled with it like I did. Then I met Hubby, who can do math as easily as breathing…and felt even worse about my own ineptitude. MATH! Why do you scorn me?!

“The Asian system is transparent,” says Karen Fuson, a Northwestern University psychologist, who has done much of the research on Asian-Western differences. “I think that it makes the whole attitude toward math different. Instead of being a rote learning thing, there’s a pattern I can figure out. There is an expectation that I can do this. There is an expectation that it’s sensible. 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.

This only underscores my belief that sometimes we need to get outside the box to find things that work for us, rather than continue to try to work a curriculum that isn’t working. It’s harder to do that with our huge gorilla of a public school system, but since I don’t have that problem anymore I’ve been able to look high and low for a better math way for both Naturalist and myself. Interestingly, I’ve found that the more Eastern I go for ways to do math, the better Naturalist and I get at it, and the more we enjoy it. Specifically, Vedic Math has been amazing at showing us both the beauty and pattern of numbers. We discovered this on a whim, when a Math Monkey opened up close by and she took some classes there.

Anyway, I know this isn’t exactly a fun math game this week, but I found this chapter so fascinating that I had to share it!

(another article about the differences between Western and Eastern math:
English words may hinder math skills development)


7 Responses

  1. I’m on the waiting list for that book! I enjoyed his book “Blink” very much. As far as a language – math is definitely its own language- with a different way of writing, speaking, etc.

    The concept of our numerals being not as see-through as asian cultures is a fascinating one too. 🙂

  2. I love reading your blog! I feel like every time I read I get more and more excited about learning and thinking about how my kids can learn. (by the way you are not alone in math issues…nor having a husband that can add any two numbers faster than I can remember what they are!)

  3. Hi Tiffany, Check out a book called Overcoming Math Anxiety. I forget who it’s by, but it changed my entire relationship with math. I could just cry picturing little Tiffany at her math lessons feeling so discouraged. Hugs to your inner child.


  4. As a Singaporean I’ll introduce one BIG confound into this-

    Math (indeed all except 2nd language) instruction in Singapore is done in English.

  5. omg i never knew these stuff lol i am so stupid

  6. I have a extremely bad case of math anxiety. I’m currently taking a basic math class in college and I cry Everytime I come home. It’s gotten so bad, I fail quizzes and tests half because I’m so frustrated and the other because I know I’m not very good at it. Whenever I do a math problem I over think it and think its 20 times harder then it should actually be. It’s horrible and I hate it and I don’t know what to do about it. It’s literally draining me. 😦

  7. Good day! I could have sworn I’ve visited this blog before but after going through a few of the posts I realized it’s new to me.
    Anyways, I’m certainly happy I came across it and I’ll be book-marking it
    and checking back regularly!

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