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The Chinese Language, Numbers, and Ability in Math

I have already brought up the idea of how the language you speak can shape you mind, and it is a topic that continues to add layers of depth and possibility. I was reminded of this last week when I reread Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” (he doesn’t pay me, but I definitely think that everyone should read it as well as his previous works, “Blink” and “The Tipping Point”), which includes a chapter titled “Rice Paddies and Math Tests”. Mr. Gladwell is kind enough to post that particular chapter on his personal website here.

The purpose of “Outliers” is to demonstrate how certain figures who have found success and are known as “great” often times are the product of a certain amount of skill combined with luck and opportunity. In this chapter he addresses the concept of the seeming inherent skill of Chinese students in mathematics and he comes to the conclusion that they do have an advantage over Americans when learning math, but it is the result of their language. Simply stated, their words that represent numbers in Chinese are shorter, and therefore easier for children to learn and work with, and their counting system has a simpler logical basis (eleven, twelve…thirteen??!!?!?), making more complicated calculations much easier and thereby fomenting a student’s confidence in the field.

This chapter, as with the rest of the book, is stunning in its simplicity and logic and really makes you wonder what else is affected simply by the choice of words used to represent concepts. The possibilities are essentially endless. As he ends this section with the sentence “When it comes to math, in other words, Asians have built-in advantage. . .”, he is playing with the idea that the stereotype exists…that it does come from a reality, but the reality is not anything related to genetics or anything inherent in Chinese people or Americans…it’s all about language once again.