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 might expect that we would also say oneteen, twoteen, threeteen, and fiveteen. But we don't. We use a different form: eleven, twelve, thirteen, and fifteen. Similarly, we have forty and sixty, which sound like the words they are related to (four and six). But we also say fifty and thirty and twnty, which sort of sound live five an three and two, 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), whereas for the teens, we do it the other way around (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-tens-four and so on.
That difference means that Asian children learn to count much faster than American children. Four-year old Chinese children can count, on average, to forty. American children at that age can count only to fifteen, and most don't reach forty until they're five...
"The Asian system is transparent," says Karen Fuson, a Northwestern University psychologist who has closely studied 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 it's sensible. For fractions, we say thee-fifths. The Chinese literally "out of five parts, take three.' That's telling you conceptually what a fraction is. It's differentiating the denominator and the numberator."
...When it comes to math, in other words, Asians have a built-in advantage. But it's an unusual kind of advantage. For years, students from China, South Korea, and Japan - and the children of recent immigrants who are from those countries - have substantially outpreformed their Western counterparts at mathematics, and the typical assumption is tha tit has something to do with a kind of innate Asian proclivity for math. The psychologist Richard Lynn has even gone so far as to propose an elaborate evolutionary theory involving the Himalayas, really cold weather, premodern hunting practices, brain size, and specialized vowel sounds to explain why Asians have higher IQs. That's how we think about math. We assume that being good at things like calculus and algebra is a simple function of how smart someone is. But the differences between the number systems in the East and the West suggest something very different - that being good at math may also be rooted in a group's culture.
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