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Why Asians Are Good At Math, Finally, A Legit Theory

Asians And MathWhether you admit it or not, being raised in America, we all know the racial stereotypes that have traversed through our colorful history. For Asian Americans, we are all good at math right? It’s a stereotype, but a good stereotype right? Despite my frequent ramblings, political correctness concerns me little. Instead, I am interested in the roots and explanations to social phenomenon that we humans, out of ignorance, simplify with racial stereotypes.

What do people really think about the Asians-good-at-math stereotype? Oh, I know, it’s because they’re smarter. Well, no, if we accept Asians are good at math because Asians are smarter, we fall into the same whirlpool of ignorance the Conquistadors used to justify their dominance over Meso-Americans or 19th century American slave owners who believed African slaves could only become civilized through hard work. Fortunately, Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent book, Outliers, has shed some light on the Asian math stereotype.

First, what we know. American grade school students have always trailed continental Asia in math. Some claim Asian students are better because they spend more hours in school. But comparing school systems fails to account for Asian-American success. Asians in America go through the same education system yet in the 2003 SAT exam, Asian-Americans averaged 575 in Math while White’s averaged 534, American Indian’s 482, Hispanics 464, and African Americans at 426.

So if it’s not the schools, what accounts for Asians succeeding in math across different education systems? As English speakers, we may be unaware, but the English language is perhaps the most odd and irrational language around. Particularly with numbers, in English, after ten the teens each have an unique name and each tenth following that gets their own name. In fact, one would need to learn 28 unique words to count up to 100 in English while in any Chinese dialect, Japanese, or Korean, one only needs to learn 11 – one through ten and one hundred.

In Asian languages like Chinese, numbers after ten follow a precise logic. Eleven in Mandarin is shi yi or ten-one, twelve is ten-two, thirteen is ten-three, and so forth. When we get to fifty-nine, the logic continues, five-ten-nine. Five tens and a nine, 59. The internal logic in counting numbers with Asian languages results in kids who speak Asian languages are able to count beyond a hundred before English speakers can even count to 40. But the Asian language advantage doesn’t stop in counting. Remember those dreaded fractions? In English we would read 3/4 as three-fourths. But for languages like Chinese, 3/4 is literally translated, “out of 4 parts, take 3”.

When you think how much more sense math makes for Asian-language speakers and considering how many frustrated 3rd graders go home with there hands crossed because multiplication doesn’t make sense. How much fun would math had been if it did make sense? Wouldn’t you do more homework? In turn wouldn’t you pick up new concepts – in which case math heavily depends on learning piece by piece – easier. Quite simply,

The much-storied disenchantment with mathematics among western children starts in the third and fourth grade, […] 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.

Asian children, by contrast, don’t face nearly that same sense of bafflement. They can hold more numbers in their head, and do calculations faster, and the way fractions are expressed in their language corresponds exactly to the way a fraction actually is—and maybe that makes them a little more likely to enjoy math, and maybe because they enjoy math a little more they try a little harder and take more math classes and are more willing to do their homework, and on and on, in a kind of virtuous circle.

When it comes to math, in other words, Asians have built-in advantage. . .

And as a child, you’re not discouraged at math, it’s likely you’ll continue to take math classes growing up and continuing to do homework because it just all makes sense.

While extensive study on languages affect on math, Gladwell’s assertions shed light away from simplistic racial explanations for which I personally rejoice over.


A note before commenting…

March 22, 2012 – It’s been two-years since I originally wrote this article and new readers have kept this piece alive by adding their perspectives in the comments below. I encourage you to freely and openly express your opinion, but I want to emphasize respect when commenting.

I have remained hands off on regulating comments and have allowed all readers to openly express themselves. Please respect yourself and respect others.


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