The Numbers Game
ome languages have more complicated ways of naming numbers than others, and some people even think that if your native language has a simple, clear way of naming numbers then it will be easier for you to learn math — but I’d say this is wrong. What does it mean to have "complicated" numbers? Let’s say you're learning to count to 100 in English. To get there, you would really just need to know 20 words and suffixes: one     twelve The first 12 numbers follow no special pattern and must be memorized. -teen to construct the rest of the numbers until 20 you use “teen”, but note that you'd also need to remember... thirteen, fifteen rather than "threeteen" or "fiveteen" -ty to make the multiples of ten you’d need “ty”, but note that you'd also need to learn... thirty, forty, fifty and not "threety", "fourty" and "fivety" hundred and of course “hundred” to cap it off. With these 20 words and knowledge of the pattern used to make the numbers, you can count to 100, or really all the way to 999 before having to learn any new words. Chinese, Japanese and a number of other Asian languages have a much simpler system. To count to 100 and beyond, you'd only need to learn 11 words: the words for 1 through 10 and the word for "hundred". In both Chinese and Japanese, 10 is written like a small cross. (In fact, in both languages the Red Cross Society is called the "Red Ten Society".) But 十 also acts as the "-ty" suffix in English. So numbers above 10 follow this pattern: 11 is “ten-one” (十一) 12 is “ten-two” (十二) 20 is “two-ten” (二十) 21 is “two-ten-one” (二十一), and so on. Now this difference has led to the prevalent belief that kids who grow up speaking Chinese or Japanese will be better at math than those who grow up speaking the more complicated English. (For example, see this Wall Street Journal report making this argument.) I find this hard to believe though. Consider India, which has a very respectable reputation in math. After all, India invented the zero, and today India is often seen as a powerhouse in engineering and other math-heavy pursuits. Because of this, you might think that Indian languages such as Hindi and Bengali and others would also have simple number systems like Japanese does, but in fact many northern Indian languages have very complicated numbering. Where in Chinese you need 11 words to count to 100, and in English you need 20 words to count to 100, in Hindi you will need to memorize all 100 words. They are all irregular.  A rough system does exist, but there are just too many exceptions, and so all the numbers up to 100 are usually taught individually instead of trying to teach a pattern. Consider these: छह (cheh) – six सीलह (solah) – sixteen छब्बीस (chab-bees) – twenty-six साठ (satt’h) – sixty In English, all these numbers have “six” in them, but Hindi is all over the place — the only thing these have in common is that two start with a “” (S) and two start with a “” (CH). And then there is the matter of Hindi fractions. In English, we have the word “half” for ½, and we have “quarter” for ¼, but all other fractions follow a rigid pattern, with a cardinal number followed by an ordinal number: one- fifth, three-sevenths, etc. Hindi also has special words for “half” (आधा – ahd'ha) and “quarter” (चौथाई – chawt'hai) — but it has many others too: “pauna” (पौना) means “three quarters” “sawah” (सवा) means “one and a quarter” “daird” (डेढ़) means “one and a half” “d’hai” (ढाई) means “two and a half” These fractions come into play when telling time. Instead of saying it’s “half past two o’clock,” Hindi speakers say it’s “d’hai o’clock” (2½ o’clock). So if India can be strong in math despite the very involved vocabulary for numbers, then maybe language doesn't really have such a bearing on mathematical ability. Probably it has a lot more to do with how much emphasis the various cultures place on math education. That said, India’s greatest modern mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan (whose story was the basis of the 1997 film “Good Will Hunting”) grew up speaking Tamil, which like other southern Indian languages has a much simpler number system, more in line with the East Asian languages. Still, it’s anyone’s guess on whether he was helped by his linguistic circumstance.
S
The Numbers Game
ome languages have more complicated ways of naming numbers than others, and some people even think that if your native language has a simple, clear way of naming numbers then it will be easier for you to learn math — but I’d say this is wrong. What does it mean to have "complicated" numbers? Let’s say you're learning to count to 100 in English. To get there, you would really just need to know 20 words and suffixes: one     twelve The first 12 numbers follow no special pattern and must be memorized. -teen to construct the rest of the numbers until 20 you use “teen”, but note that you'd also need to remember... thirteen, fifteen rather than "threeteen" or "fiveteen" -ty to make the multiples of ten you’d need “ty”, but note that you'd also need to learn... thirty, forty, fifty and not "threety", "fourty" and "fivety" hundred and of course “hundred” to cap it off. With these 20 words and knowledge of the pattern used to make the numbers, you can count to 100, or really all the way to 999 before having to learn any new words. Chinese, Japanese and a number of other Asian languages have a much simpler system. To count to 100 and beyond, you'd only need to learn 11 words: the words for 1 through 10 and the word for "hundred". In both Chinese and Japanese, 10 is written like a small cross. (In fact, in both languages the Red Cross Society is called the "Red Ten Society".) But 十 also acts as the "-ty" suffix in English. So numbers above 10 follow this pattern: 11 is “ten-one” (十一) 12 is “ten-two” (十二) 20 is “two-ten” (二十) 21 is “two-ten-one” (二十一), and so on. Now this difference has led to the prevalent belief that kids who grow up speaking Chinese or Japanese will be better at math than those who grow up speaking the more complicated English. (For example, see this Wall Street Journal report making this argument.) I find this hard to believe though. Consider India, which has a very respectable reputation in math. After all, India invented the zero, and today India is often seen as a powerhouse in engineering and other math-heavy pursuits. Because of this, you might think that Indian languages such as Hindi and Bengali and others would also have simple number systems like Japanese does, but in fact many northern Indian languages have very complicated numbering. Where in Chinese you need 11 words to count to 100, and in English you need 20 words to count to 100, in Hindi you will need to memorize all 100 words. They are all irregular.  A rough system does exist, but there are just too many exceptions, and so all the numbers up to 100 are usually taught individually instead of trying to teach a pattern. Consider these: छह (cheh) – six सीलह (solah) – sixteen छब्बीस (chab-bees) – twenty-six साठ (satt’h) – sixty In English, all these numbers have “six” in them, but Hindi is all over the place — the only thing these have in common is that two start with a “” (S) and two start with a ” (CH). And then there is the matter of Hindi fractions. In English, we have the word “half” for ½, and we have “quarter” for ¼, but all other fractions follow a rigid pattern, with a cardinal number followed by an ordinal number: one-fifth, three- sevenths, etc. Hindi also has special words for “half” (आधा – ahd'ha) and “quarter” (चौथाई – chawt'hai) — but it has many others too: “pauna” (पौना) means “three quarters” “sawah” (सवा) means “one and a quarter” “daird” (डेढ़) means “one and a half” “d’hai” (ढाई) means “two and a half” These fractions come into play when telling time. Instead of saying it’s “half past two o’clock,” Hindi speakers say it’s “d’hai o’clock” (2½ o’clock). So if India can be strong in math despite the very involved vocabulary for numbers, then maybe language doesn't really have such a bearing on mathematical ability. Probably it has a lot more to do with how much emphasis the various cultures place on math education. That said, India’s greatest modern mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan (whose story was the basis of the 1997 film “Good Will Hunting”) grew up speaking Tamil, which like other southern Indian languages has a much simpler number system, more in line with the East Asian languages. Still, it’s anyone’s guess on whether he was helped by his linguistic circumstance.
S