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Saturday, April 28, 2007

Math Dynasty

I have seen a lot of posts in the blogosphere referencing a BBC story on the difference between Eastern and Western math curricula. The story gave a side by side comparison of two geometric problems, one from a Chinese math placement exam and one from an English one. Here they are.

Quite a terrifying comparison, huh? Most bloggers have been giving detailed explanations of cultural differences that lead to this disparity, and while I agree whole-heartedly with them, I wanted to post about another contributing factor. In his excellent book, The Math Gene, Keith Devlin points out a simpler point. Math is an extension of language, and the Eastern languages are better for math. Chinese is a mono-syllabic language, which for many concepts can prove difficult, but is perfectly suited for counting. Here are the Chinese pronunciations of the Arabic numerals.

1 one yee
2 two uhr
3 three sahn
4 four suh
5 five woo
6 six lyo
7 seven chee
8 eight bah
9 nine jyo
10 ten shi

They are mono-syllabic and end in vowels, which make them easy for a child to pronounce. On top of that, the linguistic pattern for counting is identical to the base ten place value system. In English, we count to ten, use a couple of throwback contractions to the days of Beowulf, pass through the teens, and then carry on with 20,30,40,etc. Yet forty will be spelled without a "u" and there will be know eleventy unless you're a Hobbit. The situation in French is similar, where there exist remnants of a base-20 system. However, in Chinese, eleven is literally spoken as ten one. Twenty-two becomes two ten two. Four hundred fifty three breaks down as four hundred five ten three.

I suspect that somewhere in grade school this linguistic disparity ceases to be significant, as English speakers master the peccadilloes of their languages, but by then all of those powerful cultural differences take over. We in the West might just have to accept that we will continue to be worse at math on average than our Eastern counterparts. We should probably settle for being the best we can be and stop worrying about how we stack up to other countries.

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