Better Language For Better Math Skills

There is a lot of meat in this article about kids and early math learning, but today I shall focus on one aspect: the difference between the English language and some others.

Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Turkish use simpler number words and express math concepts more clearly than English, making it easier for small children to learn counting and arithmetic.

The language gap is drawing growing attention amid a push by psychologists and educators to build numeracy in small children—the mathematical equivalent of literacy. Confusing English word names have been linked in several recent studies to weaker counting and arithmetic skills in children. However, researchers are finding some easy ways for parents to level the playing field through games and early practice.

Differences between Chinese and English, in particular, have been studied in U.S. and Chinese schools for decades by Karen Fuson, a professor emerita in the school of education and social policy at Northwestern University, and Yeping Li, an expert on Chinese math education and a professor of teaching, learning and culture at Texas A&M University. Chinese has just [ten] number names, while English has more than two dozen unique number words.

The trouble starts at “11.” English has a unique word for the number, while Chinese (as well as Japanese and Korean, among other languages) have words that can be translated as “ten-one”—spoken with the “ten” first. That makes it easier to understand the place value—the value of the position of each digit in a number—as well as making it clear that the number system is based on units of 10.

Long story short: children whose language has a regular way of naming numbers, find it easier to learn math. If you’re stuck with English, there are certain kinds of games which make it easier. The article sort of discounts the idea of having fun while learning – which is foolish. Having fun while learning means associating pleasant feelings with the ideas, which gives your child a leg up on those who learn to dislike math.

Lastly, I present a more rational set of counting words for English:

11 onety one
12 onety two
13 onety three
and so on to
19 onety nine
20 twenty
21 twenty one

and so forth.

This doesn’t have to happen all at once; it’s easy to use them in your own home, classroom, and so forth; if enough people use them, they’ll become an “alternative usage”, and over time, they may become the “standard usage.” Words like “eleven” and “twelve” will become archaic. And our children will have less of a speed bump on the way to learning about math.

I recommend reading the article, above, for ideas on math games, and will describe just one tip: when playing Chutes and Ladders, have your child count the spaces. When using two dice, teach the strategy of starting with the larger count and “counting up” to the destination. If the dice are 4 and 6, start with 6, count 4, making 10 spaces. Of course, your child will learn the single digits, and will say “6 and 4 is 10”, but the “count up” strategy is helpful scaffolding at the early ages.

Here is info on Mandarin counting.


5 thoughts on “Better Language For Better Math Skills”

  1. Interesting. I’ve heard this argument in various places. It seems a bit gimmicky, a bit too easy of an explanation. Can anybody name the a great Chinese mathematician? Turkish mathematician? Japanese? Arabic, sure, they’re the algebra folks, which got it’s numbers from the Hindus, it seems, and were adopted by Europeans after they threw away the Roman numerals. Couldn’t this connection between language and numbers just be another excuse for why American kids are poor at math? Lots of European kids are terrific at math. Here in the US though we can’t hold anybody accountable. That’s not politically correct. So, it’s not the kids. It’s not the parents. It’s not the teachers. It’s not the system. It’s the language! Couldn’t that be it? 🙂


      1. Ohhh, I know that. I wasn’t insinuating anything about you. It was the idea in the language-counting connection that I’ve heard around and from friends, too.


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