English is a frustrating language to learn. There is always more than one exemption to every grammatical rule and pronunciation is far from phonetic. As it’s evolved, English has absorbed scores of words from other tongues and may have the most abundant vocabulary — depending on how you count.
So native-born English speakers appear to be born with a natural advantage when it comes to speaking one of the world’s most widespread languages.
That is, until it comes to math.
Research analysed in the Wall Street Journal showed that English’s somewhat erratic grammatical structure makes learning math less intuitive for English-speaking children than those who speak Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Turkish.
For Anglo children, the confusion arises with the number 11. In English there is a unique word for the numeral but in Chinese, Japanese and Korean the number is roughly translated as “ten-one.” This provides children with an understanding of the place value and the fact that the number value is based on units of ten.
The confusion continues with number words like “sixteen,” where the ones and the tens are reversed, making it easy to muddle 16 with 61. In Chinese for example, 16 is translated as “ten-six.” Doing addition with multi-digits is harder for children working with English number names because the immediate understanding that numbers are made up of tens and ones isn’t there.
As the Wall Street Journal identified, this is a small issue but it does present an additional barrier when attempting to grasp numeracy as the child’s brain is using valuable memory in identifying numbers before they can even start to put them together and take them apart.
Language may be one answer to why Chinese and Korean students rank so highly in international math exams, topping a list of 65 countries (the US rested at 30 n the same list). Although it’s probably more than number vocabulary that’s pushing these kids forward, they still have a sounder starting block to launch off.
Asian languages are not the only ones that are better than English for numeracy. Turkish-speaking pre-schoolers seem to master number skills better than English-speaking Canadian children of the same age. This was revealed in a study that looked at how both groups of children performed at a numbered board game. The Turkish children had scored higher, even though they received less instruction in numbers and counting.
But for parents of English speakers who want their offspring to excel at math, there are many options aside from Mandarin lessons. The Wall Street Journal mentions that children who played number games at home had superior numeracy.
They also quoted experts on the importance of math video and computer games. Games, without penalties for errors (like Matific) do not deflate children if they don’t understand a concept. If kids are having fun they seem to absorb knowledge without a lot of mental strain. In fact, many grasp important mathematical concepts without even realizing it.
Perhaps programs like Matific can eventually democratize numeracy, because excelling in math should be a priority for children in every language.