It’s a stereotype that Asians are bad drivers, submissive, and extremely smart. There has been no scientific evidence to support the first two but lo and behold, the latter stereotype has been proven correct. It’s simply a matter of understanding linguistic differences.
Read this number aloud to yourself: 4,8,5,3,9,7,6. Look away for twenty seconds, repeat that sequence in your head and then say them aloud again. For English-speakers, you would have a 50% chance of getting them right, but those who speak Mandarin would get it right almost every time. Why? Because a string of numbers only register in your mind for 2 seconds, and by counting in Mandarin, it allows those numbers to fit into that 2-second span. In English, numbers like four or seven require more effort and time to say than the Mandarin equivalent of si and qi.
Number-naming systems also differ greatly between English and many Asian languages. Instead of using one-teen, two-teen, three-teen, English uses eleven, twelve, thirteen; putting the decade last. However, after twenty, English uses the decades first, such twenty-one, twenty-two. It’s quite inconsistent. However in China, Korea, and Japan and several other Asian countries, the structure is much simpler. For instance, in China, eleven is ten one, twelve is ten two, twenty-one is two-ten-one, thirty-five is three-ten-five and so on. Due to the ease of counting in Mandarin, the average four year-old Chinese would be able to count to 40, while the average English-speaking child at that age could only count up to 15.
Now try simple addition. To ask a child what is thirty-seven plus twenty-two, they would have to first convert the words into numbers and only then would they be able to do the math. Ask an Asian child to calculate three-ten-seven and two-ten-two and the equation is ready for them to solve.
“I think that it makes the whole attitude toward math different. Instead of being a rote learning thing, there’s a pattern I can figure out. There is an expectation that I can do this. There is an expectation that it’s sensible. For fractions, we say three fifths. The Chinese is literally, ‘out of five parts, take three.’ That’s telling you conceptually what a fraction is. It’s differentiating the denominator and the numerator,” says Karen Fuson, a Northwestern University psychologist.
So it’s not that Asians are all good at math, it’s just that their language gives them an advantage. Perhaps if my school taught math classes in Mandarin, I wouldn’t have nearly failed pre-calculus.