Asian kids learn numbers faster
Does our education systems turn out incompetent kids?
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About a year ago Maddi (5-years-old at the time) was very pleased with herself when she came home and told me she can count to 10 in Afrikaans. She was pleased as punch that she got the pronunciation correct as well. Then I suggested she count to 20 in English and she was able to do 1 to 10 without a hiccup, but after 13 it became a bit of a mish-mash. However, I understand Maddi’s personality very well and I know that she’s very opinionated, able to process logic and is quick on the uptake. So I thought I’d try a variation on something I’d read about in the best-selling book “Outliers – The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell.

Words which make numbers easier

In one of the chapters Malcolm contends that Asian kids have a head-start on Western kids because their language makes it easier for kids to grasp the concept of numbers. Apparently because the words in English, for example, for numbers change completely when you move above ten, it makes it harder for western kids to remember the numbers and as such they have a natural “dislike” or reluctance to develop a comfortable aptitude for numbers. Whereas Chinese, Japanese and Korean kids, learn to love numbers and are very confident with them.

So I put Maddi to the test. We went through the numbers in rote fashion until 20- this took about 15 minutes of repetition before she got it enough to recall on command. Then we started with 21 to 30, and 31 to 40. And all I said to her is “can you hear how thirty sounds like three, and forty sounds like four and so on?”

Is there an easier way?

I went on to explain to her that thirty, forty, fifty etc, were cousins of three, four and five etc. She has a large family, with lots of cousins, so she immediately grasped the concept which we practised for about 20 minutes. By that evening she was confidently telling anyone willing to listen that she could count up to 100 and was happy to prove it to them too. Could it be this simple? That we’ve handicapped our children because of the complicated language we use to represent numbers?

Gladwell says: “It turns out that there is also a big difference in how number-naming systems in Western and Asian languages are constructed. In English, we say fourteen, sixteen, seventeen, etc, so one might expect that we would also say oneteen, twoteen and fiveteen. But we don’t. We use a different form: eleven, twelve, thirteen, and fifteen, we have forty and sixty, which sound like the words they are related to (four and six). But we also say fifty and thirty and twenty, which sort of sound like five and three and two, but not really. And for that matter, for numbers above twenty we put the “decade” first and the unit number second (twenty-one, twenty-two), whereas for the teens, we do it the other way around (fourteen, seventeen, eighteen). The number system in English is highly irregular. Not so in China, Japan and Korea. They have a logical counting system, Eleven is ten-one. Twelve is ten-two. Twenty-four is two tens-four and so on.

Logical naming systems mean better students

That difference means that Asian children learn to count much faster than American children. Four-year-old Chinese children can count on average, to forty. American children at that age can count only to fifteen and most don’t reach forty until they’re five.”

These days it appears that our high-school kids are “graduating” without being able to spell or do simple math. As someone with a love for languages, this statistic really irks me. Of course the system (of education in SA) and those who design the system are to blame. But for the love of Pete, please, Ministers and everyone else involved, can we seriously start looking at what’s out there and begin to use tried and tested systems to give our kids the best possible start in the rat race?

Surely it does not take a complicated math formula to realise that if you’re churning out under-educated kids in the schooling system, they will eventually come back and have a tangible impact on the collective intelligence of our nation as a whole. It was reported on the radio that Zimbabwe is churning out more competent scholars than we do! Need I say more!

Read more by Marlon Abrahams

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