Friday, December 19, 2008

Blame it on Kiswahili!

Can the language you use make you bad (or good) in mathematics? Yes, according to two respected authors: Malcolm Gladwell (the author of Tipping Point and Blink), now with a new book Outliers, and Stanislas Dehaene in his book the Number Sense (actually Dehaene argues that memory span between different [linguistic] groups of people is determined by the structure of the language they use).
Now, I am not so sure where Kiswahili falls in this, but read the excerpt below and make your own call.

Let me quote the excerpts in their books, for you to judge:

From Gladwell's Outlier Chapter 8:

Take a look at the following list of numbers: 4,8,5,3,9,7,6. Read them out loud to yourself. Now look away, and spend twenty seconds memorizing that sequence before saying them out loud again.

If you speak English, you have about a 50 percent chance of remembering that sequence perfectly If you're Chinese, though, you're almost certain to get it right every time. Why is that? Because as human beings we store digits in a memory loop that runs for about two seconds. We most easily memorize whatever we can say or read within that two second span. And Chinese speakers get that list of numbers—4,8,5,3,9,7,6—right every time because—unlike English speakers—their language allows them to fit all those seven numbers into two seconds.

This example by Gladwell is mostly derived from Dehaene's book which explains:

Chinese number words are remarkably brief. Most of them can be uttered in less than one-quarter of a second (for instance, 4 is 'si' and 7 'qi') Their English equivalents—"four," "seven"—are longer: pronouncing them takes about one-third of a second. The memory gap between English and Chinese apparently is entirely due to this difference in length. In languages as diverse as Welsh, Arabic, Chinese, English and Hebrew, there is a reproducible correlation between the time required to pronounce numbers in a given language and the memory span of its speakers. In this domain, the prize for efficacy goes to the Cantonese dialect of Chinese, whose brevity grants residents of Hong Kong a rocketing memory span of about 10 digits.

Therefore, according to Gladwell:

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, eighteen and nineteen, so one would think that we would also say one-teen, two-teen, and three-teen. But we don't. We make up a different form: eleven, twelve, thirteen, and fifteen. Similarly, we have forty, and sixty, which sound like what they are. But we also say fifty and thirty and twenty, which sort of sound what they are 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. For the teens, though, we do it the other way around. We put the decade second and the unit number first: 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 ten four, and so on.

That difference means that Asian children learn to count much faster. Four year old Chinese children can count, on average, up to forty. American children, at that age, can only count to fifteen, and don't reach forty until they're five: by the age of five, in other words, American children are already a year behind their Asian counterparts in the most fundamental of math skills.

The regularity of their number systems also means that Asian children can perform basic functions—like addition—far more easily. Ask an English seven-year-old to add thirty-seven plus twenty two, in her head, and she has to convert the words to numbers (37 + 22). Only then can she do the math: 2 plus 7 is nine and 30 and 20 is 50, which makes 59. Ask an Asian child to add three-tens-seven and two tens-two, and then the necessary equation is right there, embedded in the sentence. No number translation is necessary: It's five-tens nine.

"The Asian system is transparent," says Karen Fuson, a Northwestern University psychologist, who has done much of the research on Asian-Western differences. "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."

The much-storied disenchantment with mathematics among western children starts in the third and fourth grade, and Fuson argues that perhaps a part of that disenchantment is due to the fact that math doesn't seem to make sense; its linguistic structure is clumsy; its basic rules seem arbitrary and complicated.

Asian children, by contrast, don't face nearly that same sense of bafflement. They can hold more numbers in their head, and do calculations faster, and the way fractions are expressed in their language corresponds exactly to the way a fraction actually is—and maybe that makes them a little more likely to enjoy math, and maybe because they enjoy math a little more they try a little harder and take more math classes and are more willing to do their homework, and on and on, in a kind of virtuous circle.

When it comes to math, in other words, Asians have built-in advantage. . .


Anonymous said...

hi january and others! its'been a long time since i visited your blog. well,memory is a very interesting topic,thumbs' up to the author,i know he did lots of research to find out how and why people differ in a way they retain information.i wasn't aware that, even the way we pronounce things so as the language can bring into an effect on how we retain that information.however, as i believe, human being are the same in one way or the other, even our brain can function the same.(except in cases of brain damage) i belive in order to put our memory to work, any kind of information has to go through sensory memory, where it takes less than a minute for sensory memory to catch let say like 5 to 9 numbers,but its known to be easy to remember the first numbers as well as the last #s hardly to remember the middle ones, but in order to keep mind working, the act of keep repeating the words, make it easy to retain few words in sensory memory and transfer it to the short term, so as long term/working memory . we all know that"practice makes perfect," so if 4 year old chinese kid, can count up to 40, even 4 yrs old tanzanian kid can do the same. this is just my opinion, i'm not sure if i'm right about it but i think memory gap between languages is not entirely due to difference in length, and i dought if language play a role in retaining the information, i think, it is just a matter of how we want our brain to work. when you get used to the language will be easy to pronounce the word,and as fast as you want and it doesnt matter how long/short that word is,the more you practice it, the easy will be to retreave it.

Anonymous said...

I just finished reading Outliers a few weeks ago. So thank you for the post. I also read Blink. What fascinated me about Gladwell is not only what he said, it is how he says it. He has a great skill on writing about very complex things in a way that ordinary people can understand. Hence I highly recommend the book.

Outliers is a book about people who have achieved way better than everybody else. And not those who inherited wealth, but mainly those who actually worked hard and created wealth from scratch by changing the society that they live in. For example think of Said Salim Bakhressa and Reginald Mengi. Gladwell argues that the culture of aggrandizing individual achievement as a “pull by a shoe string” model does not tell a whole story. He emphasizes the aspects of chance that a society gives to that individual to make it possible for the type of success that they come to accomplish. These are things like language that January talks about, the culture of hard work, the timing that one is born, and where one lives during the formative years of teenage-hood.

In emphasizing the “aspects of chance” he is not minimizing individual traits. A person will have to have the inert intellectual ability to understand complex theoretical concepts. In addition, that person will have to work hard in order to master that field – he estimates 10,000 hours. More so, that person will have to be able to take the risk of following his or her passion of the field.

So my question to January, why focus only on the language?

For example Gladwell on page 56 gives the names of 75 richest people in human history. The amazing part of this list is astonishing 14 Americans born within nine years of one another in the mid nineteenth century. This is a list which includes kings and queens in different time period, from Pharaohs to Warren Buffet and Carlos Slim.

But if you think about it, it is really not that hard to understand. During the early part of the turn of the century through WWI, America was industrializing at an amazing pace. Therefore, people who were born in the middle of the nineteenth century had an opportunity to capitalize in this wave. This was not a fluke. It happened again in the 1990s during the tech bubble and look at China and India now.

It does not matter how intelligent you are, if you are born in TZ at the same time period as John D. R'feller you would not have achieved his level of success. So the way a society is organized plays a big part in ones successes or failures in life.

in other words, why Asian languages with their ability to be more rational than western ones have let their societies – with an exception of Japan-- still working hard to catch up? I guess the rest of us can debate that.

As the name of this blog tells us, Politics, Society and other things, sums up the ability of a country’s development; language does help, but I don’t think it is a big contributing factor.


Anonymous said...


Thanks for posting about this book, it's great, love it, and for that case, I'm endorsing!

I would like to agree with anon. According to Gladwell, some of the most successful people in the world seize the opportunities they got, accordingly, and were able to achieve massively, their wealth and accomplishments. Be it the era, place or support from the society, they worked hard too.

But I don't think Jan. means to only focus on language, as part of success yea, but, it's not the only contributing factor.
Gladwell discussed for example, (page 259) how students in the US and Asia get vacation time and the causes of Asian math superiority become even more obvious. That Asian schools don't have long summer vacations, as a result in S.korean school year is 220 days long, the japanese is 243 while the US is on average, 180 days. This take us back to Gladwell's 10,000- hour rule. Not exactly 10,000 hours but, the whole notion of 'practice makes perfect'. The more time these kids spend in class the better they become too.

I should confess, when he explained the stories of MS. McAllister, Mrs. Williams and their kids, I was soo wrong to think that, Harold was black and Alex was white before they said it was other way around, due to how they're being brought up.
Talking about stereotyping.

By the way, in one of his interviews with the media when he was promoting his book, Gladwell said Obama is another example of and Outlier.

Anonymous said...

Mzee january umekwenda Vaccation nini? Wapiaganiji migono inaganda kaka