# Do number systems in native languages affect math performance?

This blog post said that Asians are good at math because Asian languages have less-confusing number systems:

So if it’s not the schools, what accounts for Asians succeeding in math across different education systems? As English speakers, we may be unaware, but the English language is perhaps the most odd and irrational language around. Particularly with numbers, in English, after ten the teens each have an unique name and each tenth following that gets their own name. In fact, one would need to learn 28 unique words to count up to 100 in English while in any Chinese dialect, Japanese, or Korean, one only needs to learn 11 – one through ten and one hundred.

In Asian languages like Chinese, numbers after ten follow a precise logic. Eleven in Mandarin is shi yi or ten-one, twelve is ten-two, thirteen is ten-three, and so forth. When we get to fifty-nine, the logic continues, five-ten-nine. Five tens and a nine, 59. The internal logic in counting numbers with Asian languages results in kids who speak Asian languages are able to count beyond a hundred before English speakers can even count to 40. But the Asian language advantage doesn’t stop in counting. Remember those dreaded fractions? In English we would read 3/4 as three-fourths. But for languages like Chinese, 3/4 is literally translated, “out of 4 parts, take 3″.

and I also found "Why Jews are good at math", which also mentioned the decimal system in Hebrew.

This problem further raised my attention after I saw some articles about why many adults are confused over English grammar, due to the "its" vs. "it's" and "their" vs. "they're" distinctions, plus articles about how language reforms affect literacy rates so I am thinking that less confusing language rules leads to better learning.

So do simpler, less-confusing number systems confer advantages in learning math?

• So French should be absolutely horrible at math, right? ;) Jokes aside, nice question, +1!
– nico
Commented Feb 4, 2012 at 9:40
• Well, English has 28 unique words to count up to 100, Hindi has exactly one hundred! No wonder children, even in Hindi speaking belt of India, are taught English numbers almost exclusively now-a-days. Commented Feb 4, 2012 at 11:28
• I like how Asians are supposed to be good at maths (even if they are taught maths in English) because English has 28 words to learn. But Jews (even if they are taught maths in English) are good in spite of the fact that they have 27 digits to learn (plus special cases for 15 and 16). Commented Feb 4, 2012 at 12:00
• @Nivas: if five is pānch and twenty is bees, while twenty-five is pachchīs, then there may be an etymological relationship but the combination is not obvious and is irregular for this and many other examples. Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 10:09
• Aaaargghhh Jews != Israeli's. Israeli's tend to speak Hebrew (their national language), Jews speak whatever language the country where they live speak. I can count in hebrew about as well as I can in Swahili, or Dutch.
– Jamiec
Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 13:55

This seems to be a partial case of Sapir–Whorf hypothesis.

There is one example that is usually cited the math site of it is on the Wiki article:

Other research of importance to the study of linguistic relativity has been Daniel Everett's studies of the Pirahã people of the Brazilian Amazon. Everett observed several peculiarities in Pirahã culture that corresponded with linguistically rare features. The Pirahã for example have neither numbers nor color terms in the way those are normally defined, and correspondingly they don't count or classify colors in the way other cultures do. Furthermore when Everett tried to instruct them in basic mathematics they proved unresponsive. Everett did not draw the conclusion that it was the lack of numbers in their language that prevented them from grasping mathematics, but instead concluded that the Pirahã had a cultural ideology that made them extremely reluctant to adopt new cultural traits, and that this cultural ideology was also the reason that certain linguistic features that were otherwise believed to be universal did not exist in their language.

This doesn't prove causation in any way, but is a curious piece of evidence.

• I don't think this is an answer to the question. It is more of a comment on the commonality with another (controversial) claim. It doesn't show that Asians are better at maths, or the reason why that might be. Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 9:55
• This is highly irrelevant to the question. Also I would add the sapir-whorf hypothesis is commonly cited in casual and basically scientifically inadequate ways by the general public - and I don't think it's productive. Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 10:08
• @Oddthinking - The question wasn't specifically contrained at Asians - its subject was generic, AND it also mentioned Jews. As such, the quoted research seems to directly address what's being asked. Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 15:48

It has been hypothesised from experimental evidence that the shorter syllable lengths of words in Chinese allow one to memorise larger numbers than one would otherwise be able to in English (all Chinese number terms from 1-10 are monosyllabic)

The Chinese subjects, at all grade levels, remembered at least 2 more digits, on average, than did American or Japanese subjects.

Personally, I prefer to use Chinese for mental calculations for exactly this reason, despite being more fluent in English.

Therefore, it is likely that the number system pronunciation has some effect on at least one part (the mental storage and recall of numbers) of math performance.

• The link you provide is the result of an experiment (great!), and the authors speculate the cause being related to pronunciation (uh, okay). But then you extrapolate from that to the (unproven) claim in the question that "Asians are better than maths". That is a huge and speculative jump that does little more than repeat the claim. Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 9:53
• @Oddthinking I am saying that there is a very good chance that the experiment has shown that Chinese people are better at a small subset of maths (the recall of numbers) due to language. Feel free to delete if you think partial answers are not good enough. Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 11:14