Thinking About Thinking

How Language And Math Intersect: Chinese v. English

Posted in Pop Culture by larrycheng on October 7, 2009

Following my 1+1= post, here’s another post about numbers.  But, this post is less about numbers and more about the words used to articulate those numbers.  Below, you will see a comparison of the actual words used to say the numbers represented on the left.  The first set of words is the number represented in the English language, and the second set of words is the number represented in the literal English translation of the Chinese language. So the sequence is (#, English, Chinese).  Here we go:   

  • 1: one, one
  • 2: two, two
  • 3: three, three
  • 4: four, four
  • 5: five, five
  • 6: six, six
  • 7: seven, seven
  • 8: eight, eight
  • 9: nine, nine
  • 10: ten, ten

Nothing earth shattering here.  When you count from 1–10 in English and Chinese, ten unique words emerge representing the most basic of numbers.  But, from 11–20, the languages diverge (#, English, Chinese):

  • 11: eleven, ten one
  • 12: twelve, ten two
  • 13: thirteen, ten three
  • 14: fourteen, ten four
  • 15: fifteen, ten five
  • 16: sixteen, ten six
  • 17: seventeen, ten seven
  • 18: eighteen, ten eight
  • 19: nineteen, ten nine
  • 20: twenty, two ten

In the English language, to count from 11–20, you need to learn ten new words.  So, to count from 1–20 in English, 20 unique words need to be learned.  In the Chinese language, to count from 11–20, no new words are introduced.  Chinese language reincorporates the same words used for 1–10, to cover all the numbers from 11–20.  If you can count from 1–10 in Chinese, you can count to 20 by default.  What if you expand it to 100 (#, English, Chinese)?

  • 30: thirty, three ten
  • 40: forty, four ten
  • 50: fifty, five ten
  • 60: sixty, six ten
  • 70: seventy, seven ten
  • 80: eighty, eight ten
  • 90: ninety, nine ten
  • 100: one hundred, one hundred

In the English language, to count from 21–100, eight new words are introduced (thirty, forty, fifty…hundred.).  In the Chinese language, to count from 21–100, only one new word is introduced: hundred.  No new words are introduced to count from 11–99 in Chinese.  Therefore, to count from 1–100 in English, you need to learn 28 words.  To count from 1–100 in Chinese, you only need to learn 11 words.  It’s a profound difference and impacts learning. 

Watch kids learn to count in Chinese.  After a child learns to count from 1–10 in Chinese, it’s seamless to watch them count from 11–99 – it happens in a snap.  Why?  Because they don’t have to learn a single new word to count from 11–99.  By learning to count from 1–10, they have learned everything they need to count from 1–99. 

Watch a child learn to count in English.  What happens after they learn 1–10?  They get confused, because it’s ten new words to count from 11–20.  And what happens after they count to 20?  It’s a quick hop and skip to 26, 27, 28, 29….  But then they often get stuck at each ten segment for the very simple reason that it’s a new word – thirty, fourty, fifty, etc. 

Some researchers hypothesize that one possible reason some Asian cultures show proficiency in math at an early age ironically has nothing to do with math – it has to do with language.  It is easier to learn to count in Chinese than it is in English because it requires learning fewer words.  While numbers are the building blocks of math, maybe language plays an unspoken role in making math easier.