Why language makes math so hard for U.S. kids

Why language makes math so hard for U.S. kids


You may not think of language as a key factor in why Asian students do better in math than U.S. students, but it is.  Have you ever thought about what the word “eleven” means?  Or why  we say “sixteen,” seventeen,” eighteen,” but not “twoteen,” threeteen,” or “fiveteen?” If it’s confusing to us as adults, imagine how a child feels learning his or her counting words for the first time.

In Asian languages, like Korean and Chinese, the counting words are much less confusing because they highlight the tens and ones in each number, which makes it easy to understand our base-ten system.  For example, the number 11 in Formal Korean is called “Ship il” or literally, “ten one.”  Twelve is “Ship ee”  or “ten two.”  Calling 11 “ten one” instead of “eleven” may make it easier for children to see numbers as made up of tens and ones, rather than thinking of large numbers as a collection of ones.  This difference between Asian and non-Asian counting words has sparked a lot of interest in the research world, especially because Asian students do much better in mathematics than U.S. students on standardized tests.

Miura, King, Chang, and Okamoto (1988) set out to test whether language does in fact impact how children conceptualize multi-digit numbers. They had Korean and American Kindergarten and First Grade children show different numbers using classic base ten blocks.  They found that the Korean children were significantly more likely to correctly use base ten blocks to show tens and ones (ex. 4 tens and 2 ones for 42) than American children.  American children, in fact, tended to use only ones blocks to model multi-digit numbers (ex. 42 ones).  Since the base-ten system is the underlying structure of our number system, this linguistic advantage can have serious consequences, especially in terms of understanding written calculation and place value.

So, now that we know about this linguistic disadvantage, what can we do to help kids see that multi-digit numbers are composed of tens and ones and not just a collection of ones?

For more info, check out this article:
Miura, King, Chang & Okamoto (1988).  Effects of language characteristics on children’s cognitive representation of number: Cross-national comparisons. Child Development, 59, 1445-1450.