The stereotype “Chinese people are good at math” is widespread and has persisted for years. A while ago, Chris Rock made a joke at the Oscars about the stereotype of Asians being particularly good at math.
First, let’s talk about the sample of Chinese kids that Westerners are often compared to. These kids are often Chinese kids living in Western countries, or Chinese-Americans. Due to different cultural backgrounds, their parents often value math and logical skills over other ones.
For Chinese students that are living abroad, many of them are there specifically to study. Many of them are on scholarship, and thus, have proven their academic prowess – so they are better at math than most other people including other Chinese people.
However, researchers have discovered another reason why native Chinese-speaking kids seem to do better in math. The advantage is in their language.
An efficient Language built for math
The Chinese language is structured in a way that supports efficient calculations. At the age of 4 years old, an English-speaking child can count to 15. The same age child living in China can count to 40.
That’s because once a child has learned to count from 1 to 10 in Chinese, he can count all the way up to 99. However, in English, children have to learn unique number words such as “eleven,” “twelve,” “thirteen,” “twenty,” “thirty.”
Malcolm Gladwell writes in his book “Outliers” that Chinese (as well as Japanese and Korean) kids are built for mathematical success because of the way Asian languages work: Here’s a short excerpt:
“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.
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.”
In English, once you get to the two digit numbers, they take on different forms. Numbers like “eleven” and “thirteen” don’t sound like the numbers they represent. In Chinese, these numbers are “十一” and “十三” respectively, which translates into ten-one and ten-three. Similarly, the word “twenty” in English doesn’t contain the number “two”, but the number “twenty” in Chinese is literally “two-tens.” Twenty-one is “two-tens-one,” twenty-two is “two-tens-two” and so on.
If you ask an English-speaking child to calculate “eleven plus thirteen” they have to translate that into their number form, 11 + 13. Ask a Chinese kid to do the same, the equation is already in the sentence: ten-one plus ten-three is two-tens-four.
Related: How To Count in Chinese
Chinese kids even get fractions faster than English-speaking kids, since the concept is built into the language. For example one-half (fifty percent) is understood as 百分之五十 (bǎi fēn zhī wǔ shí) or literally, "fifty out of 100" in Chinese. And because math is more easily understood, Asian children "get" math faster than their Western counterparts.
These may seem like small, insignificant issues to native English speakers like you and I. However, Dr. Karen Fuson at North Western University discovered that the unique number words in English can confuse children, and the additional steps it takes for them to translate words to numbers can drain mental capacity and lead to more errors.
Researchers like Dr. Fuson have studied The U.S.-Asian math-achievement gap extensively, which is both a sensitive and controversial topic. Chinese kids are typically one year ahead of their U.S counterparts in math when they start kindergarten. By high school, U.S students rank 30th among students from 65 nations on international achievement exams. Chinese students rank #1.
Of course, this may have also have to do with the Chinese education system itself.
Chinese Education System: Creating Geniuses at Test-Taking
The Chinese education system differs vastly from Western education systems. While American kids can, for the most part, attend a high school of their choosing, students in China have to test into their preferred high school.
This nature of test-taking carries over to high school. Chinese students spend a large part of their high school years preparing for the GaoKao, a national standard exam that will determine what university the student will go to (and if they can go to university at all.) There is so much pressure on the students to perform well on the GaoKao, that they spend the majority of their time studying and put the rest of their life on hold. Chinese students do less extracurriculars, play fewer sports, and even date later that their Western counterparts.
To prepare for the GaoKao, Chinese students often have technical concepts drilled into their brain. Teachers have to prepare them for standardized testing, so they spend much of their time devising new practice tests.
Some say that the test-taking style of the Chinese education system shoehorns these students into certain career paths.
The Asian Career Path: Doctors, Accountants, Lawyers
It’s almost a joke among Asian families: “Is your child a doctor, a lawyer, or an accountant?” And even though we smile and laugh, there is some truth to the fact that these three are the “holy trinity” of Asian careers.
Asian immigrants often follow a formula that works for them – they place a strong emphasis on maths and sciences. They expect their children to choose “stable” majors, and go on to become doctors, lawyers, and accountants (and more recently, engineers.) Notice that three out of these four occupations require a strong mathematics background (and even lawyers rely heavily on a logical mind.)
For many Chinese families in particular, this is because they immigrated from poverty-stricken areas in their home country. They were not presented with the same opportunities as American-born people were.
Chinese parents hope their kids will go one to have stable careers that guarantee financial security, so that their children (and grandchildren) will have a more prosperous future.
Furthermore, Chinese people are often discriminated against when it comes to careers in other fields, such as the arts. Hollywood has been accused multiple times of whitewashing and contributing to the underrepresentation of Asians in media. This in part explains why Asian parents want their children to have more technical backgrounds.
(I became a writer. My parents are still pushing the law school idea. See: An Open Letter From A Tiger Cub To A Tiger Mom)
So in conclusion: Perhaps Chinese kids have a slight advantage when it comes to calculations. But perpetuating the stereotype that Chinese kids are good at math simply “because they are Asian” negates the hard work and effort that was made in their education.