The most feared subject for Nigerian students is mathematics. Arithmophobia is very common among Nigerian students in both our secondary schools and tertiary institutions. You study mathematics in University, and everyone starts asking ‘why?’ Because it feels just like intentionally setting yourself up for failure. While some people believe it’s just the system mathematics teachers in Nigeria use, but all mathematics teachers in Nigerian cannot use the same system, if all of these teachers use different methods, therefore if the problem was the methods, there would be different results, hence, not most Nigerian students having Arithmophobia. Then maybe the problem is from the language we adopted, and the language’s (English) approach towards arithmetics, fractions and numbering all together.

Take a look at the following list of numbers: 4, 8, 5,3, 9, 7, 6. Read them out loud. 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 are Chinese, though, you are 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 or read within that two second span, and Chinese speakers get that list of numbers 4,8,5,3,9,7,6 right almost every time because, unlike English, their language allows them to fit all those seven numbers into two seconds.

That example comes from Stanislas Dehaene’s book the number sense. As Dehaene explains :

Chinese 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 is ‘qi’). Their equivalent s in English being ‘four’’seven’are longer, pronouncing them takes about one third of a second. The memory gap between English and Chinese apparently is 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.

It turns out that there is also a big difference in how number naming system in western and Asian languages are constructed. In English, we say fourteen, sixteen, eighteen, so one might expect that we would also say oneteen, twoteen, threeteen and fiveteen. But we don’t . we use a different form: eleven, twelve, thirteen, and fifteen. Similarly we have forty and sixty which sound like the words they are related to (four and six). But we also say fifty and thirty and twenty, which sort of sound like five and three and two, but not really. And, for that matter, for numbers above twenty we put the’’ decade’’ first and the unit number second (twenty-one, and twenty-two), whereas for the teens, we do it the other way round (fourteen, thirteen, fifteen). The number system in Engish 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-tens-four and so on.

That difference means that asian children learn to count much faster than American children (use language we use). Four year old Chinese can count, on average, to forty. American children at that age can count to fifteen, and most don’t reach forty until they are 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 system also means that asian children can perform basic functions, such as addition, far more easily. Ask an English speaking 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 9 an 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; its five-tens-nine. ‘’the asian system is transparent’’, says Karen fuson, a northwestern university psychologist who has closely studied Asian- western differences. I think that it makes the whole attitude toward math different. Instead of being a rote learning thing, theres a pattern I can figure out. There is an exception that I can do this. There is an exception that its sensible. For fractions, we say three-fifths. The Chinese is literally out ‘’out of five parts, take three’. That’s telling you conceptually what a fraction is. Its differentiating the denominator and the numerator.’

The much-storied disenchantment with mathematics among western children starts in the third and fourth grades, 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 feel nearly that same bafflement. They can hold more numbers in their heads and do calculations faster, and the way fractions are expressed in their languages 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 a built in advantage. But its an unusual kind of advantage. For years, students from china, south korea and japan—and the children of recent immigrants who are from those countries have substantially outperformed their western counterparts at mathematics, and the typical assumption is that it has something to do with a kind of innate asian proclivity for math*. The psychologist Richard Lynn has even gone so far as to propose an elaborate evolutionary theory involving the Himalayas, really cold weather, pre-modern hunting practices, brain size, and specialized vowel sounds to explain why Asians have higher IQS. That’s how we think about math. We assume that being good at things like calculus and algebra is a simple function of how smart someone is. But the differences between the number systems in the east and the west suggest something very different – that being good at may also be rooted in a groups culture.

Cultural legacies matter and once we’ve seen the surprising effects of such things as numbers that can be said in a quarter as opposed to a third of a second, its hard not to wonder how many other cultural legacies have an impact on our twenty-first-century intellectual tasks.

written by: Andi Hirse

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