(First of 2 parts)
SINGAPORE, JAPAN, SOUTH Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong usually top international surveys of mathematics and science skills in the world.
Countries we should expect to do as well, such as the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, score lower in the Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS), while the Philippines languishes near the bottom, with countries like Morocco and Colombia.
Many reasons are given for the excellent performance of East Asian students. One is language. When faced with multiplication tables as a child, I tried different ways to make memorizing easier (face it, all of us really have to memorize them). My teachers were creative?they used songs, games, flash cards to make the process less painful.
But what stuck in my mind was the sound of my mother and my cousins doing multiplication in Fookienese. English numbers in words, like seven, take one-third of a second to pronounce, while their Chinese equivalents (like qi) take less than one-quarter of a second.
The difference may not seem much, but when the words are incorporated in phrases, it becomes significant. For example, the English phrase ?2 (times) 7 (is) 14? consists of anywhere from five to seven syllables, depending on how you say it. The Mandarin equivalent, er qi shuqi, is just four syllables, taking less than two seconds to say.
English is not exactly conducive to math. For example, fourteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen and nineteen make sense, but why not oneteen, twoteen, threeteen, fiveteen? (Think of fourteen as four-ten, sixteen as six-ten, and so on.)
To add to the confusion, since 14 is four-ten, why is 21 twenty-one, and not one-twenty? In 14, ones are placed first, while tens place last, which is the reverse for 21.
For those of us who are used to this system, the differences may seem petty, but not for kids struggling in the primary grades (and whose math lives are ruined ever after).
How does the Chinese language tackle these numbers? Eleven is ten-one, 12 is ten-two, 23 is two-tens-three, 67 is six-tens-seven. No problem.
?That difference means that Asian children learn to count much faster than American children,? says business and science writer Malcolm Gladwell in his provocative new book ?Outliers: The Story of Success.? ?Four-year-old Chinese children can count, on average, to forty. American children at that age can count only to fifteen, and most don?t reach forty until they?re 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 basic operations are also more convenient in Chinese. Gladwell gives this example: 37 + 22. An English-speaking child has to first convert the numbers in his head and then do the math. The Chinese child just adds three-tens-seven and two-tens-two, and the answer is right there in the phrase: five-tens-nine.
Gladwell talks about fractions, the bane of most kids. One-half is not easy to grasp in English, neither is two-thirds. But in Chinese, one-half is said as ?out of two parts, take one? and two-thirds is ?out of three parts, take two.? This makes fractions intuitively simpler to understand.
Problems with math
Problems with math start around the third or fourth grade. Gladwell believes that for children in America, ?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 that same bafflement,? he continues. ?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.?
Perhaps the best explanation for Chinese skills in math is just plain practice and hard work.
Locally, Chinese schools, such as Chiang Kai Shek College, that teach math twice a day, once in Chinese, once in English, already have a built-in advantage. Students are twice as exposed, and have twice as many assignments and twice the time to master math skills. No wonder they excel in local and international competitions.
If Filipino schools will have double math periods daily, then perhaps they can catch up.
Why do East Asians work so hard? The common answer is Confucian culture that expects children to do their best out of respect to their families and society. Also, in ancient China, the only way for a peasant to improve his lot was to pass the civil service examination, and this entailed a lot of study (and sacrifices on the part of the parents).
The success stories of Korean and Vietnamese immigrants in the West revolve around parents watching over their children while they do homework, crammed on the kitchen table.
The same situation holds in the Philippines. In many Chinese-Filipino families, parents take full responsibility for their children?s education. Yes, they can be overbearing at times, and overprotective, but the results are evident.
In school seminars, I ask the children how many go to tutorial classes after school. Less than a third do so in many Chinese schools, since their parents are their main tutors. But in most Filipino schools, more than half have 3-5 hours of tutoring daily, since their parents are at work or, as some children say, ?I don?t want Mommy to tutor me because we always fight.?
Do Chinese parents have to work? Most of them do, but they still find the time and the patience to teach their kids.
Gladwell puts forth a fascinating theory: East Asians work so hard because they come from a rice culture. What does rice have to do with math? Find out next week.
?Outliers, The Story of Success? (Malcolm Gladwell, 2008) is available in Bestsellers, 3rd floor, Robinson?s Galleria; tel. 6382046-49, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
E-mail Queena N. Lee-Chua at email@example.com.