Thursday, July 1, 2010

Why ARE Asians better at Math?

This is a little different from my usual posts about entrepreneurship, but given the strong positive correlation between education levels and being a successful entrepreneur in technology, I figured it’s worth the digression.

I am currently reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” and just finished reading the chapter on why Asians are better at math. I was initially very excited to read it but upon further reflection am wondering if his theory is really true. Gladwell attributes the success of Asians in math to three major factors:

(1) He draws a parallel between the work ethic instilled by working long hours in rice fields which fostered a culture of hard work and the work ethic in today’s generation of Asians who continue to be similarly hard working.

(2) Apparently, the human mind can remember and process 2 seconds worth of numerical data points. Unlike English, Asian languages use monosyllables to describe numbers. Therefore, where the person who knows the numbers in English can typically remember 4 digits, the average Cantonese speaker can remember 10 digits.

(3) The numbering in Asian languages is logical and intuitive compared to English. For instance, in English we count eleven, twelve etc. not the logical one-teen, two-teen, three-teen etc. Whereas in Asian languages (including my own mother tongue of Tamizh), it is counted off as ten and one, ten and two, ten and three etc. Similarly, in Chinese, the fractions are literally written out as one part of four, three parts of four etc making the concept intuitively easier to grasp.

Gladwell argues that the logical numbering makes it a lot easier for young children to grasp fundamental concepts like addition where they can skip the step of translating say “eleven” into a number before they can add it, learn fractions easily because of how they are framed in their mother tongue. This in turn means they enjoy math more, do their homework with less resistance and therefore begin a virtuous cycle.

Sounds good in theory, but...

(1) I count in English. I understand numbers up to 1000 fluently in 3 different languages but always translate any other language to English in my head before I can perform any mathematical operations. For the purposes of the American census, I am Asian and I suppose as an engineer who started learning calculus in ninth grade and can do math in her head, I live up to the Asians-are-good-at-math stereotype. Several of my friends of my generation and background fit this same mold, so I am not trying to draw a generalized conclusion based upon a data set of one nor am I exceptional in any way.

(2) I know several people whose families are of Jewish origin, who have worked incredibly hard over many generations. Hard work is no stranger to their cultural fabric or the present generation, who recognize that what they enjoy today would not have been possible without the hard work of their ancestors. It seems a stretch to say that only the rice farmers of Asia know the true meaning of hard work and have therefore integrated it into their culture and passed it down to subsequent generations.


If I can do the Math in English in my head just as fast as any other Asian who computes in his mother tongue, if there are other cultures that have worked equally hard to succeed and have hard work ingrained in their cultural fabric, I submit that it’s a matter of sufficient practice and hard work, which is not the exclusive domain of any one culture. To generalize it in that manner might be a disservice to the individual. This is where stereotypes come from and they’re not always a convenient thing to live up to.

What is your opinion on Gladwell’s theory?

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