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Why are Chinese (and other Asians) Better at Math?

By December 16, 2008

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Malcolm Gladwell

Author Malcolm Gladwell has a history of thought-provoking insight in his previous books,The Tipping Point and Blink. Now he's tackling another fascinating subject: success, in his latest work, Outliers.

I got and immediately ravenously poured through Outliers last week. His premise is finding out why some people in society seem to succeed above others. One chapter titled "Rice Paddies and Math Tests" seemed especially relevant to Chinese culture. Here's an excerpt:

"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're Chinese, though, you're almost certain to get it right every time."

The reason behind this, Gladwell writes, is because humans can store digits in a memory loop that last only about two seconds. In Chinese languages, numbers are shorter, allowing Chinese to both speak and remember those numbers in two seconds -- a fraction of the time it takes to remember those numbers in English.

Moreover, Asian languages such as Chinese, Japanese and Korean have a more logical counting system compared to the irregular ways that numerals are spoken in English. As Gladwell writes: Eleven is ten-one (十一 in Chinese), twelve is ten-two (十二) and thirteen is ten-three (十三) and so on.

Children in Asia thus learn to count faster than English-speaking children. Even fractions are easier for Asian children because they are more easily understood and conceptual. For example one-half (fifty percent) is understood as 百分之五十 (bǎi fēn zhī wǔ shí) or literally, fifty parts out of 100 parts. And because math is more easily understood, Asian children "get" math faster than their Western counterparts. This, Gladwell writes, has nothing to do with some sort of innate Asian proclivity for math.

Another great point Gladwell makes is that cultures with a history of rice cultivation also have high levels of diligence. Because rice is so labor-intensive on plots far smaller than corn or wheat for example, rice farmers have been forced to increase yields by being smarter and more innovative. As Gladwell writes:

"Working in a rice field is ten to twenty times more labor intensive than working on an equivalent size corn or wheat field."

Because rice cultivation forces greater innovation, the nature of the work is far more challenging and complex. It's also more meritorious, because the harder you work, the greater the harvest. That's why strict feudalism or slavery doesn't work with rice cultivation, Gladwell writes, citing China historian Kenneth Pomeranz.

Pomeranz argues that by the 14th and 15th centuries, landlords in central and southern China had a nearly hands-off role with their tenants, collecting only a fixed amount and letting farmers keep whatever yields they had left over. Farmers had a stake in their harvest, leading to greater diligence and success.

Gladwell argues that this belief in hard work carries over in Asian immigrant cultures, who have a reputation for being diligent and studious. While some may be offended by such a statement, Gladwell concludes that in every "success story" he has examined in his book, including people like Bill Gates and the Beatles, success was always defined as having worked far harder than their peers.

Fascinating stuff Malcolm Gladwell, as is your hair.


December 18, 2008 at 11:17 am
(1) Fernando says:

Actually the reason that Asian country students perform better at math is that the curriculum for 4th grade students in these countries include being taught in some fashion the math concept that the Identity Rule is the CORE MATH CONCEPT. This understanding is why they perform so well as a group in math. The argument that the asian languages create some intellectual advantage does not explain why other non-asian speaking countries also perform at high levels. Those countries that understand the importance of the Identity Rule refer to it as The Golden Rule of Math.

Any person with good math skills knows the Identity Rule. What appears to be less obvious to educators in the U.S. (based on U.S. student math performance) is that the IDENTITY RULE is the CORE MATH CONCEPT, and that it can be easily taught. My contention is that these concepts can be understood by a student within an hour to an hour and a half, and that once understood (the Gestalt) by the student, the student can then easily understand all subsequent math instruction, without any further tutoring. An understanding of how to use the Identity Rule to manipulate fractions gives the student the ability to perform in math in the 98th percentiles, throughout elementary and high school just like students in asian countries.

I can provide a two page tutorial that only takes an hour to an hour and a half to walk a fourth grade student through. f.barcena35@comcast.net

December 19, 2008 at 10:31 pm
(2) Ms Q says:

Gladwell is half Jamaican. If we’re going to make cultural generalizations, one could say this explains the hair.

December 21, 2008 at 5:17 pm
(3) Fernando says:

Some additional thoughts on the argument that the asian languages create some intellectual advantage to perform better at math. This argument does not explain cause. It is merely an observation after the fact. The same is true about after the fact observations that differences in socio-economics, race, gender, intelligence, environment, single families, nutrition, homogeneous groups, etc., etc., explain why some perform better at math than others. These variables are not causal either. They make for good reading, but do not explain causality.

I argue that the obviously causal variable is BORDERS. Within some borders/(countries) the school systems include in the curriculum, teaching their students in some fashion, the CORE MATH CONCEPT, the Identity Rule, and how to use the Identity Rule to manipulate fractions. After the 4th grade, all math involves manipulating fractions. Students that are taught this CORE MATH CONCEPT easily, (I emphasize), EASILY, learn all subsequent math instruction. The result then is that in spite of differences within BORDERS of differences in socio-economics, family structure, gender, etc. their students as a group excel at math


December 31, 2008 at 4:56 pm
(4) mancla says:

Anyone who has ever perused a school publication in America that lists students who graduated with honors, scholarship recipients, or others who have achieved a high academic accomplishment, will notice a “disproportionate” high number of Asian Americans near the top of the list. Many 2nd 3rd etc Asian American kids do not speak the language of their ancestors yet score exceedingly well on math & science tests.
One more point: why does refering to 12 as ten-two more “logical” than saying twelve. It is presented as a fact in the article but I fail to see why this is so “obvious”.

January 28, 2009 at 11:00 pm
(5) Ben Richards says:

If Gladwell bothered to read some of the transracial adoption studies, or other literature on psychometric testing (Dan Seligman’s book “A Question of Intelligence” would be a good start) he would see that Asian success on math can’t simply be explained by culture or environmental reasons. Asian children adopted by white families mature to have IQs that are consistent with their biological peers and which are higher than their adoptive parents. [see Rushton, J.P. and Jensen, A.R. (2005). Thirty Years of Research on Race Differences in Cognitive Ability. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, Vol. 11, No. 2, 235-294.] [also see Jensen, A. R. (1998). The g factor: The science of mental ability. Westport, CT: Praeger.]

“Contrary to “culture” theory, the ethnic academic gaps are almost identical for transracially adopted children, and to the extent they are different they go in the opposite direction predicted by culture theory. The gap between whites and Asians fluctuated from 19 to .09 in the NAEP data while the gap in the adoption data is from 1/3 to 3 times larger. This is consistent with the Sue and Okazaki paper above which showed that contrary to popular anecdotes, the values that lead to higher academic grades are actually found more often in white homes. In other words Asian-Americans perform highly despite their Asian home cultural environment not because of it. And though the sample is meager, I find it interesting that the gap between the black and white adopted children was virtually identical (within just 4-6 points) to the gap between whites and blacks in the general population, just like in the Scarr adoption study.

[1] Clark, E. A., & Hanisee, J. (1982). Intellectual and adaptive
performance of Asian children in adoptive American settings.
Developmental Psychology, 18, 595–599.

Frydman, M., & Lynn, R. (1989). The intelligence of Korean children
adopted in Belgium. Personality and Individual Differences, 12, 1323–1325.

Winick, M., Meyer, K. K., & Harris, R. C. (1975). Malnutrition and
environmental enrichment by early adoption. Science, 190, 1173–1175.”


Also, his theory about Jewish success in law overlooks that Ashkenazi Jews average highly on psychometric tests. G. Cochran, J. Hardy, H. Harpending, Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence, Journal of Biosocial Science 38 (5), pp. 659–693 (2006).


February 5, 2009 at 1:14 pm
(6) Mui Foon says:

I myself could not do math until I learned how to use an abacus which taught me the concept of 12 is a ten plus two. To subtract 7 from a number, first subtract ten and than add three most of the time.

June 3, 2009 at 11:02 pm
(7) brendan says:

have any of you read his book and seen his research for this. Its pretty in depth. he is not being racist or generalizing. and in his book specifies that even in about 1st grade the chinese students are approx a year a head of english speaking ones due to the structure of their language. so that leads to ur arguement for the advanced fourth grade core. they are able to do this core due to their strong foundation that is present agian due to their structure in language

July 1, 2009 at 12:19 am
(8) Dong Dao says:

LoL… this is a fun read, but “4, 8, 5, 3, 9, 7, 6″ is cheating in Chinese. The order of these numbers have meaning behind them, hence, its easier to remember this sequence. Four = death, eight = rich and they are twice of each other. five and three makes up ‘not living’, then nine, seven, six means ‘dog has an ugly face/dick’. So, i can easily remember A dead, rich, non living dog with an ugly face….

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