Do English and Hindi/Urdu hurt your ability to learn math?

Sally Thomason, at Language Log, discusses a recent psychological study by a University of Michigan professor that makes the following claim: "the greater transparency of numeral words for 11-19 in East Asian languages accounts in part for young Chinese, Japanese, and Korean students' superior learning of math by comparison to American students." The key seems to be the descriptive power of names for the numbers. As Thomason puts it, "both the ordering of the numerals in the compound English 'teen words (3+10, 4+10, ...) and the semantic opacity of the words eleven and twelve make math learning harder for American first-graders."

Hindi and Urdu actually follow the English system, roughly, in having, non-transparent names for the 'teen' numbers (11-19), so if you follow this psychologist's argument, Hindi and English speaking children should have a tougher time understanding relationships between numbers in grades 1 and 2.

Thomason points out her many objections to the study, which all make sense to me. This seems like a very flawed study of an interesting issue.

My suggestion would be to experimentally teach one group of American first-graders a set of alternate names for 11-19, with new names that actually are transparent. Instead of 'eleven,' and 'twelve,' then, one could try 'teni-one' and 'teni-two'...
Then, compare their scores on a basic math test that only uses numerals (i.e., '11' and not 'eleven'). If there's anything in this theory, the 'teni-one' students should do somewhat better.

Something equivalent could be tried in Hindi: for one group of students, get rid of 'gyara,' 'bara,' etc. Replace with 'ek-das', 'bai-das', or something similar.


Suresh Venkatasubramanian said...

I don't know about much about linguistics, but could there not be other explanations that work a lot better than language-based explanations ? My mother teaches math in Delhi, and from what she tells me, students there have similar trouble learning concepts in math.

Although this might seem like it supports the language-based theory, it is these same students (well or some fraction) who go on to get into the IITs and become math whizzes. It seems to me that cultural explanations play a far larger role in this issue: students in India know that there are pretty much only two or three ways towards success in higher ed (math for engineering/bio for med school, or commerce/econ for an MBA down the road), and take their schoolwork a lot more seriously (though not necessarly out of some intrinsic love of the subject). In the US of course, especially with math, such a thing does not happen.

I would also argue that if the Michigan study wanted to establish this argument better, the researcher should be looking at Hebrew, Russian and Hungarian as well, three languages common to some of the best mathematicians of our day. Again, there it is hard to distinguish the language of education from the mode of education, and I honestly think that it's the latter that makes the much bigger difference.

Quizman said...

Hi Amardeep, thanks for the pointer. I went to the link and saw an additional Hindi specific posthere.