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Mental Arithmetic Works Only in One Language

Summary: Even if a person is multilingual, he/she is likely to be monolingual when it comes to mental arithmetic.

Mental Arithmetic Works Only in One Language

By James H. Choi
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20100715041953_brain.jpegMy mother, who was educated during the Japanese colonization of Korea, computes in Japanese. That is, she solves a numerical problem by murmuring Japanese multiplication tables yet producing the answer in Korean. Funnily, she uses no Japanese on any other occasion. After becoming multilingual, I’ve learned the same thing happens to me: I still compute in Korean. Despite being able to think and communicate in other languages, invariably whenever I manipulate numbers, I have to compute them in Korean before translating the answer into the language I am using.

Maybe this is something done only in my family.  Yet a friend’s daughter, after taking an immersive Spanish course, found she needed to compute numbers in Spanish before translating back to English.  So I guess this runs in more than one family.

Actually, I can actually compute in more than one language.  But that’s because of the tens of thousands of hours I have spent tutoring students in mathematics in English, I necessarily began being able to compute in English.  But the time I’ve spent pondering English multiplication tables is more than most people spend learning multiplication tables in their first languages.  Yet when I’m not constrained to thinking in English, my computation always reverts back to Korean.
http://dl.dropbox.com/u/6378458/Column/Info/English/SpecialEvents.gifMalcolm Gladwell speculates in The Outliers that Asians compute more easily because their language expresses one number in one phoneme only.  “Seven,” for instance, is two syllables.  Whereas in Chinese, a digit of a number can only ever be one syllable.  Languages that adopted Chinese counting, such as Korean, share the same trait.  Whereas Romantic languages, such as English and Portuguese, allow for multiple syllables as in se-ven (7) or no-ve (9).  Incidentally, the Japanese language’s adoption of Chinese counting does not always result in monosyllabic words for each number.  For example 7 becomes shi-chi and 8 becomes ha-chi.  And also, native Korean language’s counting system is not monosyllabic either.  One is ha-na, five is da-seot, 7 is il-gob, etc.  Japanese native counting system also is multisyllabic.  1, 2, 3 becomes hi-to-tsu, fu-ta-tsu, mi-tsu, for example.  Thus, it is only the Chinese counting system that is monosyllabic.

According to Malcolm Gladwell, a student learning Chinese multiplication tables has an advantage because he/she gets to learn them with just one-syllable numbers, whereas a Portuguese student must learn multiplication tables with much lengthier numbers.  This theoretically makes the non-Asian student’s learning harder.  I am not sure how true that is, although the hypothesis is really fascinating.

Because of the phenomenon I mentioned above, one gets to learn multiplication tables only once.  Thus this is not something that can be reversed at a later date.  Is our arithmetic ability, not mathematical ability, really marked by the language with which we first learn it?  It is a fascinating question indeed.  At the same time, even if it were true, there is not much one can do to take advantage of it.

Please share your experiences/thoughts in multi-lingual arithmetic and in the comment box below.


Categories: Language
  1. January 25, 2014 at 3:05 am

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts about english lessons. Regards

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