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Asian languages aid mathematical skills.

Asian languages aid mathematics skills

U.S. schoolchildren compare dismally to their counterparts in Japan, China and other Asian countries on tests of mathematics achievement. Researchers attempting to explain this difference are, for the most part, focusing on home and school experiences (SN: 1/31/87, p.72).

But, according to a study presented at the recent annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in New York City, the advantage in understanding and manipulating numbers may be traced to Asian languages with roots in ancient Chinese, including Chinese, Korean and Japanese.

"In Asian languages, number names follow a base-10 number system,' says psychologist Irene T. Miura of San Jose (Calif.) State University. "Place value is inherent in the number language.'

For example, the number 11 is read as ten-one, 12 as ten-two and 22 as two-tens-two. The numbers 13 and 30, which when spoken sound similar in English, are entirely different in the Asian tongues; 13 is spoken as ten-three and 30 as three-tens.

To compare the conceptualization of numbers across languages, Miura and her colleagues studied three groups of first-grade children: 24 from the United States, 25 from mainland China and 40 from Korea. The children came from what is considered an upper-middle-class background in their respective countries and attended academically rigorous schools.

Each child was shown how to use a set of base-10 blocks to represent numbers. The set consisted of white unit-blocks and purple 10-blocks equivalent to 10 unit-blocks stuck together. In their native language, children were asked to read a number on a card and show that number using the blocks. The numbers 11, 13, 28, 30 and 42 were presented in random order. Initial trials were videotaped, and in a second trial, children were shown their first constructions and asked if they could show the same numbers in a different way using the blocks.

All of the Korean children and three-quarters of the Chinese youngsters were able to show all five numbers in two ways. Only one of the U.S. first-graders was able to do so. Similarly, more than three-quarters of the Korean and Chinese children used a "canonical' base-10 representation to construct all five numbers, whereas only two U.S. children did so. Canonical representions place no more than 9 unit-blocks in the ones position, such as using 2 ten-blocks and 8 unit-blocks for 28. Noncanonical base-10 responses, such as using 1 ten-block and 18 unit-blocks for 28, were also far more common among the Asian children. In almost all cases, U.S. students used only collections of unit-blocks to represent numbers.

Asian-language speakers tended to start with a canonical base-10 construction and then use either a noncanonical approach or a unit-block collection in the second trial. "Their ability to think of more than one way to show each number suggests greater flexibility for mental number manipulation,' says Miura.

Miura has uncovered similar results in a study of Japanese- and English-speaking first-graders. Among those children, she says, the ability to use canonical representions in the first grade is associated with higher math achievement in the third grade.

"Socialization accounts for some of the differences in math achievement between Asian countries and the United States,' notes Miura, "but there also appear to be differences in the basic mental representation of numbers affected by language characteristics.'
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Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Sep 19, 1987
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