Why It's Hard to Learn Math in English

Words like "eleven" mess us up
By Matt Cantor,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 13, 2014 7:02 AM CDT
Why It's Hard to Learn Math in English
Children and their parents try to figure out the "math maze" at Super Science Saturday on Feb. 8, 2014, at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Mo.   (AP Photo/ St. Joseph News-Press, Jessica Stewart)

When it comes to learning math, English speakers face a disadvantage that has nothing to do with the classroom environment. Research suggests that the English language simply makes it hard to talk about numbers, the Wall Street Journal reports. A key reason comes when kids reach the number 11: A child speaking Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or one of a number of other languages would read that as "ten-one," making it easier to understand in the context of a number system based on tens. In English, though, the word "eleven" doesn't make that clear. It's one of more than two dozen unique words for numbers; the Chinese language covers numbers with just nine words.

The "teens" also make things difficult—confusingly, we put the syllable "teen" at the end of the word. Kids may have trouble distinguishing, for instance, 17 and 71; in Japanese, 17 is put as "ten-seven" and 71 "seven-ten-one," Quartz notes. These English peculiarities make early learning harder, perhaps contributing to the fact that, as the Journal notes, US high school students rank 30th out of 65 "nations and education systems" in international achievement tests. Chinese and Korean students are at the top, aided by parents who focus more on arithmetic at home: math games, whether on boards or screens, could help English-speaking students catch up, the paper suggests. (Meanwhile, if kids are behaving badly in class, spoiling Game of Thrones is apparently an option.)

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