Chinese children in grade school and high school are more advanced in counting and in math. There are many reasons for this fact, and one big advantage of Chinese children is their language.
By far, their language depicting numbers is simpler. The Chinese have only 10 one-syllable words that can be used in combination to form higher numbers. From one to 10, the words are: yi (one), er, san, si, liu, wu, qi, ba, jiu, and shi (10).
In English, there are 29 words needed to express numbers. Many of the English word numbers are even of two syllables, such as seven, fourteen, sixteen, etc.
In Chinese, 11 is shi yi (10 plus one), 12 is shi er (10 plus two), 13 is shi san (10 plus three), etc. In English, eleven, twelve, and thirteen are the corresponding translations. These are longer words and not even logical because it is difficult to decompose eleven and twelve. For a toddler in English-speaking countries, it is difficult to know that eleven is composed of 10 plus one, but in Chinese, toddlers easily understand base-10 and intuitively know that eleven, or shi yi, is the same as 10 plus one.
English-speaking children have to learn and remember that—ty is a syllable that stands for ten, twen-, thir-, and fif- (none of which are English words), which mean two, three, and five. On the other hand, Chinese children need not learn any new words or syllables that represent tens or decades. Their number for tens is obvious—two tens, three tens, four tens, etc.
With an easier language representing numbers, Taiwanese children also understand how tens and units are added together in the base-10 system that is common to English and Chinese. Children in Chinese-speaking communities seem to understand how to add numbers together to make a target number better than English-speaking children. A study by Peter Brant showed that 6-year-old Chinese children are better in handling coins than English-speaking children. Mr. Bryant used a pretend shop where things cost 6p or 11p; it had 1p, 5p, and 10p coins for the English-speaking children, and the equivalent coins for the Chinese children. He showed that both groups of children are good in counting out the 1 unit, but the Chinese children were far better at paying with 10 +1 rather than eleven 1s. Also, Chinese children were paying with 5+1 coins while the English-speaking children were paying by the units of 6 coins.
How do we help our children understand the base-10 number system with ease and reduce math anxiety in grade school?
We should demonstrate to our children as young as six months old how to count their fingers and toes, as well as bananas, guavas, stones, etc. Or, for that matter, any objects that cannot be swallowed and can be pointed to and lifted should be counted as often during infancy and the toddler ages. Parents should start counting one, two, three during their children’s first few months of life, then increasing the count by one or two every month until about 12 months old.
After the first year, counting should be continued using 11 to 15 commonly found objects, fruits, or vegetables. For example: Show 10 bananas and point and count in front of your baby. Say “one” and point to the first banana, lift and move it about two inches to the left. Continue with the second banana, point, say “two” and lift it to the left toward the first counted banana. Finish counting all of the bananas by pointing, lifting, and moving these to the left a couple of inches. When you reach the 10th banana, lift it and make a circular motion about an inch over all of the nine and say, “All of these bananas are ten,” and put it about two inches to the right of the ninth banana. Get another banana and place it to the right of the tenth. Count the group using the point, lift, and moving to the left method until you reach the last or 11th banana.
Then explain to your baby or toddler that eleven is the same as ten and one. You can do this by removing the 11th banana from the group, count the 10 bananas again, then adding the 11th banana to the group and counting again up to 11. Practice this counting frequently. The following day, use guavas instead of bananas.
Each time you finish counting a different object or fruit, explain that eleven means ten and one. When you reach twelve, explain that twelve means ten objects and two more; thirteen, ten objects or fruits and three more; and so on.
By modeling this method of counting as early as infancy, our children will learn without difficulty the concept of the base-10 number system as well as, if not better than, their Chinese counterparts.
Leonardo L. Leonidas, MD, is a retired assistant clinical professor in pediatrics at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston in the United States. He received a Distinguished Career Teaching Award in 2009. He is the author of “Baby Math,” an e-book at Amazon.com. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org