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Monday, July 4, 2016

A number by any other name ...


Take a look at the following list of numbers: 4, 8, 5, 3, 9, 7, 6. Read them out loud. Now look away and spend twenty seconds memorising that sequence before saying them out loud again.

If you speak English, you have about a 50 percent chance of remembering that sequence perfectly. If you're Chinese, though, you're almost certain to get it right every time. Why is that? Because as human beings we store digits in a memory loop that runs for about two seconds. We most easily memorise whatever we can say or read within that two-second span. And Chinese speakers get that list of numbers - 4, 8, 5, 3, 9, 7, 6 - right almost every time because, unlike English, their language allows them to fit all those seven numbers into two seconds.

Chinese number words are remarkably brief. Most of them can be uttered in less than one-quarter of a second (for instance, 4 is "si" and 7 "qi"). Their English equivalents - "four", "seven" - are longer: pronouncing them takes about one-third of a second.

It turns out that there is also a big difference in how number-naming systems in Western and Asian languages are constructed. In English, we say fourteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, and nineteen, so one might expect that we would also say oneteen, twoteen, threeteen, and fiveteen. But we don't. We use a different form: eleven, twelve, thirteen, and fifteen.

Similarly, we have forty and sixty, which sound like the words they are related to (four and six). But we also say fifty and thirty and twenty, which sort of sound like five and three and two, but not really.

And, for that matter, for numbers above twenty, we put the "decade" first and the unit number second (twenty-one, twenty-two), whereas for the teens, we do it the other way around (fourteen, seventeen, eighteen).

The number system in English is highly irregular. Not so in China, Japan, and Korea. They have a logical counting system. Eleven is ten-one. Twelve is ten-two. Twenty-four is two-tens-four and so on.

That difference means that Asian children learn to count much faster than Western children. Four-year-old Chinese children can count, on average, to forty. Western children at that age can count only to fifteen, and most don't reach forty until they're five. By the age of five, in other words, Western children are already a year behind their Asian counterparts in the most fundamental of math skills.

The regularity of their number system also means that Asian children can perform basic functions, such as addition, far more easily. Ask English-speaking seven-year-olds to add thirty-seven plus twenty-two in their heads, and they have to convert the words to numbers (37 + 22). Only then can they do the math: 2 plus 7 is 9 and 30 and 20 is 50, which makes 59. Ask an Asian child to add three-tens-seven and two-tens-two, and the necessary equation is right there, embedded in the sentence. No number translation is necessary: it's five-tens-nine.

So what about the Germans? Not surprisingly, they do it sometimes back-to-front and at other times from front to back and towards the middle, as in 46 being 6-and-40 (sechsundvierzig) and 246 being 2-times-100-and-6-and-40 (zweihundertsechsundvierzig).

But spare a thought for the French who're doing no worse than the English until they come to the 70s which is 60-and-10 (soixante-dix), 71 which is 60-and-11 (soixante-et-onze) and so on. Their 80 is 4-times-20 (quatre-vingts) followed by 81 being 4-time-20-and-1 (quatre-vingt-un). 97 becomes a staggering 4-time-20-and-10-and-7 (quatre-vingt-dix-sept)! Try and play 'hide-and-seek' in French!