Here are seven random numbers. Sort of like a telephone number, but arranged vertically. Take a glance — just a glance — then pause, take out a piece of paper and see how many you can recall.
According to the French neurologist and mathematician Stanislas Dehaene, about 50 percent of English speakers can remember all seven numbers. I'm in the other 50 percent. When people give me their phone number, I can make it about five digits through, then I moisten my finger and try to write the last two on the phone's surface (but that's just me).
If, however, you are a Chinese speaker, you tend to do much better. The average Chinese speaker can memorize nine numbers in this same amount of time.
Why The Difference?
The difference, says Dehaene, is how the words sound in your head. The Chinese words for the first nine numbers are all short, concise and bullet-like: "yi," "er," "san," "si," "wu," "liu," "qi," "ba," "jiu." He timed them and they average about a quarter of a second each.
In English we start with "one", "two", but "three" can stretch out a bit and "seven" is a real slower-downer, being two syllables long, so the English number-words take a little longer, a third of a second each.
Collectively, says Dehaene, the difference matters. Chinese speakers can download nine numbers in two seconds, English speakers only seven. Dehaene thinks our brains scoop up information in two-second gulps, or loops, so the Chinese are regularly getting a number-retention advantage just because their number words are shorter.
Could this explain why Chinese students have lately (in Singapore and Shanghai) jumped to the top of international teenage math testing? I doubt it, though it can't hurt to be able to process numbers more quickly through your head.
The Other Advantage
I often hear about the other Chinese language advantage. Asian number-words (Chinese, Korean and Japanese) follow a regular pattern. "Eleven" is written as ten/one. "Twelve" is ten/two, "Thirteen" ten/three and so on. We, on the other hand, serve word-cocktails. "Eleven" doesn't make you think about its ingredients, ten and one; it sounds like something about bread (leaven). Same with "twelve"; you can hear the t for two in it, but what's with the "welve"? There's no clear pattern here. This isn't good, says math writer Alex Bellos:
Experiments have repeatedly shown that Asian children find it easier to learn to count than Europeans. In one study with Chinese and American 4- and 5-year-olds, the two nationalities performed similarly when learning to count to 12, but the Chinese were about a year ahead with higher numbers. A regular system (of number-words) also makes arithmetic clearer to understand.
It's way too late to change our number-words, so I guess we'll just have to make do. Anyway, there are other folks who are in much deeper trouble word-wise than we are. Alex writes about the Arara folk, who live in the Amazon and only count in pairs. Here's what it's like when they count to eight:
Adak Anane (3)
Adak Adak (4)
Adak Adak Anane (5)
Adak Adak Adak (6)
Adak Adak Adkak Anane (7)
Adak Adak Adak Adak (8)
I don't want to be around when they get telephones.
Alex Bellos' book about maths (as he likes to say, being British) is called Alex's Adventures in Numberland: Dispatches from the Wonderful World of Mathematics (Bloomsbury, 2010 – so far only available in Europe). Stanislas Dehaene's book is The Number Sense (Oxford University Press, 1997).