Why Asians Are Good At Math

With the end of 2009 and the start of 2010, I am once again reminded how illogical and arbitrary English math is. Why do we say 2009 as two thousand nine but 2010 as twenty ten? I’m sure you’ve all hear the saying Asians are good at math. You want to know why? It’s because in Asia, math is logical and doesn’t have any stupid arbitrary rules.

Learning To Count – It’s Ten One, Not Eleven

The English method of counting is convoluted and the main reason why youths in Asia can count to 100 far sooner than youths in America. The normal rule for counting above ten is to say the tens first and then the ones. Like 21 is twenty one and 99 is ninety nine. However, this naming scheme doesn’t apply for 11 to 19 and as a result, students learning to count have to remember a different set of rules and different names for those numbers instead of logically putting ten and one together. In Asia, 11 is call ten one, 12 is ten two, 13 is ten three, etc.

Once an Asian student learns to count from one to ten in Chinese, he can say any number up to 99 without learning any new rules or names. While an American student has to remember that 20 is call twenty, an Asian student will call it two ten. While an American student has to remember that 60 is call sixty and 70 is call seventy but 50 is call fifty, an Asian student will simply say six ten, seven ten and five ten. There are no special names or change of rules for any numbers. All an Asian student has to know is one to ten and he can say any number from one to 99. Once he learn 100, he can say any number from 100 to 999.

Reading of a number in Chinese is done by saying how many tens, hundreds, thousands, etc. there are in the number. For example, 3,521 is call three thousand five hundred two ten one. It’s a lot simpler system and we all know the simpler you make something, the easier it is to learn. Sally can already count to 100 in Chinese but she hasn’t gone pass 20 in English.

It’s Year Two Zero One Zero

The simple system of naming numbers extends to naming dates. In most Asian countries, you simply say each number to state the date. 2009 is call two zero zero nine. 2010 is call two zero one zero. There’s none of this two thousand nine and twenty ten crap.

I’m sure there are other reasons besides simpler rules and easier naming schemes for numbers that allows Asians to excel at math. And of course for every stereotype, there will always be people who break it. I would be interested to know how other cultures handle their numbers and dates. Hopefully, it’s not as illogical and arbitrary as the English system.


81 thoughts on “Why Asians Are Good At Math”

  1. Best title ever. lol

    What’s next? “Why Asians Have a Bad Reputation for Driving”?

    Maybe you can do a case study. πŸ™‚

    1. Or how about “Why John Sucks at Grammar, Even Though He Has Lived in Canada For 40 Years” πŸ˜‰

      1. Yeah John, your grammar is pretty bad at times. Is that true of all Asians?

        1. liche says:

          Even without perfect grammar, John managed to be dotcom mogul. I guess it is just the character of this blog. If everything is perfect, maybe there is no character at all….(see, I am not native English speaker so I might make some mistakes on this post already…but it is me, authentic…

          1. I once had a sales manager that always used to say “I can sell, but I can’t spell!”

            There is definitely some similarity here…….

      2. Hahahahah! Jerky boy, you sure dig living up to your nick! I’ve seen a lot worse grammar than Johns, from non-asian folk too! The dumbing down of our youth has a lot to do with this…..

    2. Nah, I’m thinking “Why Asians can make $40,000 a month”

      Oh wait!

  2. Carl @ HCW says:

    The “ten one” system works fine for lower numbers, but once you start counting higher, it gets more confusing.

    For instance, when I walk by a real estate agency in Hong Kong, the prices are listed in the Asian counting system.

    So instead of a place being “two point six million” as it would in English, it is called “two-hundred-sixty ten-thousands”

    Let’s see Sally count that!

    1. John Chow says:

      Actually, that makes perfect sense to me because it’ll be exactly how I would say it in Chinese. πŸ™‚

    2. poorwebguy says:

      Sounds crazy. No million, billion, trillion through nonillion stuff at all? That was the fun part!

      1. Well Sally born in Canada so I think she is going to adopt that country’s method in which she lives and that is her home land now.

        May be she will not agree with John when she will grow up and that will be nice because she is showing a true Canadian.

        1. Let’s wait what sally think about it. πŸ˜€

  3. What no sales pitch ? Totally bummed πŸ™‚ LOL

  4. I can see that you too were inspired by Jessica Yu’s Ping Pong Playa πŸ™‚

    1. John Chow says:

      No, I never seen or heard of that movie. I’ll go take a look now.

  5. S Ahsan says:

    Love the title and love the post! HILARIOUS but Makes sense :D, lmao

  6. This is silly. I was never taught about the Ten One thing in school. At Twenty, I have never heard of this Ten One system.

    We call this Eleven, how even if it was that way. Being good with logical reasoning doesn’t come by counting.

    This is silly to be polite.

    1. Tikin says:

      It’s hard to understand if you’re not Asian. But John, I don’t think this is the reason why Asians are good at math.

      1. John Chow says:

        It may not be the reason why they’re good at math but it does explain why they can count to 100 far sooner than the English counterparts. However, having a more simple counting system does help in understanding.

        1. Paul B says:

          What’s all this count to 100 crap? I don’t know any child that can’t count to 100, 200 500, 1000 by age 5 (or within their first year of school)? Maybe the children around here are smarter than average?

          No argument that Asians are “generally” good at maths though, in the same way that they generally have almost no spatial awareness and statistically smaller penises.

    2. “This is silly. I was never taught about the Ten One thing in school. At Twenty, I have never heard of this Ten One system.”

      Never heard of it, too. I have to ask my son if they did this stuff in school. Sounds very interesting!

      Cheers!

  7. I love hearing about John’s rants hahah πŸ˜›

  8. You say “Asia”, but is this true for all far Eastern Asian countries (Japan, Korea)? And Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia?

    Anybody know?

    1. Tikin says:

      In Vietnam, they call 11 is “Muoi mot” (Muoi = ten ; mot = one) ; that’s same meaning with “Ten one”. Because Southest Asia have same culture so I guess other countries would count like Vietnamese.

      Asians count base China number logic. If you know how to use “Counting table” (John, please tell me what’s this words in English ^^) you’ll know about this logic.

  9. Melo says:

    Never really been good in Math. I hate Math. The only time I like seeing numbers is when I’m looking at my site traffic stats. LOL!

  10. Ed Borasky says:

    Actually, I think the *real* reason is that children learn how to use an abacus when very young, and they in fact have arithmetic speed / accuracy competitions. Or at least they used to – do they still do that?

    1. John Chow says:

      I think they use a calculator like everyone else now. LOL But the Asian counting system was based on the abacus so you might be on to something.

    2. Paul B says:

      Agree totally, practice and competition is what seperates other cultures from the western world at the moment IMO.

  11. Yes they are taught smarts and hard work ethic at a young age.

  12. Azam says:

    Sounds logical…

  13. Kaja says:

    Actually, I’ve met some asians that were terrible at math. Way to stereotype. Whats next, you gonna write a post titled, “Why asians are bad at driving?”

    1. John Chow says:

      Actually, I was thinking of writing a post on how white guys can’t dance. πŸ˜›

      1. Kaja says:

        Well, I would be okay with that. That stereotype happens to be true.

      2. I guess you never have watched So You Think You Can Dance. Lots of white guys there dancing up a storm.

        1. John Chow says:

          For every stereotype, there will always be some who break it. πŸ™‚

  14. Dave Doolin says:

    Actually, John, I think it’s kind of BS. But…

    But but but…

    The Nahuatl (Aztec) language counts off by 5s. Makes sense right? 5 fingers on one hand (normal hands anyway).

    So maybe there is something to it.

  15. My respond to John’s post on Why Asians Are Good At Math:

    First take 10 seconds to look these numbers:
    3 1 4 1 5 9 2 6 5 3

    Given majority of us memorize numbers in vocal (rather than visual for photo-memory gifted ones) and human mind stores digits in memory that last 2 seconds, a native English speaker would program his mind probably three times longer than a Chinese would (read above number out load and fast in both language you will know who takes longer).

    Further to this, the numbers 1-10 in Mandarin can be associated to other meaning like 8 can sounds like ‘dad’, 3 can sound like ‘mountain’, 9 sounds like ‘beer’. So to remember 893, just recall the sequence ‘father drink beer on top of mountain’. Don’t laugh, it works and are taught in advance learning skill for kids. So for the Chinese, the low level of verbal memory could easily be escalated to photographic memory like remembering the pictorial sequences illustrated above.

    Btw its a Pi number above, challenge your Chinese and English (or Malay) friends and see who’s the winner, you will get the idea.

    1. I didn’t know that before, thanks.

      Actually, all the memory programs that I know tell you to associate words with pictures, because that’s a stronger function of the brain.

      They usually tell you to make something up related to the first letter of the word you’re trying to memorize, or some such.

      But, as you point out, Chinese has the picture associations already built-in. This makes it easier for the brain to memorize, and that could partially be the reason for why people say Asian cultures excel at math.

  16. Sisk says:

    they just love math

  17. My 4 year old can almost count to 100. I think a lot of it has to do with practice and what your taught.

    Most Asians that I know are good at math though.

  18. Interesting. In Kenya (swahili) is a direct english translation. One counts moja(one), mbili (two), (tatu) three……….upto kumi(ten). Then kumi na moja (meaning ten and one(11)), kumi na mbili (ten and two(12))……..upto ishirini (twenty). Then you start again adding the ones, i.e Ishirini na moja (twenty and one(21)), ishirini na mbili (twenty and two(22))……..upto thelathini (thirty) i.e thelathini na moja (thirty and one (31))………..You keep doing it until hundreds, then thousands, millions, billions etc . I’ve just noticed that swahili borrowed Milioni (Million), Bilioni (Billion) and Trilioni (Trillion) from english. I guess they hadn’t imagined of the massive numbers by then. Makes sense to me coz I don’t think anyone owned a million cows. Great post John.

      1. The proper english translation is “Two Thousand Ten” there’s no “and” in there.

          1. That may be how the translation came out, but in proper English, the “and” is left off when pronouncing numbers.

  19. Does this post have any deeper meaning? Maybe you were trying to say that is one of the reasons why asian tigers grow so rapidly?

  20. Asians may be good at math, but they haven’t put a man on the moon yet.

    1. Hahaha I don’t know what this means.

  21. Dot Com Note says:

    Now John has become a linguist and sociologist. The audacity of arrogance. By the way not all the Asian languages have the counting system as mentioned by this arrogant person. Many Asian languages still have words after 10 for eleven, twelve, etc. And in English, after twenty you’re in the same game.

    An average Asian is not any better than an average American in math.

    In China and India, more emphasize is given to rote math in schools and they excel in this rote math compared to an American. But when you pit them agains a creative problem solving using simple math, they fail.

    Also, they teach math topics in Chinese and Indian high schools that are taught in American first year math courses in colleges. But by the time an Chinese and Indian get an MS degree, they are no better than Americans with MS degrees.

  22. Seriously, part of the reason why many Asians are good in math is the school system in their home countries. Even second generation Asians in the US are advanced because their parents emphasize the importance of math.

    In many countries, not just Asian countries, algebra is taught as early as 2nd grade. As a student in the US, I didn’t touch algebra until 7th grade and I was in an “advanced” class.

    1. Kaja says:

      That is a good point. Asian countries, such as Japan, have much higher educational standards that the United States. They don’t even take summers off!

    2. America is in decline any way you look at it. Math, English, science, finance, politics, military might and the will by our leaders to use it, it’s all going to crap.

  23. George says:

    I don’t think Asians are better at math. They are just hard working and study more!

  24. ahaha.. I’m a Filipino and I disagree with it. Math?? not my favorite subject. hahaha- and I can’t remember when I learned to count numbers. better to conduct research for this, unfair for other races. Come on! It’s Twenty Ten already be kind to others. hahaha

  25. Ivan Walsh says:

    Wei Ni Hao, Lao Chow!

    Wo de haizi, Paul, 9, shi yiban zhong web & yiban Irish.

    We moved to Shanghai in March so he could learn chinese. Mom is Beijing girl. After 6 months he’s fluent and can write very well. He goes to an all Chinese school. Only foreigner.

    He did very well in his exams (trying to be modest, forgive me) but foresees that reverting to the Irish method of learning maths will be a pain.

    He has it cracked in Chinese. It’s a snap. Like you said, it’s logical and structured.

    This videos shows how he learns to write Chinese at home.

    http://www.youtube.com/user/ivanwalsh1#p/a/u/0/2uvGBUqsFXc

    We practice on the living room floor with a felt pen. When we get it right, we add it to the notebook.

    I’m the student (ε­¦η”Ÿ) in the vid. Ta shi wo de lao shi.

    新年快乐

    Ivan,
    Beijing

  26. Nick says:

    The only reason why many Asians are good in math is because they study more.

    1. Ivan Walsh says:

      Did you read the post?

      It’s because the language is more structured. English is a mixing pot of multiple romance and latin, It’s a mess.

  27. Aldo says:

    I cant help but somewhat disagree with you John. Asians is not = chinese.

    I am from the Philippines and we count just like how the western world does… after TEN theres ELEVEN, TWENTY, THIRTY, ONE HUNDRED, ONE THOUSAND and so on…

    PS. not all Asians are bad drivers. Try driving here in the Philippines, lets see who does better. πŸ™‚

  28. mmo says:

    Why Asians Hate Americans?LOL, because the vice versa is very true too.

  29. Nick Aviles says:

    Being able to count does not necessarily mean that you’re good at math. A person that is good at math is the one with good critical thinking skills that has the ability to solve certain problems by implementing the power of math.

    Counting is like learning English words. Sure, knowing words is good, but it doesn’t mean that you’re a professional creative writer yet.

  30. Must we always state the obvious? Why must we look for occasions to be offended? Can’t we just learn without being critical of John’s grammar for god’s sake?

  31. chester says:

    Haha that’s really funny. I’m asian and I suck at math. I’m great at counting money though!

    1. Ivan Walsh says:

      do it add up?

      just kidding. πŸ™‚

  32. Nina says:

    I don’t think it is as simple as that, as we all have different learning styles and so why should some children in America not be able to apply the American method. Some students in Asia may find their method difficult; it just depends on the child and a number of variables. Maybe the entire emphasis on education is different in America – where being a celebrity seems rather more attractive than ‘science’. Just a thought.

  33. Steve H. says:

    Interesting article… I always wondered why Asians/Chinese were good at math and envied their ability because – I’m not chinese and I suck at math too.

  34. Anthony Wong says:

    Hi John,

    This article was quite amusing and insightful at the same time! The chinese system of numeracy and literacy really is deeper than it appears, such is its evolution and supremacy over many other cultures.

    I only just came across your site last week and have already picked up a wealth of useful information.

    Thanks for the inspiration and value you provide. Look forward to more of your posts.

    Anthony

  35. I can understand why the Asian kids in high school always got better grades than me in math. =p

  36. smsokul says:

    we love math and try brain gymnasium

    smsokul

  37. Mahesh says:

    Sorry John. I completely disagree with you. As it is known that People from India Dominate the world of Computer Programming and are experts in Math. They also use Eleven, Twelve, thirteen. Its just in China may be your method valid and its fair for if they have a little good math, their English is so poor as you and all ll agree..

  38. Bidet says:

    That is so true, its much easier to learn to count in the Asian countries because it makes more sense. But than again there is like a million different counters in Asian languages. So it evens out.

  39. Hohoho… so that why. I kind understand now. waiting for others why in this blog. πŸ˜€

  40. Dave says:

    Stupid theory. The Japanese numbering system is more complex than the English numbering system. They have different counters depending on whether it’s a long object or a flat object, for example. Yet those guys are more advanced at math too.

  41. Ginchen says:

    Funny topic!

    I would be interested to know how other cultures handle their numbers and dates.

    In German, things are even worse: For 21, we say “one-and-twenty”, 1995 is “nineteen-hundred-five-and-ninety” and 2010 is “two-thousand-ten”. πŸ™‚

  42. Caleb says:

    This makes a lot of sense..it is sort of like mathematical metaphysics πŸ˜‰

  43. Custom Essay says:

    West was never good at Maths. Even the concept of Algebra was built by Arabs.

  44. As an Asian, I’m proud with this reality. We are good at math but still not enough new innovations to compete with western countries. Therefore, there are still lots of developing countries found in Asia

  45. Olivia says:

    Learning Habits, it’s also depend on the parents, I believe Sally talk to her mother more than John, John is pretty good in English than Chinese. make sense!!

  46. Irina says:

    Your post sounds very much like a chapter out of Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” where he explained this “phenomenon” with the numbering system.

    Here’s a short blurb:
    Outliers can be enjoyed for its bits of trivia, like why most pro hockey players were born in January, how many hours of practice it takes to master a skill, why the descendents of Jewish immigrant garment workers became the most powerful lawyers in New York, how a pilots’ culture impacts their crash record, how a centuries-old culture of rice farming helps Asian kids master math.

    Very interesting book!

  47. Tinh says:

    Because they are smart and so I am!

  48. I am Asian too :p and my math good as well.. lolz

Comments are closed.