Counting in Chinese: A Linguistic Case Study

三七二十一…

七八五十六…

I always catch myself counting and doing math operations in my first language, Mandarin, even though my most fluent language now is English (my thoughts are always in English, and this is usually a definite indication of which language is an individual’s strongest). Anyway, the action piqued my interest and I decided to do a little research online using information collected from forums and various articles.

Apparently using your native language to do math operations is a fairly common phenomenon for bilinguals. Furthermore, Psychology Today conducted a study which found that the language of instruction is more essential than an individual’s first language. Since we had more concrete practice and our brains made more neural connections when we first memorized the multiplication table and began to understand other operations, it is easier to recall the primary information than new material processed later on .

Disregarding all scientific and psychological explanations, I just find the Chinese system to be more efficient. When we do multiplication, we don’t mentally say “three times seven is twenty-one”. Instead, we eliminate the unnecessary words and simply think “three seven twenty-one” to arrive at the product much faster than our American counterparts. In fact, by removing the extra words, there’s an automatic connection between the numbers that’s so drilled into our heads that looking at 3×7 or 7×8 will automatically spit out 21 and 56 respectively, without a need to mentally recite the equation. Perhaps this is what the article meant by the “language of math”:

But, to add a bit of spice to the equation, there are also those who do not rely on words and vocalizations at all when dealing with math and prefer to think of mathematical relationships “in the language of math”!

Phonetically speaking, I also find the Chinese numbers much faster to say than American ones. For example, 1-10 in Mandarin are all one syllable while “seven” has two syllables (in Chinese, 7 is just 七, pronounced “qi”). The three-syllable “eleven” is long compared to the two-syllable 十一, pronounced “shi-yi”. The same goes for Spanish numbers (two-syllable “cinco” compared to one-syllable 五, pronounced “wu”). Now, I do admit that I count a beat slower in Spanish because it’s my third language and I speak it relatively slower than the other two, but looking at it from an unbiased viewpoint, the two syllable 十七 (pronounced “shi-qi”) beats the four-syllable “diecisiete” any day everyday.

I think this is also a prime example of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which states that an individual’s thoughts are shaped by the language they speak. A commonly given example is the phenomenon that words exist in certain languages to describe an idea culturally unique to the people who speak that language. In other languages, no such thing may exist (ie “siesta” in Spanish means a noon nap which people in America do not usually take due to our busy work schedules. This word exists because Central/South American countries suffer scorching heat during the summer, and the population would usually sleep away the hottest hours of the day…at least that’s how my Spanish teacher explained it to me when we read “Siesta del Martes”). Similarly, because I learned math operations in Chinese, the system has changed how I solve and visualize math problems. My concept and your concept of 3×7 could be distinctly different, but we will still arrive at the same conclusion though we may take different routes to get there.

At the end of the day, no language is superior to others, but in terms of efficiency, the Chinese system takes the cake. I’m quite sure there are plenty of other tasks in which the Romance languages come in handy. Actually, now I’m curious – since the language of instruction still tends to be the fastest for people to recall years later- are there tasks besides math which I perform faster in English because I completed most of my education in the United States?

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