Malcolm Gladwell on outliers, maths and rice

The Chinese are good at maths because their number words are remarkably brief, says Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers.

He quotes from The Numbers Game by Stanislas Dehaene, who wrote:

“Most of them can be uttered in less than one-quarter of a second (for example, 4 is “si” and 7 “qi”). Their English equivalents — “four”, “seven” — are longer; pronouncing them takes about one-third of a second.”

So the Chinese have an edge over English speakers. “Because as human beings we store digits in a memory loop that runs for about two seconds,” explains Gladwell. “We most easily memorize whatever we can say or read within two seconds.”

Try this test:

Read this list of numbers: 4,8,5,3,9,7, 6. Look away and spend 20 seconds memorizing that sequence before saying them out loud again.

“If you speak English, you have about a 50 percent chance remembering that sequence perfectly,” says Gladwell.

“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.”

What makes it more difficult for English speakers is their highly irregular number system, he says. For example, in English, we say eleven, twelve, but thirteen, fourteen, twenty-one, twenty-two: the number form changes.

“Not so in China, Japan, and Korea. They have a logical counting system,” says Gladwell. “Eleven is ten-one. Twelve is two-ten. Twenty-four is two-tens-four and so on.

“The difference means that Asian children learn to count much faster than American children.”

But do you think Gladwell is right when he says China, Japan, Korean and Singapore are good at maths because they have a rice-growing culture?