It can't be that simple (*\$%?!*)
By Robert H Olley | April 22nd 2009 02:00 PM | 1 comment | Print | E-mail | Track Comments

Until recently, I worked in the Polymer Physics Group of the Physics Department at the University of Reading.

I would describe myself

...

View Robert H's Profile
I have recently been contacted by a friend who is worried at the decline in numeracy in the West.  He asked me what I thought of the following:

In 2005, Newt Gingrich (who had been on the Hart-Rudman Commission) stated:
The collapse of math and science education in the US and the relative decline of investment in basic research is an enormous strategic threat to American national security. … Keeping America competitive in the twenty-first century is dependent upon having increasing number of students studying math and science.
An author by the name of Gladwell states, in his book Outliers,

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 ten four, and so on.

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

Gladwell also refers to Stanislas Dehaene’s The Number Sense:
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. The memory gap between English and Chinese apparently is entirely due to this difference in length. In languages as diverse as Welsh, Arabic, Chinese, English and Hebrew, there is a reproducible correlation between the time required to pronounce numbers in a given language and the memory span of its speakers. In this domain, the prize for efficacy goes to the Cantonese dialect of Chinese, whose brevity grants residents of Hong Kong a rocketing memory span of about 10 digits.
My friend says he is a bit sceptical of sources such as Malcolm Gladwell, so I told him I'd let you all comment on this, if you like.  To which he said:
I'll have a good look at  Scientific Blogging which looks great.