Monday, November 26, 2012

Maths and the Languages

Ever wonder why the Asians are inherently better in Maths than the Europeans and the Americans? Malcolm Gladwell gives a very interesting and thought provoking analysis of this phenomenon in his book "Outliers" (It's a MUST READ if you ask me, a lot of interesting stuff mentioned in this book!). The basic funda over here is that the way the language number naming system is structured makes it easier for an Asian to do 2 things :

1) Memorize more numbers than what an American or European could.
2) Easily do basic calculations (Additions, subtractions) on the top of your head, or quicker than the Europeans/Americans.

This got me thinking. Does this work in the Indian Context as well? Do the difference in the number naming systems in Hindi and in any of the South Indian Languages (Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada or Telugu) have an effect on our conception and understanding of Math? Can being good in Math also be rooted in the group's culture? Let's put it to the test.

I'm taking Malayalam as an example, but for all the south indian languages, the number systems are similar.

The Malayalam number naming system is logical in nature. 11, for example, is said as "ten-one", whilst the tens (other than 20) are said as "three-ten","four-ten" etc. (30 : Muppathu "Moonu-pathu")

Hindi, on the other hand, has a much more complicated logic in their numbering. Hindi cardinal numbers up to 100 have no specific standardization. Up to 20, the numbers are unique. After that each tenth number (such as 30, 40 etc) is unique. The rest of the numbers take the form of prefix of incremental digit and the base of preceding tenth number. However these prefixes and bases vary slightly and random manner.

Now, if we were to ask a South Indian youngster (a seven year old) to actually mentally calculate the sum of two numbers (say 17 + 42), it would actually be easier to do so in Malayalam, as he would automatically say "one-ten-seven" + "four-ten-two", thus getting "five-ten-nine". However, as a Hindi speaking youngster to add the numbers, and he would have to convert the words to numbers, and only then would be able to do the math. 

This would show that South Indians are able to learn the basics of Mathematics much quicker than the North Indians, and would thus, on a whole, be better off than the North Indians in Mathematics. And this has always been the general perception as well. (Well, please do correct me if I am wrong!).

On the other hand, the Chinese, Koreans etc. have an even more logical number naming system, and are thus able to grasp and learn mathematics even faster, which is why you see the Chinese always doing better than the Indians in exams like GMAT

Thus, it goes to show that what is perceived as an apparent attraction to a subject may have a more culturally rooted reason to the pattern. So don't worry if you are not good in Math, you can always blame your forefathers!!

Do comment on your views, would love to hear from you!