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How Language Affects Counting

Cultural Variations in Working Memory Capacity

Every time the results of international test scores in mathematics are released, children from the United States usually perform dismally compared to children from other nations, particularly those from Asia. Differences in classroom instruction and curriculum may be partly to blame. But cultural differences in computational ability may have their roots in the words that different cultures use to represent numbers.

Read the following list of numbers aloud: 7, 5, 9, 11, 8, 3, 7, 2. Now cover the list and take about 20 seconds to try to memorize the list. Now recite them again without looking at the list. Did you get them all correct? Chances are that if your native language is English, you might have gotten only about four or five in the correct order. But if you are Chinese, you may have gotten all of them correct. Why is that? When you try to remember a list of numbers by saying them aloud, you are using a verbal memory loop, a part of immediate memory that can hold information for only about two seconds. This forces you to rehearse the words to refresh them in the loop. As a result, your memory span is limited by how many number words you can say in less than two seconds. That time span is too short for most people to say aloud the 12 syllables contained in the eight numbers you were trying to remember. Of course, if you can recite faster, you will remember more.

Chinese numbers are very brief. Most of them can be recited in less than one-fourth of a second. Pronouncing their English equivalents takes about one-third of a second. This difference might seem trivial to you, but it is very significant to researchers. Studies of languages as diverse as English, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, and Welsh show a correlation between the time required to pronounce numbers in a given language and the memory span of numbers in its speakers. People in Hong Kong, where the Cantonese dialect of Chinese is spoken, have a number memory span of about 10 digits, as opposed to the seven in speakers of English and other Western languages.

One factor contributing to this difference is the finding from brain imaging studies that native Chinese speakers process arithmetic manipulation in areas of the brain different from those of native English speakers. Researchers speculate that the biological encoding of numbers may differ in the two cultures because their languages are written so differently, resulting in vastly dissimilar visual reading experiences (Tang et al., 2006).

Surprisingly, the magical number of seven items, long considered the fixed span of working memory, is just the standard span for a special population of humans—namely, Western adults on whom about 90 percent of psychological studies have been focused. No doubt there is a biological limit to the capacity of working memory, but that limit also appears to be affected by culture and training. The cultural variations in memory span suggest that Asian numerical notations, such as in Chinese and Japanese, are more easily memorized than our Western notations because they are more compact (Miller, Smith, Zhu, & Zhang, 1995).

There are some tricks that adults can use to increase digit memory span. These tricks can also be taught to young students at the appropriate age.

  • Memorize numbers by saying them aloud and using the shortest words possible. The number 76,391 is easier to remember as “seven-six-three-nine-one” (6 syllables) rather than as “seventy-two thousand three hundred and ninety-one” (13 syllables).
  • Chunking numbers into groups is another useful strategy. Ten-digit telephone numbers are easier to remember when they are divided into the three-digit area code, followed by two groups of three and four digits.
  •  Look for ways to tie parts of the number you are memorizing to other numbers that are familiar to you, such as your area code, postal zip code, address, or Social Security number.
  1. May 14, 2012 at 7:47 pm

    Reblogged this on Actuaria's Blog and commented:
    Interesting – what do you think?

  2. May 19, 2012 at 10:21 pm

    This article caught my eye because I recently wrote a post called “Count to 10 in Any Language” on American Family Magazine. In the post I explain how, as kids, my brother and I learned to count to ten in several languages from a set of Childbook Encyclopedias. I do recall it being very easy. I think we learned six languages in a few days. 35 years later, I still remember them all.

    In relation to this article, I remember 1 to 10 in Hindi and how every number had only one syllable – at least the way we pronounced it. I agree with your summations and I do use the tricks you mention at the end. I’m very good at memorizing numbers for some reason. My limit these days is about 30 single digits. It takes about a two minutes for me to memorize that many but once they’re in the brain, I can recall the numbers forward, backward, every other number, or give a running total.

    Another odd thing about this ability is that I can instantly ‘flush’ those numbers and learn a new line of digits. Sometimes I can go back and recall the first set a few minutes later but more often than not, they’re gone for good.

    People are often amazed by my ‘trick’ but I think anyone can do it with a little practice. It sure makes memorizing important numbers an easy task. I know all of my numbers (credit cards, License, friends’ phone numbers and addresses, etc.

    Anyway, great article. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Take a peek at my article on American Family Magazine if you have a moment, and let me know what you think in the comments.

    • Dr. David Sousa
      May 23, 2012 at 5:35 pm

      Thanks for your comments. Obviously, you have trained your working memory system to chunk numbers quickly and to move them long-term memory efficiently. It is a great skill to have, and you are right that many people — with sufficient motivation — can do the same.

      • May 23, 2012 at 7:09 pm

        I got to thinking, after I left this comment, how I would teach someone to memorize long sets of numbers. Then I wondered if there is an explanation for the process I use.

        For example: 904579842 is a number I just made up. I am a visual designer, so instead of memorizing the actual numbers I visualize an image of a hill in KY with 3 stones on top and two steps on the downgrade. Now that I’ve got that image in my mind, I can always recall this number. 904 is an old address I had in Kentucky.

        Starting from the left, going up the hill (means up one number) from 4 to 5. Three odd stones on top means 5, 7, 9. Down the hill from 9 to 8, then two steps cutting the numbers in half each time, 8, 4, 2. Now, of course, explaining it takes much longer than the initial visualization which took about 3 seconds.

        So is there a term for this technique of memorizing long sets of numbers? Also, it’s an interesting maneuver my brain makes of translating the left brain activity into something my stronger, right brain can understand and store. I find it all very interesting.

  3. Subodai
    May 20, 2012 at 11:09 pm

    Might mean something if British, Canadian and Australian test scores were also dismal, but they noticeably aren’t mentioned.

    • Dr. David Sousa
      May 23, 2012 at 5:36 pm

      You are correct: I should have included other country scores for comparison. So here they are. These are the standings for the latest international mathematics scores through TIMSS -2007.

      Hong Kong, 1st place
      Singapore, 2nd place
      Chinese Taipei, 3rd place
      Japan, 4th place
      England, 7th place
      United States, 10th place
      Australia, 13th place
      Canada did not participate

      The data speak for themselves. You can get the entire standings at http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2009/2009001_suptables.pdf

      Dr. David A. Sousa

  4. May 30, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    As a first grade teacher, I found this article very interesting and helpful. We often focus on working memory, but I had not compared what we ask our children to do compared to children using another language. Truly food for thought! I would like to know more about learning words, too.

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