There is a perception that Asian people excel at the study of mathematics. Scholars and educators all seem to be in agreement that when it comes to math, Asians are just better at it than everybody else.
Stereotypes aside, there is an element of truth to this belief with plenty of evidence to back it up. From cultural factors to teaching methods, here are 11 reasons why Asian people are good at math.
Why Are Asian People Good At Math?
1. Asian Students Excel At Math
Asian people being good at math may seem like a stereotype but some studies clearly demonstrate that this proficiency in mathematics can be traced to their formative school years.
According to international assessments conducted by TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), Asian students ranked the highest in the world in mathematics achievement:
- At the 4th-grade level, the five highest-scoring countries in math are Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Chinese Taipei, and Japan
- At the 8th-grade level, the five highest-scoring countries in math are Singapore, Chinese Taipei, South Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong
That the same five Asian countries have scored the highest in math achievement assessments at two separate grade levels demonstrates that Asians are good at math and it starts at an early age.
2. Fractions Make More Sense
One of the most difficult math subjects for children in non-Asian cultures to learn is fractions and much of this has to do with the way that this concept is taught.
Asian students do not find fractions as difficult as their Western counterparts simply because the way that fractions are spoken and expressed is simpler to understand.
To a Western student, the fraction 3/5 would be spoken and read as “three-fifths”, which is not entirely clear as to what exactly the three and the fifths represent.
But to a Chinese student, the fraction 3/5 would be spoken and understood to mean “out of five parts, take three”. Here, the numerator and denominator are clearly identified, and the meaning is clear.
3. Asians Use Straightforward Numbering Systems
To non-native speakers, the English language numbering system is full of peculiarities that defy logic. Even for those who are raised in English-speaking societies, these idiosyncrasies can be hard to learn.
- Where numbers in the teens like fourteen, sixteen, and seventeen follow a logical predictable pattern, numbers like eleven (one-teen?) and twelve (two-teen?) seem out of place
- Decade numbers like forty, sixty, and seventy are natural and intuitive and make numbers like twenty and thirty seem peculiar
- Whereas numbers in the teens consist of the unit number followed by the decade number (e.g., fourteen, sixteen, eighteen), beyond twenty this is reversed (e.g., twenty-one, sixty-seven)
Unlike their English-speaking counterparts, Asians (most notably Chinese, Japanese, and Korean) do not use quirky, and sometimes illogical, numbering schemes.
4. Asians Are Better At Word Problems
Ask any math student what is the most challenging type of problem to solve and chances are a common response will be word problems.
Many kids (and adults, for that matter) struggle with understanding what the question is asking, let alone solving the actual problem.
This is where Asians excel because they are taught to visualize word problems, breaking down each part of the problem into pictures or diagrams to clarify the basic questions that need to be answered.
5. Asian Linguistics Make Math More Sensible
Asian numbering conventions are straightforward representations of numerical values, so eleven is ten-and-one, twenty-four is two-tens-and-four, and so on.
This makes math computations faster and easier because the computational cues are built right into the numbering language. For instance:
- To an Asian, eleven plus twenty-four linguistically is ten-one plus two-tens-four
- An Asian student would simply add the units and then the tens to come up with three-tens-five (35)
- But a native English speaker would first have to convert the linguistic numbers into actual numerals before proceeding into calculations (e.g., eleven is 11 and twenty-four is 24)
Thus, for non-Asians, there is a logical divide in the way that numbers are spoken and understood versus the way that they are written and used in math, and this unnecessarily complicates things.
6. A Growth Mindset Promotes Problem-Solving
Another factor that contributes to the ability of Asians to excel at math is the mindset that is instilled in them from a young age by which they are encouraged to seek improvement in all skills, including math.
Much like the drills that athletes must practice over and over again, Asian students are taught to be receptive to instruction and to work hard at refining their craft.
Good performance in math is the direct result of effort and repetition and having a growth mindset enables a confident approach toward problem-solving, which is the very essence of math.
7. Children Learn Numbers At A Younger Age
Numbers are the fundamental building blocks of mathematics so it stands to reason that the younger the age at which a child learns to count, the more comfortable they will be when learning math.
In Asian cultures like China, Japan, and Korea, the numbering systems are straightforward and make linguistic sense. Learning to count is intuitive and therefore easier than in Western cultures.
Here is a comparison:
- In China, the average 4-year-old child can be expected to count to 40
- In the US, the average 4-year-old child can only count to 15 and cannot be expected to count to 40 until he or she turns 5 years old
In this instance, the Chinese child is at an advantage right off the bat simply because learning to count is a simpler task based on logic as opposed to straight memorization.
8. Asian People Achieve A Mastery Of Math
One major reason why Asian people are good at math is that they are urged from a young age to truly master various math concepts and achieve a deep understanding of fundamental principles.
This differs from other cultures where the students are taught to memorize mathematical formulas and perform calculations with the primary objective of earning a good grade on an exam or in a class.
Asian students, on the other hand, learn new concepts in a linear fashion. Each principle is mastered before moving on to the next, and this building block technique enables deeper learning of math.
9. Mental Math
Performing mental math is another practice that is taught to Asians at a young age. This basically involves analyzing and solving math problems in one’s head instead of writing them down on paper.
Mental math exercises the mind while reinforcing a deep understanding of numbers, formulas, and problem-solving.
10. Longer School Years
As the old saying goes, practice makes perfect, and when it comes to education, the more time that is spent in the classroom, the better the results that can be expected.
Statistics show that on average, Asian students spend more time in the classroom than many of their non-Asian counterparts by having longer school years. Here is a sampling of what the data shows:
- South Korean students are in school 220 days per year
- In Japan, the school year is 210 days long
- For China and Singapore, the school years are 194 days and 193 days respectively
- By comparison, the average American student is in school 180 days out of the year
While these figures do not tell the entire story, they do provide supporting information for why Asian people are good at math.
11. Interactive Approach
Throughout Asia, an interactive approach to teaching math is used in classrooms. There is a constant dialog between teacher and student to ensure that concepts are understood.
Students are encouraged to think problems through and it is not uncommon for them to stand in front of the class going step-by-step through their thought processes.
It is also common for teachers to challenge their students, posing the questions “why?”, “how?”, and “what if?” as problems are being solved.
To learn more, you can also read our posts on why you suck at math, why physics is so hard, and why accounting is so boring.
Asians being good at math is not genetic and it is not the result of happenstance. From an early age, Asian children are taught the fundamentals of math in a structured and thoughtful manner.
Just as important as understanding the core principles of math is having the right mindset toward problem-solving and this is another area where Asian cultures excel.