Why Asians are Better at Math

Dave Chen wrote a thought-provoking post entitled “Why Asians are Better at Math.

He cites a BBC article which compares questions from British and Chinese math tests. Says the article:

A glance at the two questions reveals how much more advanced is the maths teaching in China, where children learn the subject up to the age of 18.

Dave uses his own experiences as an Asian American to speculate upon the reasons he believes Asians are better at math:

  1. Their parents
  2. Their curricula are the hardest in the world
  3. Their schools are oppressive, draconian environments from which there is no escape

While I do agree with Dave’s assessment overall, I wonder if there is more to it? One article suggests that Chinese language and English language speakers calculate problems differently; that language seems to have a role in this. We could probably make this list miles long, but I think a key factor missing from the list is effort. I think Asians just try harder and put in more effort (than say Americans). Yes, that may because their parents expect them to, because the of the level of the curriculum, as well as the oppressive school systems… the end result is more effort put into math, in my opinion.

Heck, remove something as subjective as effort, what about time? I’m sure we could pull up studies about how many more hours Asians spend in school, doing homework, or even practice calculations. (Did you ever have to do practice calculations? My Mom used to buy math workbooks and made us do tons of problems on top of our regular homework.)

(On a sidenote, Dave’s post has 732 diggs as of right now and a ton of comments there… first comment: “Too bad math doesn’t help when you’re behind the wheel.” An Asian driver joke. Nice.)

I’m sure there’s more I’m not even thinking of right now. What other reasons contribute to Asian excellence in math?

As an Asian American, I grew up with parental expectations to excel in school. I did well in math, compared to my cohorts, but I always knew in the back of my mind that I wasn’t a math genius. It didn’t come easy and I definitely had to study for my grades. I knew that if I had been going to school in Taiwan; my “stellar” math performance in the US would land me at the back of the remedial class there.

I’m not sure it’s worth arguing whether or not Asians are good at math; I think there is enough evidence that shows that students from Asian countries regularly outperform Americans, including Asian Americans. That said, how does this supposed “Asian Mathematical Superiority” (my words not Dave’s) affect Asian Americans who were educated in the United States? There is evidence that Asian Americans outperform students of other races in the U.S. I believe this goes back to parental expectations; I spent my after school time studying, not watching TV. I imagine many second generation Asian Americans probably had immigrant parents who enforced rigorous studying more akin to what they had experienced in Asia. I wonder how third and fourth generation Asian Americans will fare, especially if second generation Asian Americans are more lax with their expectations?

I, for one, sometimes feel like a mathematical idiot, never having taken a class beyond calculus, especially since my major in college was based in the humanities. When I started business school, I struggled with basic calculations because I hadn’t used any math since high school (and any math I needed at work or otherwise was done by Excel or a calculator). It upsets me when people say “Oh you’re Asian, you’re good at math,” because it frankly makes me feel like some sort of fraud or maybe some sub-par Asian. I know I shouldn’t feel this way because I’m basically acknowledging some sort of Model Minority complex, but then I wonder, shouldn’t I expect more of myself? Clearly, I think to myself, if I had just put some more time and effort into math, I wouldn’t be such an math dummy.

I don’t think Asians are “inherently good at math.” I think most Asians work their asses off and develop their skills through good study habits and time and effort spent on math. Yeah, there’s that annoying math savant who can recite pi out to the ten-thousandth digit and tell you the square root of any number you name, but if you want to talk “ASIAN MATH SKILLS: NATURE VS NURTURE?” I would put a big ol’ “X” on the nurture column.

What do you think?

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(Flickr photo credit: 7 years later)

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11 Responses to “Why Asians are Better at Math”

  • Here’s another reason …

    I remember my Chemistry teacher in high school Mr Kwon saying that while he LOVED history, upon coming to the country (Canada) he was not able to continue mainly due to him not being able to pick up the language (English) as proficiently as he hoped. So what was left for him to teach? Sciences and Maths because they’re all finite and leave little room for interpretation.

    And granted despite my mom also buying Math workbooks and my failing Gr. 11 math, I think back and feel it probably was the one course where our parents could actually involve themselves with our education – cuz everything else (History/ English – I studied Law and Geography in French) they couldn’t understand.

    And besides, you use math everyday … at least accounting math.

  • The only subject I failed (yes, failed) in high school was calculus. This is what made me opt to go into the humanities for college instead of the sciences.

    The only reason why I did well in algebra/trig is because I had to study it in weekend Japanese school. We had to do both exercises and word problems in Japanese. In fourth grade. They were hard! By the time the class was presented in my “regular” school in ninth grade, it was old hat to me.

    I make no claims that I’m good at math, nor do I feel bad because I’m not. Yet why is it that when I’m with my group of (non-Asian) friends, I’m the one who has to calculate the restaurant bill and keep score in Scrabble games?? ;)

  • Hey joz,

    First of all, thanks so much for posting a link to my blog entry and for your great comments.

    Second of all, I can’t tell you how psyched I am to find this blog! My secret hope after hitting the front page of Digg was that I’d get the chance to be exposed to other websites and blogs that share similar interest to mine, and/or that write about the Asian-American experience in an intimate and articulate fashion. I have subscribed to your RSS feed :)

    Thirdly, in response to what you’ve said, I agree with you almost 100%. I think it’s a nurture thing, with dramatic cultural differences contributing to the bulk of the disparate scores we see. And as for feeling

    As a side note, I made a promise to myself and I didn’t read any of the Digg comments because I knew that most of them would be racist filth. However, the comments on my blog itself are quite good, many of them insightful preventing a unique point of view. However, you should read some of the comments on my blog that I DIDN’T publish (I moderate). Several people argued that Asians are just biologically superior, which makes them smarter. Differences in skull size prove this fact! There are a lot of whackos out there.

    Thanks again. Keep up the good work!


    P.S. At some point in the future, I might be interested in contributing to your blog, if you’d be interested as well. Feel free to contact me via e-mail if you’d like to talk further about it.

  • I contend the biggest factor is expectations. At those young ages, we all still feel the need to live up to expectation and the standard of math proficiency set in East Asia is substantially higher than the standard of math proficiency set here in the U.S. Raise those standards (along with providing the schools with ample financing and resources) and the U.S., too, will see measurable improvement in their children’s math and sciences education.

  • Once, at a job interview in NYC, the interviewer said to me, “You’re Chinese, right? This job requires a lot of math, so you’ll be a good fit.”

  • Since when did “maths” become a word?

    I studied some Mandarin and the one thing I noticed right away was how the grammar is almost algebraic. Especially when constructing a question. In China I often got this:

    Ni shi neiguo ren?
    You are what-country person?

    My response is:

    Wo shi meiguo ren.
    I am American(country) person.

    So a Chinese constructs a sentence like an algebra problem, replacing the unknown information with a variable, in this case a question word (what, who, when, where, etc.) So in maths it would look like:

    you are X-country person.

    then I merely solve for X (X = USA).

    If I was raised that way, I’d be a helluva lot better at maths than I was in high school. I remember it took me forever to even understand what a variable was. ‘Course I also had lousy teachers.

  • I think one factor is the acceleration of the subject. I grew up in Korea and went to school there until first grade and by second grade you are expected to memorize the multiplication table and in America that wasn’t covered until the fourth grade.

  • courageous kiwi

    This is a response to “Jesse!”: mathematicians have been trying for decades to reduce spoken languages to language-independent grammars. None have succeeded. Your sentence applies to just about every single one of the Latinate languages too if you play word games enough:

    “What (is the) country (that) are you from?”
    “Sri Lanka (is the country that I am from.)”

    The reason you don’t think of it this way is because in commonspeak all the parts in the parentheses are implied. In Mandarin it’s the same thing. The response is more commonly “Mei guo,” because “I am” and “person” are implied.

    Why are “progressive” Asians so against arguing eugenics? Because it’s racist? To immigrate to the United States, our parents needed to be highly educated. The percentage of intelligent people among educated persons is higher than that of non-educated persons.

  • I think the reason a lot of Asians are concentrated in math and science has a lot to do with the language and cultural barriers perceived by Asian immigrants in America.

    Math, science and engineering achievement is pretty easily documented and measurable, and it’s less subject to coloration about how well you speak English or with an accent. So other Asians take that clue and go that way because it’s seen as the path of least resistance. I don’t think it’s because Asians are supposedly inherantly better at math. I am Asian and I hate/suck at math and most of the hard sciences!

  • I volunteer yearly at a state-wide math competition for grades 6-8. Allow me to toss some rough empirical observations out here: on a scale of 1-20, the asian kids consistently and uniformly scored strongly in this competition, between the 10-12 range. One kid, however, was head and shoulders above everyone (about 100 competitors) in math ability – scoring 15 – and he was jewish.

  • Math ability should be looked at after school. Should be more fields medalist.

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