Counting in Japanese and Numbers in Base 10

These days observing my 2nd grade daughter’s homework as well as elementary school teachers teaching the new Common Core Math Standards in my district, the thought occurred to me that learning to count in Japanese should also be a standard. Why you ask?  Being a former Japanese teacher, I would never proclaim to be an expert in Math, nor do I know the Math standards as well as the teachers who are immersed in them daily.  However, seeing how Math is taught today versus the way I learned, I just can’t help think that learning Math with a working knowledge of Japanese numbers would help students.

For example, in order to count almost infinitely, you need to know 13 numbers in Japanese (maybe 14 if you want to count large numbers such as our deficit or the money needed to stabilize the NJ pension).  Anyway, I digress so here are the thirteen numbers you need to know to count in Japanese:

ichi (one) – ni (two) – san (three) – shi/yon (four) – go (five) – roku (six) – shichi/nana (seven) – hachi (eight) – kyuu (nine) – juu (ten)- hyaku (100) – sen (1000) – man (10,000) – oku (1,000,000 which is rarely used counting in Japanese).

Now as a point of comparison, English language speakers need to know 31 different words to count, 28 of which are the main vocabulary of different numbers young English speakers must know to begin learning Math. What are those numbers?  Start counting and stop at 20.  Right there you have twenty different words.  Now count by tens from 30 to 100.  That leaves you with 8 more different numbers you need to know just to count to 100.  I am leaving out a thousand, million, and billion which take the vocabulary needed to count in our language up to 31 different words.  That is a lot more words than Japanese.

So here is your quick lesson to make my point for why counting in Japanese could help young learners with Math.

Ichi is one and juu is ten.  So what is juu ichi?

10 + 1 = 11.

Now, what is juu san?  That’s right 13 because juu = 10 and san = 3 so 10 + 3 = 13.

No what do you suppose ni juu is?  Ni = 2 and juu = 10.

If you figured out that ni juu is 20, you are getting this.

How about go juu?  Go = 5 and juu = 10. That’s right 50!

Think about it now.  In order to say 15, you must say in Japanese 10 which is juu and five which is gojuu go  Therefore, the very counting of numbers 11-100 require addition.  However, the basic counting of tens requires addition and multiplication.  Remember I said that ni = 2 and juu = 10 so ni juu equals 20.  In the mind of a Japanese speaker or one who can count in Japanese, they are seeing 10 and 10 or 2 X 10.

If they want to say 99, they just simply say kyuu = 9 and juu = 10 and kyuu = 9 so kyuu juu kyuu is how you say 99.  Nine 10’s + 9 or 9 X 10 + 9 = 99.  Pretty cool huh?

How much easier would numbers base 10 be for our students if numbers and counting in the English language was as easy as Japanese?

Malcolm Gladwell writes about this in his book Outliers.

“The much-storied disenchantment with mathematics among western children starts in the third and fourth grade…….part of that disenchantment is due to the fact that math doesn’t seem to make sense; its linguistic structure is clumsy; its basic rules seem arbitrary and complicated.

Asian children, by contrast, don’t face nearly that same sense of bafflement. They can hold more numbers in their head, and do calculations faster, and the way fractions are expressed in their language corresponds exactly to the way a fraction actually is—and maybe that makes them a little more likely to enjoy math, and maybe because they enjoy math a little more they try a little harder and take more math classes and are more willing to do their homework, and on and on, in a kind of virtuous circle.

When it comes to math, in other words, Asians have built-in advantage. . .”

I use to teach my students how to count to 100 in around 10 minutes when I taught Japanese. Would love to see this tried in a classroom.  What do you think?


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