This summer I read Malcolm Gladwell's Blink and was really intrigued by his reference to several things mathematical. In particular he describes how, in China, in takes considerably less time to count from 1 to 10 in Chinese than it does in English because the number names are shorter. He went on to suggest that this is one of the reasons why it is easier to learn math in China. So in class last week I asked Jeff, who grew up in Taiwan, and Sheila, who grew up in the US, to count aloud from 1 to 10 at a normal speed, Jeff in Chinese and Sheila in English, starting at the same time.
Sure enough, Jeff had finished counting by the time Sheila had reached 8. Most Asian students also do not have to deal with the incredibly difficult, non-intuitive and odd words "eleven" and "twelve", as well as the difficult to say "thirteen". Counting the teen numbers in Asian languages is achieved simply by putting the single digit number names together with the number name for ten as in "ten and one", ten and two" and so on. These two facts alone probably account for why Asian students tend to learn to count more efficiently than US students and hence do better at math. It really has little if nothing to do with having better teachers or educational systems.
In fact, Jeff gets quite a kick out of finally understanding many of the things he learned by rote in Taiwan.
In England, they call high wheelers "Penny Farthings" after the two coins that are no longer used. We would call it a "Quarter-Dime" but it doesn't seem the same somehow!!!