Newsletter : Land of the Rising Sum
Land of the Rising Sum
Here's an interesting fact - it seems that Asian children are able to count to high numbers before they attend primary school. In contrast, young Western kids of the same age are strugglingwith low numbers. Some people argue that the problem lies in the names that languages use for numbers. For example, in English you count from one to ten, but you then have to learn new names for each of the numbers after that: e.g. eleven (11), twelve (12), thirteen (13), twenty-one (21), thirty-three (33), forty-seven (47), etc. In contrast, Japanese children simply have to master the wordsfor the numbers from one to ten and then combine those wordsin new ways to create bigger numbers: e.g. ten-one (11), ten-four (14), two-ten-three (23), four-ten-five (45), six-ten-eight (68), etc. Would Western kids be more comfortable with numbers if we simplified the counting system and did away with complicated labels? We'll never know as it is very unlikely that any government would approve such an idea. But British politicians often complain that weak numeracy skills cost the economy billions of pounds every year - and with that in mind any change to the way that numbers are taught might be a good idea.
Are there any other reasons behind the superior numeracy skills that Japanese students are said to demonstrate in the classroom? Interestingly, Japanese teachers use simple chants, similar to nursery rhymes, to teach the times tables. In English, the times tables are learned by simply repeating a series of boring sentences: one times three is three; two times three is six, three times three is nine, four times three is twelve, five times three is fifteen - and so on. Such a system is very dull and perhaps it is no coincidence that Western students struggle to master basic numeracy. How much fun it must be to chant Japanese times tables when instead of saying "eight times eight" you can use a simple rhyme like "hapahapa"!
Perhaps it is time to introduce the abacus into Western schools. Despite the popularity of electronic calculators, the simple wooden abacus with its noisy beads is still widely seen in modern Japan. I understand that basic abacus skills are first introduced in primary schools because this allows the math teacher to demonstrate the decimal number system visually. And I am told that when teaching the abacus, primary schoolteachers give song-like instructions. What a pity that we don't have those song-like instructions in English!
Practice in using the abacus in Japan doesn't stop in primary schools. Private abacus clubs are plentiful and members work towards passing the examinations set by the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry. I was intrigued to learn that those examinations are graded in a rather martial-arts system with six levels of mastery, starting from sixth-grade (very skilled) all the way up to first-grade (masters). Students at these private abacus clubs learn to add up a string of numbers in a very short space of time. As a natural consequence of becoming more proficient, abacus users automatically become adept at mental calculation - known as anzan in Japanese. As a part of their abacus instruction, students practice mental calculationsby visualizing their abacus. Indeed this could be one very good reason why, despite the arrival of cheap calculators, a million Japanese children attend private abacus clubs.
The high point of the abacus calendar is the All JapanAbacus Championship, which took place in August this year in Kyoto. In the mental calculation category called "Flash Anzan" contestants visualize the abacus and mentally add up 15 numbers, eachbetween 100 and 999, as they are flash up on a giant screen. Simple, right? Not really! The numbers are appear so fast that you can barely read them.When the contestant sees the first number he or she must visualizethat number on an imaginary abacus. When they see the second number, they must instantly add it to the number already visualized, and so on. At the end of the game the contestants cannot remember any of the numbers, or the intermediate sums. They only retain the final answer on their imaginary abacus. The 2012 winner, Takeo Sasano, a school clerk in his 30s, broke his own world record. He added up the numbers correctly even though the numbers were flashed up in 1.70 seconds. Using an imaginary abacus is an unbelievably fast way to perform mental calculations. (For some people, that is!)
Brian Butterworth, a professor of cognitive neuropsychology at University College London and the author of The Mathematical Brain, was astounded when he saw video clips of Flash Anzan. "I don't see how you can represent [any number] on a mental abacus faster than you can say it," he said. "A lot of money should be spent on research into how the brain can do this. I think this is an extraordinary thing!"
Yoji Miyamoto, the man who invented Flash Anzan, runs an abacus school in Tokyo. His students often practice other mental tasks that would no doubt fascinate Professor Butterworth. For example, while doing Flash Anzan, Miyamoto's students are asked to perform language games. In one video clip, two young girls mentally add up 30 different sums in 20 seconds while simultaneously playing "shiritori,"a Japanese language game in which contestants must say a word beginning with the last syllable of the previous word.This exercise suggests that anzan and language games use different parts of the brain -- one visual and one verbal. Miyamoto's task would surely be very difficult for British studentsif they need to mentally 'say' the numbers rather than visualize them. Will Professor Butterworth be able to create a way to encourage British students to learn their times tables through chants. Is there a way for English speakers to manipulate numbers visually? Will there be a British contestant at an All Japan Abacus Championship anytime soon? I'm not holdingmy breath.
Useful vocabulary from this newsletter
do away with complicated labels: abandon, replace
e.g. We should do away with this old-fashioned rule.
numeracy skills : ability to work with numbers
decimal system: counting system based on the number 10
become more proficient in [X] : to become better at [X], more skillful at [X]
visualize a number: to see the number in your mind
don't hold your breath: I don't think [X] is going to happen
e.g. You want the president to ban guns in the USA? Don't hold your breath.
Extra idioms connected to 'counting' for you to learn
Don't count your chickens until they've hatched: old proverb meaning that you shouldn't expect something to happen in the future =
literal meaning = many chicken eggs do not develop into young chickens
example:Don't buy a new car until they announce the winning lottery number. You shouldn't count your chickens until they have hatched.
You should count your blessings: old saying meaning focus on the positivethings in your life.
e.g. School children should count their blessings. In my day, kids were beaten in class if they forgot to do their homework.
Count me in / out! : I'll join you. / I won't join you.
e.g. A picnic this Sunday? Count me in. I'd love to come.
e.g. Baseball next week? Sorry, count me out. I have to visit some relatives.
You can count on me. : You can rely on me to do something.
e.g. You can count on me to take notes during the lecture. I'll give you a copy later.
I've lost count of the number of times that [X]... : [X] has happened a lot.
e.g. I've lost count of the number of times that I've seen this movie. Must be at least ten times.
I can count the number of times that [X has happened] on the fingers of one hand. : [X] hasn't happened very many times.
e.g. I can count the number of times that I've hit a home run on the fingers of one hand.
stand up and be counted: make a stand
e.g. Do you want to start a school tennis club? Well, stand up and be counted. If we all work together, then we make it happen.