NPR once broadcasted an interview talking about why Asian students are better at math (if I can be excused) . The speaker explained that in these mostly agricultural societies, the mindset is you reap how much you plant, hence their greater commitment. In America, there is more emphasis on “working smart” than “working hard”. Translated into educational jargon, he is saying that time on task still makes a difference.
I recently also found that there might be some linguistic explanation too. The other day, my daughter (2nd grade) surprised her class by providing an answer for 7 times 8. She said she spoke in Chinese, and her teacher asked her to translate that into English and that turned out to be the correct answer. That surprised her class, though this was actually no big deal. It is supposed to be in your operating knowledge, period.
Back to the linguistic aspect of elementary math, I find it is much easier to recite and recall multiplication tables in Chinese then in English. For instance, all the 4s. In Chinese you say:
si si yi shi liu (5 syllables)
si wu er shi (4 syllables)
si liu er shi si (5 syllables)
si qi er shi ba (5 syllables)
si ba san shi er (5 syllables)
si jiu san shi liu (5 syllables)
It is a rather easy flow of facts that can be easily memorized and recalled. There is even a beautiful rhythm to that once the student becomes familiar with it. It’s just like Brad Pitt doing fly fishing in the movie A River Runs Through It. That’s why you often see Chinese kids reciting the table with body movements. It’s like a ritual, a chant.
It looks like it is more cumbersome to commit such to memory in English (unless there are some similar shortened forms that I don’t know of), for instance, “four times nine is thirty-six”. There are two more syllables. And reciting all the “times table” is very difficult from the beginning to the end because it lacks the symmetry and rhythm as the Chinese language does when it comes to the multiplication table. Reciting it in English seems to demand a heavier cognitive load for the learner’s short-term memory.
I am not sure if any of these make sense, or simply my stereotype, but today, after years living in the US, I still remember phone numbers in Chinese.