Rice Paddies and Math Tests
Gladwell begins by describing how tending rice paddies is a complicated project that requires constant vigilance and hard work. To have a successful rice paddy, you have to rise before dawn and work hard all day, every day. The amount of work and diligence you put into the paddy directly affects how successful it will be. In contrast, many Western farmers learned to use large farm machinery to reduce their work. But in China and other Asian countries, the rice paddies are very small and on steep mountainsides that would not accommodate such machinery. The result is that rice paddies still require hard, personalized, individualized manual labor to thrive.
Gladwell begins discussing how English has words for numbers that take longer to say and are less logical than the words for these numbers in Asian languages. For example, we say “seven” for 7, whereas in Chinese, 7 is pronounced “qi.” Because they can say numbers faster, Chinese people are able to remember larger blocks of numbers. Additionally, when counting higher, the Chinese use a more logical system than we do, saying “ten-one” instead of “eleven” for 11 and building from there. The end result of both of these factors is that it is easier to remember and learn numbers in Chinese. As a result, young Chinese children can count up to much higher numbers than can young American children, and doing math problems is much easier for them.
Gladwell puts together these two seemingly random facts to explain how Asian countries always outperform Western countries in math. Gladwell asserts that part of the reason is the combination of hard work and persistence that is ingrained into Asian cultures from rice paddy work and part is from the language advantages they have in their numbering systems. To show the impact of persistence, he tells the story of a woman named Renee who was taped trying to solve a math problem on a computer; he describes how she persisted for a very long time until she got the answer right. Most Western students do not have that sort of persistence. Gladwell cites a test administered worldwide and how the results show Asian countries answer the most questions—they try the hardest for the longest amount of time. They also perform the highest on the math portions. The connection is purely cultural. Because of their heritage and languages, Asians countries the advantage over Western countries in math. Thus, heritage plays a significant role in determining success.