Is it possible that an English speaker learning Chinese would develop problems with math?
October 14, 2010 12:12 AM   Subscribe

Is it possible that an English speaker learning Chinese would develop problems with math?

okay, so I'm a freshman in college and among other classes I'm taking differential calculus and Chinese I. Last year when I took AB Calculus as a senior in high school, I think I got a B in the class and I got a 3 on the AP exam, so I didn't do that badly. However, I feel that this semester I have struggled in my math class, which could be due to a million different things obviously, not least of which not having done any of this for a while and the fact that the professor has a somewhat difficult accent I haven't studied all that much and the TA isn't stellar either and yadda yadda yadda, but nonetheless I have felt it to be oddly difficult at times to recall/re-pick up on various concepts. I have read that while both Easterners and Westerners use the area of the brain that's more focused on the quantitative when doing math, Westerners also employ the more verbal area as well whereas Easterners use the visual area. I have surprised myself with my ability to pick up on Chinese and especially read the characters, though I do have 12 years of Spanish under my belt as well as some self-taught German. Anyway, I was wondering if perhaps learning to think more visually due to reading the non-phonetic characters may have caused my brain to become more geared to the visual area, causing some problems with my ability to do math since up to this point I had thought about math using both my verbal and quantitative area. I realize that this could definitely just be crackpot bullshit I'm telling myself as an excuse for not studying enough or to avoid coming to grips with the fact that the class which I told my family would be really easy and a retake of what I did last year and laughed on the phone to my sister about how the professor felt the need to explain what a function was on the first day may not be such a cakewalk after all, but then again I think it could potentially have some validity to it. What do y'all think?
posted by bookman117 to Science & Nature (25 answers total)
 
Considering the bilingual English-Chinese Singaporeans excel at math, I kinda doubt it.
posted by Xany at 12:27 AM on October 14, 2010


Maybe I'm wrong, but the line that stands out the most to me is "i haven't studied all that much."

Are you sure you're not looking for an excuse for why you're getting the grades you deserve?
posted by chicago2penn at 12:31 AM on October 14, 2010 [6 favorites]


the fact that the professor has a somewhat difficult accent I haven't studied all that much and the TA isn't stellar either and

This is the one aspect you have full control over. Even if your hypothesis has even the slightest bit of validity to it (highly doubt it), what can you do? Drop Calculus or Chinese? Can you even get a refund at this point?

Either way, all you can and should focus on is sitting down and applying yourself completely. Midterm season is just about underway, so you really should start now, otherwise you might be overwhelmed come finals.

Good luck.
posted by Throw away your common sense and get an afro! at 12:32 AM on October 14, 2010


You're not used to college classes and you aren't studying very much. College takes more work than high school. I say this as someone who mostly breezed through high school.
posted by that girl at 12:35 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Considering the bilingual English-Chinese Singaporeans excel at math, I kinda doubt it.
Given that the writing system isn't phonetic, knowing how to speak Mandarin and knowing the characters are two completely different things, and many bilingual heritage speakers who grew up in America have no idea how to write characters. In fact, my Chinese class is chock full of them.
Drop Calculus or Chinese?
Not an option, and I wouldn't want to anyway; it's not like I'm failing calculus or anything and like I said there are so many possible explanations, not least among them that my first calculus test came at the end of an insane week and I got a 72, which is a big deal cause it's worth 20% of my grade, but I had spent the entire week doing shit for other classes and just barely doing my homework for calculus, let alone studying. I could definitely be hyperventilating, especially since it seems like I've been doing better since we've gotten out of limits.
posted by bookman117 at 1:07 AM on October 14, 2010


Is it possible that an English speaker learning Chinese would develop problems with math?

Entirely possible, but correlation is not causation.

What do y'all think?


I think that the combination of a lack of study, along with success in another field leading you to concentrate on that, more rewarding, field, has led to the decline in marks. Also, that you should investigate paragraph breaks. 



posted by pompomtom at 1:43 AM on October 14, 2010 [5 favorites]


In instances where people have trained their minds to process information differently or think in different ways, I am pretty sure that it only retards the other ways they process information if they cease thinking in other ways (no citation for this, but obviously you can do the research/look this up if you are interested.) If anything, I only ever remember reading studies on the increased effectiveness of learning a subject/skill/activity when studying different subjects/skills/activities.

In other words, if you have consistently been learning and processing calculus, studying Chinese at the same time should not diminish your capacity to learn calculus. But even if it did, you already know that you aren't doing well at calculus and that you need to work harder at it.

Also, from observing many, many students and from personal experience, getting a B in a class and a 3 on the AP exam does not entail understanding of the subject.
posted by Polychrome at 1:58 AM on October 14, 2010



Considering the bilingual English-Chinese Singaporeans excel at math, I kinda doubt it.
Given that the writing system isn't phonetic, knowing how to speak Mandarin and knowing the characters are two completely different things, and many bilingual heritage speakers who grew up in America have no idea how to write characters. In fact, my Chinese class is chock full of them.


That's nice, but the original comment was about Singapore. Singaporean Chinese can certainly read Chinese as well.
posted by atrazine at 2:16 AM on October 14, 2010


Ahhh. I totally remember my frosh year...crazy times.

No. It has nothing to do with you learning chinese. If it was, all the kids in your mandarin class would be flunking math. Ask them.
posted by hal_c_on at 3:54 AM on October 14, 2010


I teach college calculus and find that many former high school calculus students have difficulty due to the different expectations in my class. Also, college calculus classes often focus far more on abstract concepts and theoretical concepts than many high school calculus classes. Many students are just unfamiliar with following a proof.
posted by monkeymadness at 3:57 AM on October 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


Math at the college level gets very hard very fast, compared to high school. This was observed before. Language classes *also* get very hard very fast, compared to high school. A friend of mine once observed, having taken the same language from 7th-12th grades and then starting college a few years after high school, that her first semester covered as much as five years had.

So basically, you're taking two classes that are known for being considerably harder than, say, Introduction to Underwater Basket Weaving. It sounds like you're going to either need to find a lot more time to put into these two classes. Or else drop one. Dropping, so long as you do it sparingly, is not going to really hurt you in the long run. Learning to manage your time and study, of course, is also an extremely valuable skill for the rest of your college career.

So in other words, I wouldn't say it's that your language study has nothing to do with it, it's just more a time/energy issue than something fundamental about Chinese as a language. It's more that it's two things that are very new to you and require new and different ways of working and thinking about things, and you're trying to do them both at the same time. This is either going to mean a higher time commitment, or else having to prioritize one or the other.
posted by gracedissolved at 5:36 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Take note:

I'm a freshman in college

[in high school] I think I got a B in the class and I got a 3 on the AP exam, so I didn't do that badly.

Not to be a jerk or anything, but a B in the class and a 3 on the AP exam is pretty bad by my standards. I also teach college-level calculus courses, and every student I come across with exactly your kind of stats (in terms of grades and score on the AP exam) usually fares poorly in my classes. It's a combination of "I've already done this before, so I know what I'm doing" along with the transition to a college-level course.

There is a reason why a score of 3 is not enough to get you credit for the college level course. It's because you don't know calculus well enough.

Also:

I haven't studied all that much

This is your problem. It is not the instructor's or the TA's fault. It's yours.
posted by King Bee at 5:45 AM on October 14, 2010 [7 favorites]


I don't pretend to understand the details of US college eduction, but... you've been studying Chinese for what, less than a year?

I realize that this could definitely just be crackpot bullshit I'm telling myself as an excuse for not studying enough

Yeah. I've been trying to learn Japanese kanji for a while, which is even less phonetic than Mandarin writing in that it is often COMPLETELY IMPOSSIBLE to work out how to pronounce a word even if you know all of the characters in it (sorry to shout but I'm still angry about that) and my mathematical ability hasn't changed at all.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 5:47 AM on October 14, 2010


Seconding King Bee. Students blame instructors for their poor performance all the time.
Blaming a language is a new one. The Chinese language isn't changing your brain. You need to study.
posted by vincele at 5:48 AM on October 14, 2010


I was pretty good at math in my school career and the only time I struggled was with differential equations. I don't want to suggest that it's something special with the material. But it is possible to be caught off guard. If you trust your math abilities, you should be able to put in more effort and see results.
posted by hoca efendi at 5:57 AM on October 14, 2010


I am a math major. Even when I was working two jobs, acting in a theater production, playing sports, and learning a new field (economics and business) I still did great in my math classes because I adhered to one important rule: study 3 hours for every 1 classroom/lecture hour. When I was an undergrad I scoffed at this advice. But when my grades started out poor in grad school I gave it a shot, and it works. ABS - Always Be Studying.
posted by goalie_dave at 6:01 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


(1) I got a A in the classes and a 5 on both the Calc AB and Calc BC exams, and I still struggled with (engineering-level) calc my freshman year. No Chinese was involved.

(2) Calc AB is great and all, but realistically is barely an intro to true college-level calculus. Calc BC is an overall better prep if you're really hoping to have "done this before." So I don't think there's any reason you should have expected that Calc AB would make college math a lot easier. It gave you a good start, but you'd better be studying. And if the TA and/or prof are that bad, find yourself a study group and work on being proactive about learning your material.
posted by olinerd at 6:24 AM on October 14, 2010


There is a point where you are near fluency in a new language where you start to drop concepts and hunt for words in your native language. (Then you get over the hump and that stops.) I am unaware of a similar effect relating to math ability and language learning.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:26 AM on October 14, 2010


Also, I'm just really feeling the need to chime in again on something here.

the professor felt the need to explain what a function was on the first day

This is because you do not know what a function is. In every single first-semester calculus course I have taught, not a single student knew the definition of what a function was. He is not patronizing you, and because he is talking about what a function is, you should probably listen, and see if it jibes with what you think a function is. I guarantee it does not.

Please do not take my comments to be dickish, because even as I'm writing, I can tell they read that way. I'm just spoutin' the truth here though, and you need to pay attention to the basic concepts in a calculus course. I always tell my students that if you know, I mean really know, what a function is and what limits are, the rest of calculus is extremely easy.

So, my advice is to go back and make sure you understand those two things really well. I don't mean that you should be a master at evaluating limits (although you should be), but you need to understand what a limit is. Once you get those two things down, you will breeze through the course as long as you keep up with the homework.
posted by King Bee at 8:31 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, sorry, it's not the Chinese! I got a 4 on my Calc AB AP and I then I failed the first exam in my first semester of college-level Calc. I wasn't taking any languages. College math is hard. As Barbie once said, "[college] math is hard!"

10 hours a week of Chinese (is that about right?) is not stopping you from learning math.

Also, if it reassures you, your experience is totally normal. Most students find that they have to work much harder in college to get the same grades they got in high school. And math professors with difficult accents are more the norm than the exception.
posted by mskyle at 8:57 AM on October 14, 2010


I'd agree with the other posters: what's getting in the way of your college math is not your college Chinese, but your high school math. Sounds like you got a little over-confident. Don't worry, it happens to a lot of people, and it's fixable if you dedicate several evenings of study time to it.

Are you using a textbook for your calc class? Does it have practice exercises at the end of every chapter? Go back to the very first chapter—don't skip it even if you think you've already mastered that material—and work through EVERY SINGLE ONE of the practice questions on your own, in order, chapter by chapter. Pay special attention to the later questions in each practice set, because that's where the textbook authors usually put the "curveball" questions that stretch you to apply what you've learned in different ways, or ask you to deal with unusual cases. If there are any questions you have trouble with, go to office hours and ask the TA or prof to work through them with you. It doesn't really matter if you're asking about earlier chapters than what's currently being covered in class—just say you're reviewing the material.
posted by Orinda at 9:28 AM on October 14, 2010


I would look for explanations elsewhere, but I have had something like this happen.

when I went back into education as an adult I underwent some fairly intensive dyslexia related training. Right about this time I stopped being able to deal with money for a time though I don't know if this was anything more than co-incidence. Like I knew the shiny round things in my hand were coins but I couldn't relate the individual coins or note to their value (I would have to pay for things by going into shops and holding out a handful of coins—which can be disconcerting since you get to watch yourself being ripped off, sometimes, but can't prove it). A similar thing with traffic lights I knew one colour meant stop, another go, just not which one, I could only tell by looking at what was going on around me. This went as mysteriously as it came after a couple of months. It was also very specific and likely rooted in my particular neurology.
posted by tallus at 11:17 AM on October 14, 2010


It's not the Chinese language course.

Hit the books.
posted by hootenatty at 2:17 PM on October 14, 2010


It's definitely not the Chinese. You have in no way acquired enough Chinese to alter the function of your brain, and even if you had, that's usually an additive process, not a subtractive process. Listen to what other commenters are telling you about the difference (often painful and aggravating) between college and high school, the fact that the professor is addressing his/her her teaching to everyone in the class (not just you), and the need to re-evaluate your study habits. For example, when I was an undergrad, I didn't have to worry much about starting papers and studying way in advance, but in grad school, I did--it was the first time I started to use a dayplanner/Google calendar-type thing. Maybe you need to make some changes like that.

Also, see if your school has a tutoring center or a learning center for math to supplement the class (it is entirely possible that your professor and TA aren't that great.) If they do, don't look down on it just because you are not in a remedial class or don't have a learning disability or whatever. These services are usually available for all course levels (even grad courses). Take advantage!

Finally, don't blame the professor's accent--universities and businesses are international, and you need to be able to deal with this. 9 times out of 10, this complaint comes from a student seeking to shift blame, and many counselors, tutors, etc., who hear it immediately become less sympathetic. (See the study by Rubin--a lot of the issue is genuinely in students' heads.)

Good luck with everything--I think things will get easier!
posted by wintersweet at 3:32 PM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I took both AB and BC Calculus in high school and did quite well. I also had an awesome high school calculus teacher who really taught the concepts well. So I decided to start with Calculus II in college, which was (in theory) a rehash of most of what I learned in BC Calc in high school. I thought it would be a piece of cake, an easy A. It was not. I struggled through that class, failed the first exam, and just barely managed to squeak out of there with a B at the end of the semester. I simply hadn't put the effort into studying for the class because I thought I knew everything already or could just figure it out myself on the fly. Once I realized how foolish that was, I started putting the effort into doing the homework (which wasn't graded, hence why I hadn't been doing it before) and really paying attention in class, and things improved. Needless to say, as someone who got straight A's all through elementary, middle, and high school, I was humbled by that experience.
posted by Nothlit at 5:55 AM on October 15, 2010


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