Why Chinese Kids are Faster at Math

JINNA WANG

In movies, commercials, and prime-time television shows, we’ve all seen the stereotype of the Chinese math genius. This stereotype might just be true, since researchers found that Chinese is a more efficient language for learning math than English.

In Chinese, numbers are much simpler. Every number from 0 to 10 only has one syllable, making them easier to say and remember than numbers like the the multi-syllabic “zero,” or “seven.”

Additionally, English contains words specially created for certain numbers such as “eleven” or “twelve,” whereas the Chinese words for numbers follow a logical pattern. For example “十一 (shí yī)” 十二(shí èr)” , literally mean “ten one” and “ten two.”

But there is one more secret weapon Chinese students have when it comes to doing impressively quick math - one that you can learn, too!
That secret weapon is the Chinese Multiplication Rhyme, or 小九九 (xiǎo jiǔ jiǔ) .

# What is the Chinese Multiplication Rhyme?

The full name of the Chinese Multiplication Rhyme is “九九乘法口诀 (jiǔ jiǔ chéng fǎ kǒu jué) ”, but is most commonly called “ 小九九 (xiǎo jiǔ jiǔ) ” which literally means “little nine nine”. The content consists of the multiplication table starting from 1 times 1, all the way to 9 times 9, set to a rhythmic chant.

Hear it for yourself here.

In China,  小九九 (xiǎo jiǔ jiǔ)  is the way everyone does quick math. At supermarkets, restaurants, or ticket booths , you’ll often hear people recite pieces of the rhyme to help them calculate the price of things.

But why should you bother? For people who are learning Chinese, there are two major benefits to learning the Chinese Multiplication Rhyme.

First, it is a fantastic way to learn (or relearn!) numbers in Chinese, since it covers a multitude of numbers, all the way up to ninety-nine.

And second, it will only take a millisecond to answer questions such as “What is 7 times 8?” after mastering the rhyme. You will be so speedy at single-digit multiplication, that it will constantly impress your non- 小九九 (xiǎo jiǔ jiǔ)  fluent friends!

# How does it work?

First, you need to be familiar with the text of the  小九九 (xiǎo jiǔ jiǔ) . The series begins with 1 times 1 equals 1, and ends with 9 times 9 equals 81.

The Chinese Multiplication Rhyme

As you go through the text below, there are a few things to keep in mind.

First, note the character “得 (dé) ”, which means “to get” or in this case, “equals.”

You also might notice that as you advance up the multiplication table, “得 (dé) “ disappears. Technically, the “得 (dé)  “ should still be there to be grammatically correct, but to maintain the structure and the rhythm of the song, the “得 (dé)  “ is sometimes omitted.

Lastly, don’t be intimidated by the amount of text in the rhyme. Once you listen to a few examples, you’ll get the hang of it, and it is much easier to absorb the text as you listen along to the song.

# Let’s begin!

The Ones:

The Twos:

The Threes:

The Fours:

The Fives:

The Sixes:

The Sevens:

The Eights:

The Nines:

Note that the smaller number always goes first in a pair of numbers you are trying to multiply. For example, if you are trying to do 9 times 7, you may need to think of it as “7 times 9,” since that is the way it appears in the 小九九 (xiǎo jiǔ jiǔ) .

After you can confidently understand and pronounce all the characters, the next piece to learn is the rhythm to the rhyme. It is difficult to describe in words, but Youtube is a great resource to pick up on the rhythm of the song.

It takes plenty of patience to perfectly memorize the 小九九 (xiǎo jiǔ jiǔ) , so cut yourself some slack if you aren’t able to recite it from memory right away. Remember, it takes Chinese children years of practice and constant testing to master their memorization - practice makes perfect!

To learn more about how easy it is to count in Chinese, check out this lesson! Counting in Chinese

# A Real Life Example:

As someone who grew up in China, I learned my multiplication from the 小九九 (xiǎo jiǔ jiǔ) , and it’s still my go-to source whenever I need to quickly do multiplication. Here is how I would use the 小九九 (xiǎo jiǔ jiǔ)  in a real life situation:

I’m picking up artisanal bagels at a farmer’s market. I need to pick up 8 bagels, and each bagel is 4 dollars. How much do I owe?

First, I flip the two numbers I’m multiplying so that the smaller number is in front of the larger number. Instead of thinking “8 times 4,” I think “4 times 8”.

Then I recite the relevant section of the 小九九 (xiǎo jiǔ jiǔ)  in my head: “四八三十二 (sì bā sān shí èr)”  - 4 times 8 equals 32. Perfect! 32 is my answer.

Sometimes, it’s difficult to remember what “四八” equals, even when you’re reciting the rhyme. In situations where I get stuck, I backtrack a bit until I find my rhythm again. In this instance, I start at “二八十六 (èr bā shí liù) , 三八二十四 (sān bā èr shí sì) ,” until the rote memorization kicks in, and I’m able to remember the next piece of the song!

Once memorized, the Chinese Multiplication Rhyme is a quick and easy way to do any single-digit multiplication in your head (or out loud). It is so intuitive, that I find myself flipping from English to Chinese whenever I need to do some quick math. With enough practice, it will surely become second nature to you, too.

Give it a shot!

Do you have any questions on the Chinese Multiplication Rhyme? Let us know in the comments below!

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JINNA WANG is a freelance writer and translator living in New York. She grew up in the snowy city of Harbin, and now spends many weekends recreating the northeast Chinese cuisine of her childhood. You can usually find her traveling, eating, and writing about both.

Tue, 20 Dec 2016 22:30:00 GMT