Metrification & Language Changes

Metrification would make learning math and science easier in the US.  Of course, in the short term there would be an awkward period of adjustment for people and some costly retrofitting and phasing out of machinery.  There was a failed attempt to move to the metric system in 1975.  It was abandoned due to a problematic acclimation process.  However, I believe that the arguments for the transition overemphasized creating an international commonality, not the best tactic in the US.  Please forgive the crude analogy, but this situation is a little like asking a group of men who have worn briefs their entire lives to switch to boxers because they save time when using the restroom.  If you have worn briefs your entire life, then spending a few more seconds in the loo seems like an insignificant inconvenience.  However, if the argument for wearing boxers is backed by evidence that they improve sperm count, then the payoff for wearing boxers may motivate more men to fight through the initial awkwardness.  Much in the same way, the argument for metrification will gain further support if solid evidence is provided that the math and science performances of American students are being adversely affected by the use of the English System.  Take into consideration the calculation of area.  1 m2=10000 cm2=.000001 km2 in the metric system while 1ft2=144in2=(1/5280) 2 mi2.  Just by glancing at this one can see that it is easier to convert and multiply by factors to scale up or down in the metric system.  It is also easier to recognize patterns in the metric system.  For example, to convert 5 km2 to m2 we need to remember that there are 1000m in a km, which is rather easy given the kilo- prefix.  So 1 km=.001m and 5 km=.005m.  Multiplying two decimals with 3 places will yield a product with 6 places.  Now it just becomes a matter of squaring 5 and putting the product at the back end of 6 decimal places.  So, 5 km2=.000025 m2.  That makes doing a lot of these conversions simple enough to do in one’s head.  Try doing that for converting 5 mi2 to ft2 (1 mile = 5280 ft).  The English System is much more cumbersome for students to grasp and work with.

Now, let us consider how linguistic patterns may affect the performance of American students on math exams.  In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he makes the case for why language factors into why Chinese, Japanese, and Korean students outperform American students in math.  For one, they learn to count faster.  There is evidence that this may be due to their number-naming system.  They say ten-one for eleven.  Fifty-four is five-ten-four.  Our naming system gets messy in the teens where we introduce new words like “twelve” before we start using the single digit terms again.  Then we switch from preceding the new term with the single digit terms to tagging them on to the end, e.g. nineteen and twenty-nine.  Some of the incremental base 10 terms sound similar to the digits they are related to, but are not intuitive the way they are in some Asian languages.  Asian number words also tend to be brief.  According to Stanislas Dehaene’s The Number Sense, whom Gladwell quotes, there is a correlation between the time required to pronounce numbers in a language and memory.  Mainly, that it is easier for people to remember numbers in languages that have brief words for them.  As further proof of the advantages that Asian languages have when working with numbers, Gladwell asks us to imagine asking a young English-speaking child to add 37 and 22.  The Asian number nomenclature greatly simplifies this problem by keeping the tens and single digits separate: three-tens-seven and two-tens-two.

If we look into the benefits of metrification and changing our number words, we may be able to take a course of action that may uncomfortable in the short term but pay dividends in terms of learning.

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Posted in Education Reform, Policy

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