Findings on benefits of learning Asian Characters


2005 update: New research shows 5 point IQ advantage studying Chinese writing. The edge derives almost entirely from the honing of spatial sensibilities in Chinese readers


Three different research studies below

discussed along with this SQ website at ttp://


(7-23-02) BOSTON, Mass. - In a recent study, Northeastern University professor Chieh Li, from the department of counseling and applied educational psychology, revealed the critical link between writing in characters and strong math skills.

"English is predominantly linear, left to right, while Chinese writing is two-dimensional, both up and down and left to right," Li said. "The learner needs to mentally represent each stroke of Chinese spatially - and this involves spatial memory."

That ability - heightened through regular use, Li hypothesized, would mean that strong math skills might naturally follow.

Over the course of her two-year study, Li found a strong correlation among those students who both read and write in Chinese characters and skills such as the mental rotation of objects (Vandenburg) and water level tasks (Piaget). Extending upon that, Li also found that Chinese American students who read and write in characters also do extraordinarily well on the SAT math test, and have an average score some 200 points higher than non-Chinese, non-character writing students. Li's research findings were published in the Mathematics Education Research Journal last spring.

Some other factors come into play here as well: Chinese parents often place heavy emphasis on academic achievement while many Chinese high schools have rigorous curriculums and strong teachers as well. But the horizontal and vertical plains present in both character writing and in math - backed up by data from students from Li's study - enabled her to make a solid case for the link between character writing lends and strong mathematical skills.

Additionally, many Boston-area schools are tapping into the ancient tradition of Chinese character writing, with several of the suburban schools - both at the middle and high school levels - offering courses in Chinese in response to recent demand from parents.

While Li sees the strong correlation as a point from which to take a stance about the great benefits of learning Chinese character writing, she doesn't necessarily recommend that all students take up the challenge as an automatic solution to their SAT math troubles and urges caution to parents looking for quick fixes. She finds it most interesting to look critically at how learning across cultures varies.

More on these findings:

AsianWeek graphic by Jennie Sue.
By Associated Press
A Northeastern University study suggests there may be a link between learning to write in Chinese and achieving higher scores on the SAT.

Researchers explain that learning to write in Chinese, with its numerous strokes and shapes, teaches a firm understanding of spatial relationships. That in turn enhances math skills, especially geometry.

"The imagery may help the brain process symbols and images," Chieh Li, an assistant psychology professor at Northeastern University and the lead author of the study, told The Boston Globe. "The Chinese language is more pictoral, whereas English is more phonetic," she said.

"You need observation skills. You must have memory skills. And also, you need fine motor skills," added Joie Gao, a Newton North High School Chinese teacher who will instruct middle school students in the language this fall.

Li, a native of China, says she has long been fascinated by the apparent link between Chinese writing and high performance on ability tests.

She surveyed about 150 Chinese American college students in the Boston area, two thirds of which did not know how to write in Chinese. All were born in the United States or spent most of their school years here.

She conducted a Chinese writing exercise and asked the students for SAT scores, some of which she matched against actual records to verify accuracy.

The results showed female students who could write in Chinese scored an average of 703 out of 800 on the SAT math test, while non-writers scored a 629 on average.

The difference was slighter on the English portion of the SAT. Chinese writers scored an average of 672, while non-Chinese writers posted an average score of 622.

Officials at the College Board say they're intrigued, but point out there are other ways to teach spatial relationships.

Chinese American students are also skeptical. They attribute their success on tests like the SAT to cultural values that stress good work habits and education.

"We're in the Chinese culture, and that's what's pushing us to have strong scores," said a senior at Newton. "I don't think the Chinese language has anything to do with it."



Here is another scientific but non-racist (no matter how you read) research paper on how Chinese character learning will enhance your mathematical ability from Perth, Australia. Excerpts from

But, importantly, through these stages of language acquisition the young child is learning basic mathematical concepts in the actual learning process. These skills include grouping, ordering, similarities, differences, addition and subtraction.

In Asian languages, naturally, this also occurs. However, mathematical concepts are exposed to the young child in greater depth and clarity than in the English language. Therefore, when these young children begin their formal education, and progress through the education system, we see the more-than-apparent success of the Asian student in mathematics. This is quite evident in our own education system in New Zealand.

I have observed that many Asian children educated in their own languages appear to have gained a greater understanding of mathematical concepts than English speaking children. I believe that this is because these concepts are embedded in their language at a very early stage in the language acquisition process.....

Written Chinese is a system of pictographs, each originally representing an object or a concept The written language system is introduced at a much younger age for Chinese speaking children than for English speaking children.. Often at the age of three Hong Kong children are already in kindergarten. Not just for play - in fact not for play - but for the development of language skills. As Chinese is pictorial and not alphabetical - and each word in the language has a different pictorial representation, there is a great deal to learn if the child is to be able to read and write effectively. So, a child begins learning what we refer to as Chinese characters. It is important to note here that it is writing as well as reading that go hand-in-hand with learning the written language - not just reading as in the early stages of a English speaking child's education

The Chinese child starts learning the characters. Each character has its set manner of being written. As each character is made up of strokes, the stokes are counted as they are written. Thus, the child from this stage has continual practice in counting. In Chinese language this is extremely important for a working understanding of the language. One, it helps in remembering the character and at a later stage it helps to group words as they are grouped by the number of strokes they have - e.g. Chinese dictionaries




Well, I have this pet theory that I've been carrying around in my pocket that children who learn to read Chinese have a head start on learning mathematics, because a mathematical expression is logographic rather than alphabetic. By this I mean that the expression 2a + 4 = 6 can only be read with comprehension by one who understands the meaning of the symbols. Except for the letter "a", all the characters in this expression are logograms rather than alphabetic words, and, like Chinese characters that can be read by Chinese who speak different dialects, these mathematical symbols are understood regardless of the language being spoken.

So perhaps a Chinese student, by having to work so very hard to understand 10,000 characters, is symbolically exercising his brain in a way that increases his mathematical aptitude


Go to: Math and Verbal skills in various racial/ ethnic groups

Go to: Character writing may have hindered China's growth

Go to: SAT scores by Income and Ethnic Groups

Go to: Math in Singapore - is it the texts or the students?

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