Is the Chinese Number-naming System Transparent? Evidence from

Is the Chinese Number-naming System Transparent?
Evidence from Chinese-English Bilingual Children
Elaine Ho, Carmen Rasmussen, Elena Nicoladis, Joyce Leung, and Jeffrey Bisanz
Chinese-speaking children have been shown to have an advantage over English-speaking children in a
variety of mathematical areas, including counting. One explanation for the advantage in counting is that
the Chinese number-naming system is relatively transparent, compared to English, in that number names
typically are directly indicative of base-10 structure (e.g., 12 is named “ten-two” rather than “twelve”). To
determine whether the transparency of the Chinese number-naming system influences counting in bilingual
children, we tested 25 Chinese-English bilingual children between the ages of 3 and 5 years, both in
English and in Chinese. Children were asked to count as high as they could (abstract counting) and also to
count objects in small, medium, and large arrays (object counting). No evidence was found for
transparency or for transfer from one language to the other. Instead, relative proficiency in the two
languages influenced counting skill. These results imply that cross-national differences in counting by
monolingual children may be due in part to factors related to language proficiency and exposure, that the
cultural and linguistic factors that influence counting in monolingual children are not entirely identical to
those that influence counting in bilingual children, and that transfer from the more transparent language to
the less transparent language does not occur readily in preschool children.