Our school system is failing. We all know this. I started hearing it in high school, which was over twenty years ago. In the United States, our test scores are woefully behind other countries.
So how does the United States continue to turn out, to educate, entrepreneurs and teach innovation? In this post, I explore the idea of the English language giving rise to entrepreneurs.
As I’ve read about education, I’ve wondered about a few ideas. Somehow, The Smartest Kids in the World left me with the impression that there might be some strength in not having a national education system. That variety in our education system in different states allows for a variety of outcomes, and variety has its own strengths.
While reading Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, I started to form the idea that we don’t manage to educate innovators and entepreneurs because of our school system, but rather in spite of it. We are taught, in school and elsewhere, that if you’re successful in school, you’ll have a successful career and be successful in life. But in Outliers, you will find that many successful entrepreneurs aren’t particularly good students. A lot of entrepreneurs and innovators rebel against school, and some of them even drop out all together.
But also in Outliers another idea surfaced.
It might not be our schools that fail to turn out math high scorers, or accidentally turn out entrepreneurs, it might that our language is what allows us to more easily be innovators.
Now, this is wild speculation on my part. I’m an expert on the gravitational response of fern gametophytes (my PhD dissertation) but not much else. Ha! I am not an expert in linguistics or entrepreneurship. But I think this is an interesting idea, so I’m sharing it for discussion.
Math and counting in Chinese
Buried in the chapter in Outliers where Malcolm Gladwell tries to explain that the success of Chinese students in math is due to their rice patty farming heritage, is a little nugget about language. It seems that the Chinese language is uniquely structured to talk about numbers in a way that it makes math easier to grasp. (Gladwell does not refer to the Chinese language specifically, but I know this is true for Mandarin.)
To begin with, the names for numbers in Mandarin are shorter than the English names for numbers. Numbers one through ten in Mandarin are all a single syllable. If you’re trying to remember a string of numbers, you try to “say them” in your head. Since you can say numbers faster in Mandarin, you can easily memorize a longer list of numbers.
Then in English we like to have “special names” for numbers that makes it more difficult to do math in your head.
While we have numbers like forty (4-ty) and sixty (6-ty), we also have twenty and thirty and fifty, which kind of sound like the digits two, three, and five in the number, but not really. That would be “twoty”, “threety,” and “fivety” (2-ty, 3-ty, and 5-ty.)
We have fourteen and sixteen (4-teen and 6-teen), but then we also have thirteen and fifteen, (?-teen and ?-teen?). Not to mention eleven and twelve!
On top of that, the order of the digits in the “teens” are backwards (4-teen, 6-teen) compared to the twenties (twenty-1, twenty-2) and so forth.
This makes it more difficult to mentally do math, like addition. In order to “line up” the digits in your head, you first have to parse the names to figure out where to put them.
In Mandarin, you don’t have to make that transition, so it’s faster.
Vietnamese Language and a lack of possibilities – only what is
And then listened to the TED radio hour episode Spoken and Unspoken. In his talk, Phuc Tran explains how the Vietnamese language doesn’t have subjunctive, which allows you to think about what could have happened. Because of that, Vietnamese language seems to shield you from dwelling on regret, thinking about what “could” have happened, which isn’t always productive. It helps you be more resilient. Looking backwards, the subjunctive is about regret.
But looking forward, Tran explains, is about possibility.
English and the possibilities of the subjunctive case
And since we’re talking about it in English, English obviously has the subjunctive case. According to Grammar Girl, “The mood of the verb ‘to be’ when you use the phrase ‘I were’ is called the subjunctive mood, and you use it when you’re talking about something that isn’t true or you’re being wishful.” And according to Phuc Tran’s Ted talk, this gives you the ability to think about what might have happened in the past, and what could happen in the future.
This left me thinking about how innovators and entrepreneurs have to be able to think about possibility, about what “should be” and about what “could be.” It seems like this would be difficult if Vietnamese was your first language. Not that it’s impossible, just like some English speakers are still good mathematicians. Just that it makes it more difficult if your native language is one like the Vietnamese language. But if your native language is like English and has the subjunctive, it’s easier. (On the other hand, if the Vietnamese language does help you to be more resilient, that’s a trait that entrepreneurs need as well.)
But, given the ability to think of possibilities because of the subjunctive case, is it possible that our success at teaching innovation and creating entrepreneurs is more due to the subjunctive capabilities of our language than our educational system? Do we produce entrepreneurs not because of our educational system, but in spite of it?