A Mind That Suits What doesn't kill me, makes me laugh... usually.

Monday, November 15, 2004 :::
The mother of A Mind That Suits, who was as good a journalist as her more famous brother, hated editors, but A Mind That Suits himself thinks they must come in handy. In rereading Mondays post, he realizes that he left out "16" (seize) from the list of French numbers that, according to one theory, are improperly named. (See the post--the theory is confusing.) That would mean that the barrier to French children's learning of math at 300 percent of the one in English, and that is not even looking at numbers 70 and up. But the theory is utterly silly, so details are probably unimportant.

And he notices that for "numeric," he wrote "numberic," which is, he believes, a language spoken in the Horn of Africa.

From Monday:

A needlessly badger-like existence in the last four months has resulted in not attending to friendships, new and old, so it was somewhat humbling to see that Friend Eddie, over at One Good Turn, mentions A Mind That Suits in his latest post, when we have not communicated for months. Shame on a certain pudgy, balding English teacher. But scanning over his blog is a reminder that he writes the most mind-bendingly interesting stuff. He is a philosophy professor who has the job that A Mind That Suits would have wanted had he stayed in philosophy:a professorship in a department unconcerned with the cul-de-sacs into which modern philosophy drives itself and very concerned with keeping alive the mighty, glorious Western tradition in philosophy. Bravo, Eddie, says A Mind That Suits, and more power to you. Eddie also writes affectingly of departed friends, and does so this morning. (A Mind That Suits hopes and expects not to have that honor for a while, but that is in God's hands.)

And now, to today's thoughts.

With the resignation of Colin Powell, George W. Bush is losing one of the finest aides a ruler could hope to have. It is unlikely that this great man will go away--and A Mind That Suits does not describe pro-"choice" moderates as "great" with great frequency. But the Administration could use his wise counsel. Gen. Powell has spent most of his life mastering large bureaucracies that normally master their masters, and the most frequently mentioned successors, including Dr. Rice, have many virtues, but lack that ability to command. He will be missed, and Godspeed.

May Donald Rumsfeld follow quickly, at which point the world would be about even in the win-loss calculus.

A Mind That Suits has busied himself this fall with learning more about French, a wonderful language which is, unfortunately, mainly spoken by French people. A lovely West African woman who occupies the classroom down the hall on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays is doing her considerable best to inculcate the basics of that glorious language in the minds of somewhat reluctant freshman. The kids were actively engage' this morning, which is a good sign, but it does serve as confirmation of a comment uttered by another friend, a cynical waiter of advanced years who confirms by example nearly everyone's prejudices about the French. He worked for years at the World Bank, and has said that the great traditions of France live on only among the young people from the French empire (which, as the poor Cote-d'Ivoireans have learned this week, is still viciously in place.)

But his own efforts remind A Mind That Suits of one of the most glaring examples of what happens when social scientists get large grants. Searching for a reason that Chinese students do so much better in math than American students, some researchers came up with this. In Chinese, the mathematical concept "11" is rendered by a word that would, in English, be rendered "one-teen." There was no break between 11 and 12 and the rest of the teens, and the words "thirteen," etc, correctly represent the mathematics underlying them. This, according to these researchers, explains everything, and if English started saying "one-teen," all would be well.

Ahh, but this is why one should lift one's head while doing research. France has produced, on a per capita basis, far more great mathematicians than China, and just how does one count in French? Well, not only are there unique words for 11 and 12, but unique words for 13, 14, and 15. So French children, according to this blighted theory, should take 250 percent longer to learn basic arithmetic than do English speaking kids, which is manifestly not true.

And what to do with French numbers 70 and above? 70 is rendered "sixty-ten" (soixante-dix), so the poor children of France, West Africa, Martinique, and Reunion must take numbers out of sequence and add them. And if 11 in English is a problem, what about 71 in French, which is "sixty-eleven" (soixante-onze)? Even more fun are 80 (four-twenty) and 90 (four-twenty-ten). In English, all those words follow "Base 10," which is one of the two number systems that are of any real interest. (The other is "Base Two," which--if you have forgotten basic math--you see every day in the 1-0 switch on your computer.) "80" in English is "eight-ten," which is a very good representation of "8 in the 10's place," the way we had to learn in elementary school. Not so in French. Using the system of our social scientists, English has only two words out of place, but French, 35.

And yet French children routinely clobber ours in international competitions. Why?

For two reasons.

One is that no normal person thinks about the words they use everyday. They would go nuts if they did. French kids say "four-twenty-thirteen" for "93" and don't give it a moment's thought. Maman says it, so they do. They simply do not think, "oh, I am saying {(4 x 20) + 13 }." They think "93."

The other is that the speech and numeric functions of the brain are almost completely separate. We all know some people who can function in the numberic realm but can hardly speak, and others who can speak beautifully but ask you to calculate the tip. And a whole host who show somewhat greater strength in one or the other.

But relatively few folks are smart enough to get a federal grant to worry about two words in English and forget the 35 words in French, and--moreover--to get the Washington Post to print their article about this "problem," which doesn't exist.

The problem is, our kids don't study, and papers like the Washington Post do not support vouchers, which would go a long way toward solving that problem.

::: posted by A Mind That Suits at 3:37 PM



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