I can categorically tell you, that’s false :) Though that coarse comment is meant as the start of a hopefully educational post (I hope you take it that way — since I know the answer and will mention it towards the end). Thanks for the opportunity to explain.

Firstly though, I’ll explain the concept of mathematical proofs first (I know, WTF). Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

In order to determine if what you’ve stated is true, you can consider it an exercise in logic.

Let’s take your statement as a hypothesis, or assumption, a fair statement to test.

Assumption: All languages in which you have to learn a new prefix, have folk who are crap at math

Which can be restated as a logical specialisation in the form:

Assumption: If your language requires a new prefix, then you will be crap at math.

Note: this doesn’t encapsulate all possible languages in new prefixes — this is a bit of a mindfuck to most folk, but think about it like this. If you go outside and the proposition is:

If it is raining, then you get wet

Then if you didn’t get wet, it wasn’t raining. We know that you could not be outside, if it is raining and not get wet. Hence, it equally applies that “if you did not get wet, it wasn’t raining”.

In bold is the important bit. There is a rule of logic called Modus Tollens (aka Modus Tollendo Tollens, or simply MT). If the above is the assumption, the bold bit is that.

Turning this on your original assertion, about prefixes, it basically means that if you are not crap at math, then your language definitely did not have new prefixes.

The difference is subtle, but key. In order to prove your statement true, you have to test all languages. However, using MT you only need to find one language that the converse doesn’t apply to, for the whole conjecture to be proven false.

Constructing the False Case

So, looking at Arabic. The Middle East has a huge variation in literacy rates. Some countries like Jordan have an 8% illiteracy rate (as per the graphs in my previous post) putting them on-par with Finland and Estonia on language, and the Netherlands on math. In Arabic, you have to learn a new prefix/suffix in almost exactly the same way as English.

70 is “seven-ty” and in Arabic, it is said exactly the same seba’a-een “seba’a” = seven, “een”=”ty”. That alone constructs the single case needed to prove your conjecture false. Or rather, weaken it, at best (i.e. to “there exists some languages who’s use of prefixes…”).


The Real Answer

Education. It really is as simple as that. Education isn’t about time spent, it’s about quality and the engagement of the students.

Korean children spend 12 to 16 hours every day studying, 6 days a week. Societal pressures mean they basically live to study and the sense of shame is enough to push both Korean and Japanese students to an entire life of shame. It also leads to some mental health conditions which do not have a parallel in the western world.

Yet, the level of literacy as a result is astounding! We can’t comprehend it in the UK and US.

Finland and many of the northern European countries start school 2 years behind us in the UK, but accelerate past us during the time and finish about a year or two ahead of us by the end of Senior High (GCSE). NOte, that means they spend less time in the education system. They don’t have to work as hard as the Korean and Japanese students to do that.

I have first hand experience of the Arabic system, since we moved around when I was a kid. I was born in the UK and have spent all except 3–4 years of my life here. When we were in Arabic school, there were little to no toys and games. Nor was there much in the way of experimental equipment (including in Saudi Arabia at the time). Everything taught was theory. Hence, Arabic schools do the equivalent of all of Junior High School (GCSE here in Britain) by the age of 12. Putting them some 4 years ahead. Also, it is a pure meritocracy. If you can pass the exams you can go as fast as you like but if you fail, you’re resitting the entire year. I skipped an entire year and Arabic was my second language. I didn’t speak it for the first 6 years of my life. Did primary school where i had to learn it, then accelerated to aged 8, one year ahead of everyone else (who was 9) and there was a 14 year old in the class who failed year on year for 5 years.

Iran, believe it or not, is even worse, since they’re probably 6 months to a year ahead of Arabic schools and the reason for Iranian exclusion in western educational systems, is not on qualifications, it’s politics.

The UK have not recognised any of the Iranian education system qualifications for pretty much an entire generation. Every student coming to the UK to study in university has to redo all their GCSEs and A-levels (all combined Junior and Senior High years). Wasting between 2 and 4 years of their lives, just to get the piece of paper to be recognised in a UK university. It’s torture for them, as they can do all that work with their eyes shut and having done it all anyway at age 13–14, to then have to do it all again at age 18, so they’re up to 22 years old by the time they enter university, it’s horrendously unfair. Basically “wait 8 years”.

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