Even in cultures with counting systems, some languages may better prepare people to perform tasks like subtraction than others.

For example, the simplicity and transparency of Chinese number-words may contribute to the often-observed superior performance of Chinese children in mathematics as compared with American children, suggests research by Kevin Miller, PhD, a University of Michigan education and psychology professor. However, Miller emphasizes that other cultural differences--in the organization of schooling, the kind of teaching that goes on in the classroom, and the communication between home and school--also play a role.

Children in both American and Chinese cultures learn unique words for the numbers one through 10. But while English-speaking children must then memorize another set of unique words--11, 12, 13 and so on--Chinese children use the words they already know to construct new numbers. Instead of 11, they say a word equivalent to "10-one." Twelve translates to "10-two."

And because Chinese number-words allude to the base-10 arithmetic system, Chinese children can learn to add and subtract double-digit numbers more quickly than their English-speaking counterparts, notes Miller. Concepts like "borrowing" may come more quickly to them, he notes. English number-words, on the other hand, can confound children as they learn arithmetic, Miller says.

"If you are an American child it is easy to get the sense that numbers are confusing and ambiguous because number names are formed in this complex way when you first encounter them," says Miller.