It may not be simply that they study harder (though anecdotal evidence suggests they do). In this week's New Yorker, Jim Holt profiles Stanislas Dehaene, a young French neuroscientist investigating how our brains handle numbers. According to Deheane's research, we think about numbers in three distinct ways, each of which developed at a different point in human evolution.
The number sense is lodged in the parietal lobe, the part of the brain that relates to space and location; numerals are dealt with by the visual areas; and number words are processed by the language areas.
This last way of thinking about numbers poses problems for English-speakers:
Today, Arabic numerals are in use pretty much around the world, while the words with which we name numbers naturally differ from language to language. And, as Dehaene and others have noted, these differences are far from trivial. English is cumbersome. There are special words for the numbers from 11 to 19, and for the decades from 20 to 90. This makes counting a challenge for English-speaking children, who are prone to such errors as ???twenty-eight, twenty-nine, twenty-ten, twenty-eleven.??? French is just as bad, with vestigial base-twenty monstrosities, like quatre-vingt-dix-neuf (???four twenty ten nine???) for 99. Chinese, by contrast, is simplicity itself; its number syntax perfectly mirrors the base-ten form of Arabic numerals, with a minimum of terms. Consequently, the average Chinese four-year-old can count up to forty, whereas American children of the same age struggle to get to fifteen. And the advantages extend to adults. Because Chinese number words are so brief???they take less than a quarter of a second to say, on average, compared with a third of a second for English???the average Chinese speaker has a memory span of nine digits, versus seven digits for English speakers. (Speakers of the marvellously efficient Cantonese dialect, common in Hong Kong, can juggle ten digits in active memory.)
The lesson? Skip the STEM bills and pass instead the Mastering Asian Tongues at Home (MATH) Act. Then watch the Asian Advantage disappear.