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Why Chinese Kids are Faster at Math


In movies, commercials, and prime-time television shows, we’ve all seen the stereotype of the Chinese math genius. This stereotype might just be true, since researchers found that Chinese is a more efficient language for learning math than English.

In Chinese, numbers are much simpler. Every number from 0 to 10 only has one syllable, making them easier to say and remember than numbers like the the multi-syllabic “zero,” or “seven.”

Additionally, English contains words specially created for certain numbers such as “eleven” or “twelve,” whereas the Chinese words for numbers follow a logical pattern. For example “十一 (shí yī)” 十二(shí èr)” , literally mean “ten one” and “ten two.”

But there is one more secret weapon Chinese students have when it comes to doing impressively quick math - one that you can learn, too!
That secret weapon is the Chinese Multiplication Rhyme, or 小九九 (xiǎo jiǔ jiǔ) .

What is the Chinese Multiplication Rhyme?

The full name of the Chinese Multiplication Rhyme is “九九乘法口诀 (jiǔ jiǔ chéng fǎ kǒu jué) ”, but is most commonly called “ 小九九 (xiǎo jiǔ jiǔ) ” which literally means “little nine nine”. The content consists of the multiplication table starting from 1 times 1, all the way to 9 times 9, set to a rhythmic chant.

Hear it for yourself here.

小九九 (xiǎo jiǔ jiǔ)  is one of the first things Chinese children are taught to memorize as soon as they start learning their numbers. Students are usually expected to be fluent in it by second or third grade, when it is commonly tested in class.

In China,  小九九 (xiǎo jiǔ jiǔ)  is the way everyone does quick math. At supermarkets, restaurants, or ticket booths , you’ll often hear people recite pieces of the rhyme to help them calculate the price of things.

But why should you bother? For people who are learning Chinese, there are two major benefits to learning the Chinese Multiplication Rhyme.

First, it is a fantastic way to learn (or relearn!) numbers in Chinese, since it covers a multitude of numbers, all the way up to ninety-nine.

And second, it will only take a millisecond to answer questions such as “What is 7 times 8?” after mastering the rhyme. You will be so speedy at single-digit multiplication, that it will constantly impress your non- 小九九 (xiǎo jiǔ jiǔ)  fluent friends!

How does it work?

First, you need to be familiar with the text of the  小九九 (xiǎo jiǔ jiǔ) . The series begins with 1 times 1 equals 1, and ends with 9 times 9 equals 81.

The Chinese Multiplication Rhyme

As you go through the text below, there are a few things to keep in mind.

First, note the character “得 (dé) ”, which means “to get” or in this case, “equals.”

You also might notice that as you advance up the multiplication table, “得 (dé) “ disappears. Technically, the “得 (dé)  “ should still be there to be grammatically correct, but to maintain the structure and the rhythm of the song, the “得 (dé)  “ is sometimes omitted.

Lastly, don’t be intimidated by the amount of text in the rhyme. Once you listen to a few examples, you’ll get the hang of it, and it is much easier to absorb the text as you listen along to the song.

Let’s begin!

The Ones:

一一得一 (yī yī dé yī)  - 1 times 1 equals 1

The Twos:

一二得二 (yī'èr dé èr)  - 1 times 2 equals 2

二二得四 (èr èr dé sì)  - 2 times 2 equals 4

The Threes:

一三得三 (yī sān dé sān)  - 1 times 3 equals 3

二三得六 (èr sān dé liù)  - 2 times 3 equals 6

三三得九 (sān sān dé jiǔ)  - 3 times 3 equals 9

The Fours:

一四得四 (yī sì dé sì)  - 1 times 4 equals 4

二四得八 (èr sì dé bā)  - 2 times 4 equals 8

三四十二 (sān sì shí èr)  - 3 times 4 equals 12

四四十六 (sì sì shí liù)  - 4 times 4 equals 16

The Fives:

一五得五 (yī wǔ dé wǔ)  - 1 times 5 equals 5

二五一十 (èr wǔ yī shí)  - 2 times 5 equals 10

三五十五 (sān wǔ shí wǔ)  - 3 times 5 equals 15

四五二十 (sì wǔ èr shí)  - 4 times 5 equals 20

五五二十五 (wǔ wǔ èr shí wǔ)  - 5 times 5 equals 25

The Sixes:

一六得六 (yī liù dé liù)  - 1 times 6 equals 6

二六十二 (èr liù shí èr)  - 2 times 6 equals 12

三六十八 (sān liù shí bā)  - 3 times 6 equals 18

四六二十四 (sì liù èr shí sì)  - 4 times 6 equals 24

五六三十 (wǔ liù sān shí)  - 5 t

六六三十六 (liù liù sān shí liù)  - 6 times 6 equals 36

The Sevens:

一七得七 (yī qī dé qī)  - 1 times 7 equals 7

二七十四 (èr qī shí sì)  - 2 times 7 equals 14

三七二十一 (sān qī èr shí yī)  - 3 times 7 equals 21

四七二十八 (sì qī èr shí bā)  - 4 times 7 equals 28

五七三十五 (wǔ qī sān shí wǔ)  - 5 times 7 equals 35

六七四十二 (liù qī sì shí èr)  - 6 times 7 equals 42

七七四十九 (qī qī sì shí jiǔ)  - 7 times 7 equals 49

The Eights:

一八得八 (yī bā dé bā)  - 1 times 8 equals 8

二八十六 (èr bā shí liù)  - 2 times 8 equals 16

三八二十四 (sān bā èr shí sì)  - 3 times 8 equals 24

四八三十二 (sì bā sān shí èr)  - 4 times 8 equals 32

五八四十 (wǔ bā sì shí) - 5 times 8 equals 40

六八四十八 (liù bā sì shí bā)  - 6 times 8 equals 48

七八五十六 (qī bā wǔ shí liù)  - 7 times 8 equals 56

八八六十四 (bā bā liù shí sì)- 8 times 8 equals 64

The Nines:

一九得九 (yī jiǔ dé jiǔ)  - 1 times 9 equals 9

二九十八 (èr jiǔ shí bā)  - 2 times 9 equals 18

三九二十七 (sān jiǔ èr shí qī)  - 3 times 9 equals 27

四九三十六 (sì jiǔ sān shí liù)  - 4 times 9 equals 36

五九四十五 (wǔ jiǔ sì shí wǔ) - 5 times 9 equals 45  

六九五十四 (liù jiǔ wǔ shí sì)  - 6 times 9 equals 54

七九六十三 (qī jiǔ liù shí sān)  - 7 times 9 equals 63

八九七十二 (Bā jiǔ qī shí èr)  - 8 times 9 equals 72  

九九八十一 (jiǔ jiǔ bā shí yī)  - 9 times 9 equals 81

Note that the smaller number always goes first in a pair of numbers you are trying to multiply. For example, if you are trying to do 9 times 7, you may need to think of it as “7 times 9,” since that is the way it appears in the 小九九 (xiǎo jiǔ jiǔ) .

After you can confidently understand and pronounce all the characters, the next piece to learn is the rhythm to the rhyme. It is difficult to describe in words, but Youtube is a great resource to pick up on the rhythm of the song.

It takes plenty of patience to perfectly memorize the 小九九 (xiǎo jiǔ jiǔ) , so cut yourself some slack if you aren’t able to recite it from memory right away. Remember, it takes Chinese children years of practice and constant testing to master their memorization - practice makes perfect!

To learn more about how easy it is to count in Chinese, check out this lesson! Counting in Chinese

A Real Life Example:

As someone who grew up in China, I learned my multiplication from the 小九九 (xiǎo jiǔ jiǔ) , and it’s still my go-to source whenever I need to quickly do multiplication. Here is how I would use the 小九九 (xiǎo jiǔ jiǔ)  in a real life situation:

I’m picking up artisanal bagels at a farmer’s market. I need to pick up 8 bagels, and each bagel is 4 dollars. How much do I owe?

First, I flip the two numbers I’m multiplying so that the smaller number is in front of the larger number. Instead of thinking “8 times 4,” I think “4 times 8”.

Then I recite the relevant section of the 小九九 (xiǎo jiǔ jiǔ)  in my head: “四八三十二 (sì bā sān shí èr)”  - 4 times 8 equals 32. Perfect! 32 is my answer.

Sometimes, it’s difficult to remember what “四八” equals, even when you’re reciting the rhyme. In situations where I get stuck, I backtrack a bit until I find my rhythm again. In this instance, I start at “二八十六 (èr bā shí liù) , 三八二十四 (sān bā èr shí sì) ,” until the rote memorization kicks in, and I’m able to remember the next piece of the song!

Once memorized, the Chinese Multiplication Rhyme is a quick and easy way to do any single-digit multiplication in your head (or out loud). It is so intuitive, that I find myself flipping from English to Chinese whenever I need to do some quick math. With enough practice, it will surely become second nature to you, too.

Give it a shot!

Do you have any questions on the Chinese Multiplication Rhyme? Let us know in the comments below!