Turkish students at a school in Istanbul. The Turkish language expresses some math concepts more clearly than English does. Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

What's the best language for learning math? Hint: You're not reading it.

Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Turkish use simpler number words and express math concepts more clearly than English, making it easier for small children to learn counting and arithmetic, research shows.

The language gap is drawing growing attention amid a push by psychologists and educators to build numeracy in small children—the mathematical equivalent of literacy. Confusing English word names have been linked in several recent studies to weaker counting and arithmetic skills in children. However, researchers are finding some easy ways for parents to level the playing field through games and early practice.

Differences between Chinese and English, in particular, have been studied in U.S. and Chinese schools for decades by Karen Fuson, a professor emerita in the school of education and social policy at Northwestern University, and Yeping Li, an expert on Chinese math education and a professor of teaching, learning and culture at Texas A&M University. Chinese has just nine number names, while English has more than two dozen unique number words.

The trouble starts at "11." English has a unique word for the number, while Chinese (as well as Japanese and Korean, among other languages) have words that can be translated as "ten-on

English number names over 10 don't as clearly label place value, and number words for the teens, such as 17, reverse the order of the on

These may seem like small issues, but the additional mental steps needed to solve problems cause more errors and drain working memory capacity, says Dr. Fuson, author of a school math curriculum, Math Expressions, that provides added support for English-speaking students in learning place value.

It feels more natural for Chinese speakers than for English speakers to use the "make-a-ten" addition and subtraction strategy taught to first-graders in many East Asian countries. When adding two numbers, students break down the numbers into parts, or addends, and regroup them into tens and on

Many U.S. teachers have increased instruction in the make-a-ten method, and the Common Core standards adopted by many states call for first-graders to use it to add and subtract. First-graders' understanding of place value predicts their ability to do two-digit addition in third grade, according to a 2011 study of 94 elementary-school children in Research in Developmental Disabilities.

The U.S.-Asian math-achievement gap—a sensitive and much-studied topic—has more complicated roots than language. Chinese teachers typically spend more time explaining math concepts and getting students involved in working on difficult problems. In the home, Chinese parents tend to spend more time teaching arithmetic facts and games and using numbers in daily life, says a 2010 study in the Review of Educational Research by researchers at the Hong Kong Institute of Education and the University of Hong Kong.

When Chinese preschoolers enter kindergarten, they're ahead of their U.S. counterparts in the adding and counting skills typically taught by Chinese parents. They're also on

In math, on

The negative impact of English is apparent in a 2014 study comparing 59 English-speaking Canadian children from Ottawa, Canada, with 88 Turkish children from Istanbul, ranging in age from 3 to 41/2 years. The Turkish children had received less instruction in numbers and counting than the Canadians. Yet the Turkish children improved their counting skills more after practicing in the lab with a numbered board game, according to the study, co-written by Jo-Anne LeFevre, director of the Institute of Cognitive Science at Carleton University, Ottawa, On

Dr. LeFevre is among a growing group of researchers exploring how parents can help instill number skills early. Children whose parents taught them to recognize and name digits and practice simple addition problems tended to do well on such kindergarten tasks as counting and comparing numbers, says a 2014 study of 183 children and their parents in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, co-written by Dr. LeFevre.

Board games can offset some of the disadvantages of speaking English, though on

But the children improved on

Games such as "Chutes and Ladders" can have the same effect if children count on with each turn, Dr. Laski says. Studies show games without numbers in the squares, or set up in a winding or circular pattern, such as Candy Land, don't provide the same benefits.

Just drawing a board game on paper or cardboard and playing it with a preschooler a few times can firm up counting skills. "It's definitely more fun than doing a work sheet, and just as valuable," Dr. Laski says.

Children whose parents exposed them to number games and showed they enjoyed playing with numbers tended to have better skills, according to the 2014 study co-written by Dr. LeFevre.

Math teacher Andrew Stadel wants to pass on his interest in math to his 4-year-old son Patrick. A videogame, "Hungry Guppy" by Motion Math, based in San Francisco, drew Patrick's attention at age 2; players drag together bubbles with dots to add them, then feed them to a fish. He is now playing its successor for older kids, "Hungry Fish." Patrick is "curious about what numbers will pair up to make the desired sum," and if he makes a mistake, "there's not a huge penalty and it's not deflating to him," Mr. Stadel says.

Such videogames build fluency in doing calculations, freeing mental energy for learning. A game called "Addimal Adventures" by Teachley teaches different strategies for addition, showing "there's more than on

Ten-year-old Luke Sullivan of Marietta, Ga., says a game called "Addition Blocks" by Fluency Games of Smyrna, Ga., helped him learn when he started playing it two years ago. "You realize it's educational, but then you start to enjoy it," Luke says.

**Write to **Sue Shellenbarger at sue.shellenbarger@wsj.com

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