# I learned how to do math with the ancient abacus — and it changed my life

1. [6]
mono
I learned to use an abacus (Soroban) a few years ago after watching a video of Japanese kids doing crazy mental math by imagining one in their heads, like the author describes in the article. I...

I learned to use an abacus (Soroban) a few years ago after watching a video of Japanese kids doing crazy mental math by imagining one in their heads, like the author describes in the article.

I used an app to learn, which helped to gamify the process. I'm nowhere near as good as those kids and will never be. I can't do it mentally, but I developed some of the muscle memory for using the real thing and can do addition, subtraction, and multiplication reasonably fast with one.

It is a non-trivial process of learning to do the calculations though. Abacuses aren't like calculators. They don't solve the arithmetic for you... they just help break down calculations into a series of simpler operations, just like doing it on paper. You'll have to learn your 10x10 times tables to do multiplication. Division is not easy.

I don't know how much it would help if everyone learned to use one. It would probably help some but perhaps be more difficult for others. Also, how much enthusiasm people have, kids especially, have for learning something matters a lot, and abacuses alone aren't going get everyone interested in learning arithmetic. I do believe that the algorithm you need to learn to use one is better for mental arithmetic, but it's still not magic. I think Common Core in the U.S. tried to teach a similar process, but there was a lot of pushback because it looks confusing on paper.

1. [5]
kfwyre
(edited )
I saw a similar video of a Korean math competition a few years ago (unfortunately I can't seem to find it again now), where they flashed 4-digit integers on a screen incredibly rapidly and...

I saw a similar video of a Korean math competition a few years ago (unfortunately I can't seem to find it again now), where they flashed 4-digit integers on a screen incredibly rapidly and students correctly calculated their sums nearly instantaneously. I was blown away! I could barely process the numbers with how quickly they came up, and these students were adding them?!

In looking for that video, I did find this one which is a pretty good demonstration of the concepts mentioned by you and in the article (they have the hand movements and everything).

Which app did you use to learn it? I've always wanted to learn how to use an abacus partly out of curiosity and partly because it might be a useful teaching tool.

1. [2]
mrbig
(edited )
I suppose such an outstanding performance is the consequence of many things besides the use of abacus, such as brutal full time education with a heavy focus on memorization and “mechanical feats”....

I saw a similar video of a Korean math competition a few years ago

I suppose such an outstanding performance is the consequence of many things besides the use of abacus, such as brutal full time education with a heavy focus on memorization and “mechanical feats”. Maybe producing happier, well rounded individuals with good critical thinking skills instead of human calculators is a better option. IDK. I’m not an specialist in Korean education but I do have a somewhat informed impression about education in Asian countries. So I may be wrong.

1. kfwyre
This is true, and a very valuable point. I have a friend who taught in Korea and said that the social pressures for performance and widespread use of cram schools were particularly debilitating...

This is true, and a very valuable point. I have a friend who taught in Korea and said that the social pressures for performance and widespread use of cram schools were particularly debilitating for a lot of students. I'm a firm believer that academic pursuits should enrich life, not diminish it.

At the time I saw the video though, I was honestly just impressed that such a thing was even possible -- it didn't seem like something humans would be able to do. The abacus strategy allowed for incredibly rapid optimization that different algorithms simply wouldn't be able to achieve.

2. mono
Yeah, I think that same video was another one that inspired me to try learning! Here is the app I use on the Google Play store. It does a good job of gradually increasing the difficulty, and it's...

Yeah, I think that same video was another one that inspired me to try learning!

Here is the app I use on the Google Play store. It does a good job of gradually increasing the difficulty, and it's nice and responsive. If you're a bit of a dork, like me, it's just kind of fun to use, especially when you start developing the muscle memory and are solving problems without thinking about them too much.

1 vote
2. mrbig