Numerical nightmares in foreign languages

This is a brief blog post to ask foreign language speakers and learners a simple question: do they have the same problem with numbers I have?!

The trick to speaking a foreign language fluently is to think in it – something I find comes to occur naturally. You get used to the different structure, the different rhythms, and the different means of naming things quite quickly, particularly if you have the opportunity to immerse yourself (for example by living and/or working where the language is spoken daily).

Yet one thing always seems to jar – a number.

For example, if reading a document, “1985” to me is always “nineteen eighty five” regardless of which language I am reading. Even if not reading aloud, I find myself almost skipping the number, knowing that I have just internally “pronounced” it in another part of my brain – in English, in effect.

This can be potentially troublesome. While I have, in general, little difficulty following the radio news in German (allowing for the odd inevitable misunderstanding around alien people or concepts), the traffic report can become tricky particularly if a three-digit road number is mentioned. Firstly, three-digit road numbers are read out in full in German (as opposed to digit by digit as in English), and then of course the last two digits are effectively inverted – so the A647 would be literally the “A six-hundred seven-and-forty”. My brain seemly seems wired wrongly here, having to take time even while otherwise “thinking in German” to untangle the seven and the four – by which time I may have missed the crucial diversionary exit!

This cannot be a fundamentally linguistic problem because of course no such untangling is necessary with numbers from 13-19 in English itself – “fourteen” is effectively the wrong way around (with the four first, contrary to “twenty-four”, for example) but takes no time to untangle – at least not for a native speaker.

Is it more that the parts of the brain which deal with language and numbers are separate, and only one gets re-wired when operating in a different language from native?

All thoughts welcome!


8 thoughts on “Numerical nightmares in foreign languages

  1. Yeah, absolutely. Even now, when reading (internally or out loud) I get to the number and say it in English, before catching myself on that it registered with me as said – like you – but I hadn’t said it. Even some friends/colleagues in full conversation would then take down a number, reciting it in their own language, before returning to the English conversation.

    Another issue are the localised “quirks”, like the road example you mentioned. In Spain, it’s the case with telephone numbers. Take the number for customer helpline at Correos (Royal Mail equivalent, for non-Spanish readers).
    ATENCIÓN AL CLIENTE – 902 197 197. Whereas we’d say nine-zero-two… they say novecientos cero – ciento noventa y siete -ciento noventa y siete. Makes sense logically, but can be difficult for new arrivals who learnt 1-29, then 30-100 in tens, and the words for the hundreds/thousands thereafter. (Although it does vary, as in English – I remember a radio ad which gave the number as “903 20 21 22” – nueve-cero-tres veinte veintiuno veintidós, I think because of the rhythmic nature which made it memorable – I remember it 10 years later!)

    Another curiosity that struck me learning several languages as a teen was, funnily enough, the teens in different languages, and where the equivalent of “-teen” came in different languages.

    English starts at 13 – thirTEEN.
    German is similar. 12 – zwöld. 13 – dreizehn.
    Spanish starts at 16 – dieciséis, whereas 15 is quince.
    French starts one later. 16 – seize. 17 – dix-sept.
    Italian is similar to French, but with the peculiarity of “10+1” up until that: 11 – undici. 12 – dodici. 17 – diciassette.
    (Here, latin is like Italian up to XVII (septendecim – 10 + 7), when it then turns to “20-2” for 18 – duodēvīgintī.

    Excellent post and worth thinking about. Looking forward to a NUMBER of other contributions 🙂
    (Bad Friday afternoon joke…)

  2. It gets worse Ian …

    Irish has specific numbers for counting people:

    But Welsh doesn’t have personal numbers.

    To my knowledge no other Indo-European language does.

    But Japanese and Korean have different ways of counting people and all kinds of things …

    It’s a linguistic anomaly.

    I compare it to Occidental Europeans and Oriental Asians coming across dinosaur fossils and imagining dragons from it, despite the cultural separation.

    Except linguistically.

  3. korhomme says:

    I have the same problem with numbers in German; if I’m listening to something and then writing down, say, 1978, it so often comes out as 1987. I find it very difficult, though it’s possible to say numbers the same way in English, but it’s very unusual.

  4. Eileen Cairnduff says:

    Glad to hear you say that Ian with your expertise. I always disgrace myself at checkouts in France when they assistant says the total.

  5. As I hurtle past middle age I’m glad of those even in English!

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