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!