Numbers and Counting: American vs. French

I’m still endlessly fascinated by cultural differences between the US/North America and France/Europe that most people probably don’t spend much time thinking about. A McDonald’s commercial on French TV got me thinking about numbers and counting in other languages and cultures.  You learn quickly that Europe uses the 24 hour clock for schedules and the 1st floor in Europe is the 2nd floor in the US, etc. but did you know that Europeans also count on their fingers differently?

The American style is to start with the index finger but Europeans start with the thumb, which I have NEVER been able to remember to do – and I end up confusing my 2 year old niece who doesn’t understand why weird American aunt Jennie doesn’t know how to count correctly.  If you just hold up the index finger, some people will misinterpret it as 2 instead of 1.

Written numbers also gave me some problems in French. This was the validity date on my first autorisation provisoire de travail as an English assistant. I knew that European dates were in the format day/month/year but I wasn’t yet used to how numbers were actually written. When I first glanced at the dates, the 1’s looked completely bizarre to me and I thought the second date was 30/06/07 instead of 30/04/07.

Here’s how David writes numbers:

For comparison, the way I write numbers is below. My students always thought my 1, 2, and 7’s were weird whenever I wrote numbers on the board. Even the post office makes me cross my 7’s because they’re afraid that someone will mistake it for a European 1. I don’t know about other Americans but we used to get in trouble at my elementary school for crossing our 7’s…

Another major difference pertaining to numbers is that the use of periods and commas are reversed. Periods are used as the decimal mark in the US, while commas are used in most of Europe. Commas are used as the thousands separator in the US, while periods or spaces or nothing are used in Europe (there are many differences depending on the country).  This doesn’t cause many confusions but one mathematical operation probably will at first glance.

This is how David was taught to do long division:

And this is how I was taught way back in 5th grade:

Learning words and grammar is never enough!

  • Nice comparison, very helpful (I’m currently living in France). Did you know the Chinese finger-counting system uses just one hand all the way to 10? It is very practical as you can signal the number 8 with a bag of groceries in your other hand, but it threw me for a loop when I first moved there…

    • Jo

      Lately I’ve been getting into counting in binary. That way you can go all the way up to 31 with one hand. It’s kind of difficult though to show the number 8

      • ferdibarda

        Plus it might seem a little rude to show the number 4 !

  • Ellen

    It gets even more confusing when you include other European countries. The Netherlands, for example. When I count on my fingers, I start with my thumb, like the French. However, if I want to point out that I only need 1 of something, I hold up my index finger. 2 is index + middle finger, 3 is index, middle + ring finger, 4 is all fingers except the thumb. Judging from a French quiz show (Les douze coups de midi) that is not how the French do it…
    I write my numbers differently from both you and David. I use your 1, for example, but David’s 7, but my daughter was taught your 7 in school.
    My long divisions resemble yours, but I was taught to write the result to the right of the number to be divided (separated with another slash), and my daughter will learn yet another way in school when she’s older.
    And I’m sure other countries have other differences 🙂

  • At work I got asked right away whether I was North American because of the way I wrote my ones and my sevens, I try to remember to cross my sevens so people don’t get confused!

    I learned both ways to do divisions but I always use David’s method!

  • Jane

    I have a French friend who is a middle school math teacher in France. When she was here in the US, she decided to do math tutoring. She had to come over so I could teach her long division, American-style. I still don’t understand the French long division. I’ve always written my 7s crossed and I can get used to the 1s. But, that 4 has confused me on more than one occasion. I almost went to a party on the wrong day because it was the 14th and I saw 16th!

  • It’s been more than 4 years now since I was in Russia, so hope I’m not getting this wrong, but I think from memory they start with all their fingers up for nothing and then fold them in to count. So 4 fingers up means 1! Now that’s confusing!

    I got on board with crossing my 7s a long time ago because I used to have to write barcodes on a lot of stuff working at a library and my 7s would end up looking like 2s. My 1s are just a straight line though.

    And when writing cheques I always have a moment where I worry (irrationally) that I’m actually signing over thousands of euros with the comma for decimal places 🙂

    • MilkJam

      if there is any discrepancy between the spelled out numbers and figures the spelled out numbers are always the ones used! no need to worry!

      I grew up crossing my sevens, never was a problem for me. In the beginning 9’s looked like g’s though…

      I count the French way now…

  • When I attended a french lycee during my teen years, I was pretty useless in most classes so I really looked forward to math class. I figured I might not know the language, but I was good at math so I would do well there, right? WRONG! For exactly the reasons you point out. Numbers are different, too!

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  • Mickey Farrance

    Then there’s all the fun of counting-out-loud. Getting a telephone number verbally in French is still tough for me even after a decade in France… given “quatre-vingt dix-huit” I’m writing “4, no 80, no 90, no 98” and by then I’ve been completely derailed!

    Nice blog Jennie! Happy to have found you!

  • Zhu

    I never understood why our “7” were different. I cross mine the way I was taught 🙂

    I hate that there is not easy way to translate the expression “24/7” in French. I mean, seriously, “24 heures sur 24 et sept jours sur sept” is a tad long, isn’t it?

    Chinese count very differently on their fingers… it’s super confusing 😉

  • Very cool.
    Also, that’s not a 1, that’s a 7!! 😀

  • What a great post. Oh my goodness, the long division! I didn’t know that…at that is really odd, because most of my math classes were conducted in French as I was growing up, since I went through French immersion. I was taught the differences with respect to commas vs. points but I guess that French Canadians must do long division “our” way…either that or my teachers decided not to mess any more with the heads of those poor Anglo kids…

    I have a numbers story to tell. When I was in France last month, I had to call a friend to come and pick me up from the train station, but there weren’t any pay phones there and I hadn’t unblocked my cell phone before leaving Canada. The lady behind the desk was kind enough to offer to phone my friend for me, from behind her plexiglass window, so I gave her the neatly written phone number on a slip of paper. She tried several times, but couldn’t get through. I knew I had written down the correct phone number, because I had used that exact copy of it to call my friend before. How could she not know now to dial a local phone number? What was wrong with her? I handed her another piece of paper with the same phone number written on it, just to see if that might somehow make a difference…but of course it was also written in my handwriting. She said, “I’m sorry, that’s just not a valid number.” I ended up asking her to call me a taxi instead to take me back to my friend’s house, where she was waiting anxiously and wondering why I hadn’t called yet. Only a few days later did I realize….it must have been the way I had written a 7, or maybe a 4, on the slip of paper that caused the problem. That’s why I had been able to call without a problem. If I had read out the number to the lady at the train station instead of giving it to her in handwritten form, I might have saved myself some hassle and a cab fare! Now I know…

  • That part of “Europe” that once ruled the world does use a decimal point rather than a comma !

  • Marguerit59

    French 9s look actually like gs. Your David writes his 9s like British or Americans do.

  • ferdibarda

    Great blog, I just discovered it and it’s very interesting.

    About the numbers, I also noticed (watching american movies and series) that American people seem to always dictate numbers one by one, whereas French people will do it usually 2 by 2, or sometimes 3 at a times or even more, if the numbers are written together 3 by 3 etc. For example, I would say “chambre deux cent trois” for room 203 (and I believe Americans say “two o three”). 

    • Yes, Americans tend to use single digits when saying large numbers whereas the French group them together, which is even more confusing for the non-native speakers.

  • Lori

    Just saw this original post on fb and Mango Languages. Very interesting and helpful aritcle and comments! Did you know that friends of mine who are accountants here in the States also cross the 7?  I’ve taught my young sons to do this as their handwriting is terrible and crossing 7’s is very helpful. I also know a some American Sign Language. The whole 26 letter alphabet is signed with 1 hand as numbers through 99, at least. The index finger is number 1, 2 is the middle finger but 3 is the thumb, index and middle finger. Sign language is also very beautiful 🙂

  • CJ

    Similar story when I moved to Germany.  The first time someone wrote me a phone number with a 1 in it, I wasn’t sure what it was!  I’m fascinated by how the write not just the numbers differently, but letters too.

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