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!

Comparative Grammar of the French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese Languages

+-*My new favorite book. Published in 1868! 400 pages of comparative goodness. Verb conjugations (we really should bring back thou hadst and the T-V distinction in English!) There’s even vocabulary at the end, though the words are not grouped thematically like they are in The Loom of Language. I’ve also ordered A Comparative Practical Grammar […]

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Female Polyglots and Language Learners – Where Are You?

+-*The lovely Susanna, author of Language is Music, and I were talking about the lack of female polyglots online even though most language classes have higher enrollment of women than men and many language teachers are female rather than male. Most polyglots online – especially on YouTube – are men and we can’t seem to […]

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Getting Used to Being an American Abroad (and Realizing that 30 Degrees is Hot)

+-*The weather has been gorgeous in France this past week and I’ve been looking at the forecast everyday hoping that the sunshine sticks around for a while. Yet every time I watch the météo on TV or check the prévisions on meteofrance.com, I always have to stop for a moment and convert the Celcius degrees […]

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Recent Foreign Language and Traveling News

+-*Some interesting articles and websites on foreign languages and traveling that I’ve come across in the past week or two: In Troubled Spain, Boom Times for Foreign Languages: more Spaniards learning languages in order to find jobs abroad Scandinavians Rule, Russians Low in English Language Skills: ranking the proficiency of English among 44 countries and […]

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My Say it in French Phrasebook Available in September from Dover Publications

+-*Guess who’s a published author now? It’s on Amazon so that makes it official, right? One of my jobs last year was revising and updating Dover Publications’ Say it in French phrasebook. The original was written in the 50’s and included a section on telegrams and cablegrams, so there was a lot I needed to […]

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New Language Tutorial on ielanguages.com: Afrikaans!

+-*I’m happy to announce that a new language tutorial has been added to ielanguages.com: Afrikaans! The tutorial was written by Selçuk Mert Köseoğlu and proofread by native-speaker Sarien, who also plans to record some mp3s. Afrikaans originated from 17th century Dutch and is one of the official languages of South Africa. It is also spoken in […]

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My Library Thinks Finnish is a Germanic Language

+-*I tweeted this photo yesterday but it irritates me so much that I decided to put it on the blog too. My local library puts Finnish in the Other Germanic Languages section. I could let it slide if they organized the languages by geography instead of linguistic families, but they don’t since they use the […]

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Everything on the Internet is in the Public Domain

+-*Actually NOT everything on the internet is in the public domain but it seems that a lot of people do not know this or simply don’t care about copyright laws. Since creating my website more than 10 years ago, I’ve come across numerous other websites that have copied my tutorials without asking permission or giving […]

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Swearing in French and Degrees of Vulgarity

+-*Swearing is another cultural concept that is difficult to master when learning a language. Exact translations among swear words are hard to come by since a lot of the meaning depends on the situation and tone of voice. What is considered vulgar in one language may not be in another. In French, merde is usually […]

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Why is Jennie no longer in France?

I created this blog in September 2006 when I moved to France from Michigan to teach English. Many of the earlier posts are about my personal life in France, dealing with culture shock, traveling in Europe and becoming fluent in French. In July 2011, I relocated to Australia to start my PhD in Applied Linguistics. Although I am no longer living in France, my research is on foreign language pedagogy and I teach French at a university so these themes appear most often on the blog. I also continue to post about traveling and being an American abroad.

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