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!

Dr. Wagner has a PhD in Linguistics and is dedicated to learning and teaching languages online and abroad. She has studied in Quebec and Australia, taught English in France, and is currently based in the US.