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  • Claudia Disco

Do you count in your mother tongue?

Yesterday I played Mahjong for the second time in my life. The first time I was around ten years old. A game with four walls slowly crumbling down was most fascinating to me as a child.

While counting the Mahjong tiles, I realised that I counted in Dutch. Out loud. Rather amusing for my co-players, who were all French. Fortunately, they were used to having their international friends count out loud in their mother tongue.

I have always been intrigued with math and language. Am fluent in French, but still dislike the numbers. When my French husband shares his phone number (which I still have not memorized since we moved back to France), I make him repeat it in English. Numbers like soixante-dix (70), quatre-vingts (80) and quatre-vingt-dix (90), drive me crazy. I prefer the Belgian nonante (90) and the Swiss huitante (80).

The Dutch and English numbers also have their peculiarities. The Dutch language flips them. The unit number is pronounced before the tens. For example, the English twenty-one (21) is one and twenty and so on. When you add hundreds, things go to a whole new level. Five hundred and ninety seven (597) becomes five hundred seven and ninety.

And who decided that the international English billion is milliard in French and miljard in Dutch? And trillion is biljoen in Dutch and billion in French. How many zeros? Seriously, where did this all go wrong.

Needless to say, that my multi-lingual brain is very uncomfortable with numbers and counting.

Below some interesting articles on the fascinating interactions between language and math:

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