October 27, 2009

Native Counting

I've had the immense pleasure of being contacted by a fellow anosmic who happened to stumble upon my blog post on the inability to smell. She proceeded to read the rest of the blog (which is one of the greatest rewards any reader can give me) and says that she "especially like[s] [my] posts on language". So here's to you, Catriona, a post about counting in a foreign language.

Anyone who has ever properly attempted to learn a foreign language, will know that the most efficient way to learn, is to spend some time in the country in question. Learning French in a classroom with a teacher and some books is always good -- even necessary -- but the effects of spending a holiday in France are considerable, especially if you are on your own and thus forced to speak French all the time. Eventually, the language will almost "infiltrate" your brain and your sentences will no longer be direct translations of your native language, but instead they will be constructed and structured directly in French in your brain, without going through the intermediate step of English, or Danish, or whatever language you feel the most comfortable in. This may naturally take more than a week, but given enough time such a change is bound to happen. I remember waking up one morning during my first long school trip to France (the whole purpose was to expose us to the French language) and realising that my dream had been in French. It's a peculiar feeling, a mixture between pride that your language skills have allowed you to reach that stage, and shock due to the unfamiliarity of the experience.

I have spent the majority of last year in England, each of the three academic terms being 10 weeks long. 30 weeks of speaking all but English, with the only exception being my Danish conversations with my parents over Skype. All my dreams are in English, I swear in English, my brain constructs my sentences directly in English, and even my internal dialogue is in English. In fact, when talking to my parents or writing them emails, I often find myself searching for a word or a phrase in Danish that I would have no trouble expressing in English. I sometimes use my English-Danish dictionary in cases like these, effectively creating a new, unforeseen application of the book. So it would seem that my brain has somehow adapted to the environment, and is performing all tasks in a foreign language. And yet... Every time I'm playing cards with my friends, and I need to quickly evaluate the number of cards in my hand or in the deck, I find myself doing it in Danish!

I count in Danish. Be it cards, or people, or papers, it is the one function that my mind still does better in my native tongue. I am of course perfectly able to do it in English, but I can do it significantly faster if I allow myself to switch back to Danish. Consequently, I always count in my head, in order not to frighten or confuse people. From what I have heard, it is in fact quite normal. And rightly so; one would expect the brain to perform better in most tasks when using a more familiar language, so the surprise is that I would rather think in English for most other tasks (at least during term-time). The question is, what is so pecial about counting that makes it tedious in a foreign language?

I believe the answer lies in the fact that counting is something you learn at a very young age, and that you learn to do automatically. It is like walking or riding a bicycle: the process have become something so mechanic and automatic that very little brain-power is actually required to perform it. The only difference is that counting is linked to a language. When you count, a sequence of words, or sounds, will be going through your head, but the significance linked to each number will have disappeared. When you reach "twelve" in your head, you don't stop to think that about its quality as a number, its properties, or even the fact that 12+1=13. "Thirteen" is just the sound that follows naturally on from "Twelve". Only when you reach the last card in your deck, do you stop to interpret the sound "Fifty-one". This now becomes a number, with its usual properties and connotations, and you realise that you're one card short.
So the reason I still count in Danish, is because the sequence I have learnt to recite as a kid starts with "Entotrefirefem...", and changing that automatic process would be, if not impossible, then a very difficult and time-consuming task, requiring a lot of practise. All of which would be pointless in the end, since I might as well just stick to counting in Danish.

This, however, raises another question: What other tasks will also automatically be performed in one's mother tongue? The first answer that comes to mind, is reciting the alphabet, since this is essentially the same as counting, except with letters. Indeed, when looking up words in my afore-mentioned dictionary, I will silently be going through the alphabet in Danish. Also, it would seem like a logical step to assume that if counting is performed in one's native language, then so is basic mathematical operations, like addition or multiplication. Here, I will disagree. While it is true that I can only recite my 7-times table in Danish, I don't use any language when adding, subtracting, multiplying or dividing. If I write "6 x 7" on a paper, the symbol "42" will automatically form itself in my mind. I may then add words to it, which could theoretically be in any language. If I'm multiplying them orally, I will still see the mathematical symbols in my mind, and from there "translate" it into whatever language I am speaking. I think the reason this is so different from counting, is because in this case, the numbers are actually perceived as numbers, mathematical objects, rather than a string of letters or sounds.

I am unaware of other tasks that would be unnatural to perform in a foreign language, but I'm sure there must be others. And I dare anyone to show me how you ride a bicycle in English.


- 5 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. No

    I think you must be fairly atypical to have dreamt in French on your first long school trip to France. When I was learning French I thought counting was the least tedious thing about it, I used to love spouting off the numbers up to twenty and then getting more proficient and counting as high as I liked. Of course, when I say proficient, not as much as my daughter who is multi-lingual.

    28 Oct 2009, 11:34

  2. Catriona

    Not being proficient enough in my second language to make comment, I showed this to a friend of mine who moved here from Austria. She told me excitedly that she does exactly the same thing. I imagine it has something to do with necessity, also – for example: how often do you need to use the alphabet in everyday life? How often is it necessary to count out loud? Numbers and letters are often the easiest things to remember while learning a new language, but after the novelty has worn off and you start getting into the heavy grammar and trying to hold fluent conversations, they become less of a concern. You learn arithmetic and counting change and so on in your first language, so you’re much more used to using numbers in your first language. On the other hand, you’re a student of mathematics, so perhaps you’re just odd :P

    28 Oct 2009, 20:38

  3. First: Apologies that this comment is rather late but I clicked onto your blog from the ‘what people are talking about’ link and then skimmed the rest of your entries.

    My boyfriend counts aloud in Danish too, whilst everything else he does in English – although the occasional ‘for satan’ does slip out if he hurts himself. I’m not fluent enough in any foreign language to say whether or not I would do the same, but it seems quite likely. Sequences like that are difficult to ‘unlearn’, and like you said, there’s no real need to.

    I will say, though, that Danish is a horrible language to try and learn as a foreigner, especially when not living in Denmark. I’m beginning to make progress with written Danish but my pronunciation leaves a lot to be desired…

    04 Jan 2010, 09:07

  4. No worries about the late comment. Feedback is always welcome!

    Yes, Danish can be a difficult language to learn as a foreigner… if you have to speak it! The pronunciation is quite hard, with its rough sounds and strange vowels. But the grammar isn’t too bad, compared to other languages. Also I think that, to a certain extent, Danish and English are somewhat similar. I don’t know exactly how difficult Danish must be to learn for English people, but I know that a lot of Danes find English much easier than other languages.

    05 Jan 2010, 10:42

  5. ana maria

    I think counting, listing the alphabet and swearing are things you automatically do in your native language… When I swear, from the bottom of my heart, really feeling it, it comes automatically in my own tongue.

    22 Feb 2010, 10:18


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