Why numbers are difficult to learn
Numbers are difficult for many people to learn in a foreign language. This is partly because when you listen to a native speaker say numbers they generally say them very quickly. Even if all the other parts of the sentence have been said slowly and deliberately, when we get to numbers, our speech moves into fast mode again.
Also, most language apps, programs, and classes teach numbers in a way that makes it more difficult to recall them. I’ll show you how to avoid this later in this article. I’ve also discovered a relatively easy way to learn numbers which, when I actually use it, makes numbers the easier part of the language. More on that later in the article.
Numbers are different in different languages
As English speakers, we use numbers a lot in our lives and language. Imagine trying to get through a day not using numbers! How would you tell the time, call someone, find an address, or order a two Splenda latte?
But not every language has numbers. There are about 7,000 languages spoken today and some of them don’t have words for numbers. Those few languages without words for numbers use less specific terms such as ‘many’ and ‘a few’. Numbers are not a universal part of human languages.
In the many languages which do use numbers, numbers vary greatly. The Chinese numbers for 1, 2, and 3 are quite practical looking. I’m going to guess you know which of these Chinese numbers is 1, 2, and 3:
一 二 三
Thai numbers are more like art. Below are the Thai numbers for 1 – 9.
The way numbers are constructed varies greatly by language also. In English, we count one, two, three, four, five, six, seven eight, nine. When we get to the tens we change the words, eleven, twelve, thirteen, etc. For 20 – 99 we change the word slightly and add -ty; twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety. Many Romance languages follow a similar ‘pattern’.
The way numbers are formed in a language makes a difference. According to the Wall Street Journal,
“Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Turkish use simpler number words and express math concepts more clearly than English, making it easier for small children to learn counting and arithmetic”
For example, in Chinese, there are a little over nine different words for the numbers. Chinese speaking children learn the words for 1 – 9 and pretty much know all the numbers. English uses about 25 different words. English speaking children learn the words for 1 – 9 and then they have to learn the words for 11 – 19 and then every set of 10 (such as twenty, thirty, etc).
So, for example, to say the numbers 5, 15, and 25 in Chinese, children learn the words èr (2), wǔ (5), and shí (10). From these three words, you can say not only 2, 5, and 10 but also wǔ shí (ten-five or 15), èr shí wǔ (two-ten-five or 25). English requires five words to say five different numbers.
Why is it difficult to read numbers in a foreign language
In Western countries, Arabic numbers are generally used. What we call Arabic numerals are really Indian. They were developed by Indian mathematics between the 2nd century BCE and 3rd century CE. These Indian numbers spread to ancient Persia and then to Spain via the Arabs in the late 800s CE. From there it spread across much of Europe. When the Spanish and other European countries conquered Native American and other nations around the world they brought their language and numbers with them. So, If you are in the United States, Uruguay, Norway, or New Zealand you will easily recognize 1, 2, 3, etc. But once you step away from Arabic numbers it gets dicey.
The table below gives a small sampling of numbers in different languages
The different ways numbers in different languages are constructed linguistically can also make it difficult to learn and read numbers. Many languages change the name of numbers when they move from the ones to the tens place and sometimes change the name twice. We do this in English. Two is two in the ones place (2) then the name changes to twelve in the tens (12) and then changes again to twenty (20). In contrast, the Japanese maintain the number name. Two is Ni. Ten is Jū. So twelve is Jū ni (ten-two) and twenty is Ni jū (two-ten).
How to master numbers in another language
As complex as all this seems, numbers are really just another set of vocabulary words – an infinite set of vocabulary words. Although I seldom recommend using repetition to memorize vocabulary, there are other far more effective methods, I will recommend it for numbers and here’s why:
Numbers are ubiquitous in our modern world. If you start purposely looking for numbers, you will see them everywhere. And this is where review and repetition enter the picture,
When you see a number say it.
It’s best to say it out loud but that can be a little awkward if there are people around. I often just pull out my phone and voila, suddenly no one thinks I’m the crazy guy talking to myself.
Before you can start mastering numbers by talking to yourself you need to learn them. Here’s the strategy for that.
Most languages use the first 9 numbers (1 – 9) as a base for all the remaining numbers. In English, we kind of do this but we trip up, as I said before, by turning two to twelve and then to twenty but the general sound carries across. English gets back to the original sound in the hundreds with two-hundred, three hundred, etc.
Many languages have similar or more difficult quirks, such as French, other languages are much easier such as Chinese. Learn zero along with the numbers 1 -9 and then you can say a long string of numbers. If you are really having a difficult time with numbers or you are short on time, 0 – 9 is all you need. Just be aware that this will allow you to say numbers but not understand larger numbers, so this is where your fingers become invaluable.
Avoid this one mistake to learn numbers
A mistake almost everyone makes, and I see it often in language apps, programs, and in classes, is to learn the numbers in order – don’t do it! Learning to count 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. is learning to count. But you need to learn numbers not how to count.
We typically don’t use numbers to count, we use numbers out of order. If you only learn to count it can be difficult to recall a number in the middle of the order without going through all the other numbers first. So, when you are learning 1 – 9 learn them randomly, maybe such as 3, 8, 5, 1, 9, 2, 7, 4, 6, any pattern but consecutive order. This way you will be much faster recalling any number you need and you will also be able to count.
The second step is to learn the word order for 20 – 99. There is always a pattern or rule and in many languages exceptions to the rule. In English, the word order is tens then ones but, as you know, English changes the name of the tens.
We will use the number 23 as an example. In English, the patter is tens (twenty) then ones (three) for twenty-three. In English the name of the tens changes from two to twenty, a little confusing.
In Chinese, the word order is the same, tens and then ones but Chinese does not change the name of the number the simply say, ‘two tens’ (20), three (3). Èr (two) shí (ten) sān (three) 23. Or in Chinese characters, 二十三 .
French numbers are less rule-oriented. Twenty-three in French is vingt (20) trois (3) which sounds a lot like a pattern. Trois is three but vingt, twenty, sounds nothing like deux, two or dix, ten. And it gets worse. To say 70 the French abandoned the pattern and start adding. Seventy is ‘sixty-ten’ soixante-dix. Eighty is even stranger, they say ‘four-twenty’, quatre-vingt. Eighty-three in French is four-twenty-three, quatre-vingt-trois.
The numbers 11 – 19 vary greatly in different languages. They can be set in a logical easy pattern as in many of the Asian languages in which you simply say ‘ten-one”, “ten-two’”, ”ten-three”, etc for 11, 12, 13, etc. They can be completely different words as in English, eleven, twelve, thirteen. Or it may be a pattern which changes as in Italian which starts out Un dici (one-ten, 11) do dici (two-ten, 12) tre dici (three-ten, 13). then for no apparent reason, it reverses order for 17, 18, and 19 to ten-seven, ten-eight, and ten-nine; diciassette, diciotto, diciannove.
Once you get to the hundreds, things generally tend to get more logical and easier. Similar to English most languages use the ones name and add the word “hundred”.
- English: One-hundred, two-hundred, three-hundred
- French: Cent, deux cents, trois cents
- Chinese: Yī bǎi, liǎng bǎi, sān bǎi
The four steps to learning numbers
Practice each step below as you are out and about and see numbers
- Learn 0 – 9. Out of order!
- Learn the word order for the 20 – 99
There might be some quirks in this set but most languages have a system
- Learn 10 – 19
This set is typically the most difficult because many languages changing the sound or pattern or both.
- Learn how to say hundreds, thousands, and millions. You will seldom use numbers past the thousands mark
Here’s how it works:
When you are leaning 0 – 9 and see the street number 10275, say: one, zero, two, seven five.
When you are learning 10 – 19 say ten, two, seven, five.
When you are learning 20 – 99 say ten, twenty-seven, five
When you are learning the hundreds say one-hundred-two, seventy-five.
When you are learning the thousands: say one-thousand-twenty-seven, five or ten-thousand-two-hundred-seventy-five.