Learning By Numbers?

This phrase and variations of it are much cliched “Learning a new language expands your horizons”. I am all for banishing cliches but I guess sometimes that cliches exist because they convey an inherent truth.

I like to think of myself as a serial language learner- nothing gives me more pleasure than when a set of squiggles start making sense to me or when gibberish becomes intelligible.

But one of the main reasons that keeps me hooked on to learning new languages (or perfecting my skills in the ones I know) is how they offer a perspective into understanding another culture- wow that is another cliche right there!

The point being that you get to understand something about a culture that a regular person who hasn’t learnt that language wouldn’t know- and this gives you an edge over them- and this can help in anything from just making friends or closing business deals (oh God! enough with the cliches already!)

Just take an example from the domain of numbers:

Numerical Differences

In India we grew up with a number system that is quite different from that elsewhere in the western world.

It goes

10- ten

100- hundred

1000- thousand

10000- ten thousand

100000- lakh

1000000- ten lakhs

10000000- crore

Beyond that everything is just denominated in tens, hundreds, thousands (or more recently- at least going by politcal scandals) in lakhs of crores. A lakh is also more recently spelt a lac.

But in the west it is quite obviously the thousands, hundred thousands, millions and the billions that rule.

10- ten

100- hundred

1000- thousand

10000- ten thousand

100000- one hundred thousand

1000000- one million

1000000000- one billion

When working on international transactions it is quite common to see people scratching their heads trying to convert lakhs into millions or billions into crores. The complexity is only increased when there is an additional dimension of currency exchange. Change Indian Rupees into US Dollars and then figure out whether the lakhs work out to millions or billions.

My trick is always simple- write down the entire number on a paper and then draw lines across the digits dividing them into hundreds and thousands.

So for the longest ever time I thought that the only complexity that I would ever have to deal with were lakhs and crores vs the millions and the billions. Imagine my surprise when I started learning the numbers in Japanese and they have an additional level of complexity.

In their system this is how it foes

10- Ten (Ju)

100- Hundred (Hyaku)

1000- Thousand (Sen)

10000- Ten Thousand (Man)

100000000- One Hundred Million (Oku)

1000000000000- One trillion (tyoo)

So 15765432 would in India be One Crore Fifty Seven Laks Sixty Five Thousand Four Hundred and Thirty- Two

In the internationally accepted system 15765432 would be Fifteen Million Seven Hundred and Sixty-Five thousand Four Hundred and Thirty-two

And in Japan 15765432 would be One thousand five hundred and seventy-six ten thousands Five thousand four hundred and thirty-two.

Whew! And this is just how the units, tens and other numbers are classified- I’m not even talking about how the actual numbers are written (the famous tongue tripping French example of 99 being written as Eighty and Ten and Nine comes to mind!)

But the challenge is exactly what makes the whole domain interesting- what could make your brain more alert than having to translate or interpret a complex number in different systems?

And yet we see globalisation having its effects where more and more people start using millions and billions confining the lakhs and crores and mans and the okus to textbook theories.

They say that there are a number of languages that die within the world everyday- even within the languages we use there are so many unique features that disappear every day. Does this mean we have to mourn their loss?


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Sukanya Ramanujan says:

    Reblogged this on Sukanya Ramanujan.

  2. Lav says:

    fascinating! I do feel sad that we conform to one global standard and thereby lose the local culture (for ex: unique numbering system inherent to that place).
    Knowing why we have these unique numbering systems gives us a better perspective of the origin of culture and language me thinks. But I’m sure most of us have already forgotten or worse never bothered to know why.

  3. Nirmala says:

    It is indeed sad that we lose something of our native languages in the era of globalisation.

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