The numbers game

Chiffres_LettresDes chiffres et des lettres is France’s longest running game show. It will never see me as a contestant.

Just as there are dog people and cat people, I believe there are word people and numbers people. Three guesses as to which group I belong to – and that’s as high as I’ll count without a calculator, merci.

I never much cared for math. I can do the basics if forced to but in general it’s just too much work. Hubby and I have an arrangement: he does the finances and pays the bills; I take care of spending the money, as well as sticking stamps on envelopes and seeing they make it to the post office.

Somehow I gave birth to two math whizzes who both aced their Baccalaureate ‘S’ (scientific series) diplomas. One is a software engineer who’s on his way to a masters, the other is studying to be a vet. Either way, they did not inherit my aversion to numbers.

Learning to speak French is a challenging exercise for anyone with no taste for figures. You have to do math just to count. For example, seventy is 60 + 10 (soixante-dix). Eighty is 4 x 20 (quatre-vingt) and ninety is an equation: 4 x 20 + 10 (quatre-vingt-dix). C’est compliqué!

And then there’s the time. The French, like most Europeans, use a 24-hour clock. So not only do I translate the numbers from English, I must convert them from twelve to twenty-four. One p.m.? Let’s see, that’s 12 +1 = 13 hours, or in French treize heures. Most of the time, that is. There is no a.m. or p.m. in French but some people still use the regular clock, and add a suffix on so you know what time of day it is. So instead of saying 23 heures, they’ll say onze heures du soir. Keeps you on your toes if nothing else.

You’d think after awhile I could do the math directly in French. Wrong! Not if you learn the language as an adult. It seems different parts of your brain deal with numbers and language, and if you learn too late never the twain shall meet. (How many is a twain anyway?)

Years are even more challenging as they insist on expressing them as whole numbers. We got married in Paris in 1986. It took me until the mid-90s to figure out how to say that many numbers out loud. (Mille neuf cent quatre-vingt six).

Phone numbers kill me. In Canada we had 7-digit numbers back in the day. To keep things simple we said each number individually: 1-2-3, 4-5-6-7. In France, not only had they already gone to ten digits, they doubled them up so you had to do the math. I learned my  French mobile number by heart years ago but still translate it in my head.

(By the way: what is it with men and numbers? My husband can remember all our old phone numbers, and we’ve moved at least six times. He can remember the license plate of our first car. And yet he cannot remember most of the family birthdays or which ear is my deaf side.)

And then there’s money. When I first came to France, the conversion between Canadian dollars and French francs was fairly simple, about 5 FRF for 1 CDN. I got to know the prices of things fairly quickly. I soon noticed that my in-laws and other older family members often talked in astronomical amounts: thousands of francs for things that cost hundreds. The older generation still likes to convert prices to old francs, e.g. before the currency reform in 1960.

When the Euro came along in 2002 my brain went into overdrive multiplying and dividing everything by 6.5 – until I got a fancy currency calculator that did it for me.

Now we work in Switzerland and have to calculate in Swiss francs. Recently the franc went up in value and is now close to par with the euro. We win some and lose some on that one with bills to pay in both currencies, but I’m just thrilled not to have to do the math.

I’ve heard that you can test a spy’s mother tongue by asking them math questions, which are notoriously tough for a non-native speaker. Guess I’ll add that to my list of reasons never to go undercover – in addition to being unable to keep anything to myself and fainting at the sight of a gun.

Et toi? How are you with numbers?


  1. Colin Bisset · April 23, 2015

    Maths makes me freeze and always has – French numbers send me into cryogenic suspension. Thank you for making me feel normal!

    • MELewis · April 23, 2015

      “Cryogenic suspension?” A fellow word-person! 🙂

  2. davidprosser · April 23, 2015

    I was always fairly good with numbers but did have one blind spot. I found it much easier to add from left to right than from right to left. It was handy adding up the shopping as we went round so I was prepared for the bill or ready to put something back if I wasn’t carrying enough.
    Anything else in maths would make my eyes glaze over so if Yvonne came back with homework on trigonometry or geometry I had to make myself scarce.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

    • MELewis · April 23, 2015

      So you’re both a word and a numbers person? Always knew you were an exception to the rule, David.;) As for the homework, I was most grateful that we had a doting Grand-père around with the patience and ability to help the kids with their math. Bises xx

  3. Osyth · April 23, 2015

    My father was a Nuclear Physicist. Both my brothers are good at Maths (I’m English …. its plural 😉 I am not. My father refused to accept this and after I managed to get a U (Unclassified, Unmarkable, Ungradable – take your pick, they all apply) in my O Level (the exams we took at 16+), he had me privately tutored by the Head of Maths at a well known Public (that’s Private, I’m English) school. For a whole year. He paid to have me re-entered in the exam and I got … a U! For the rest of his days it was unwise to mention maths and my name in the same sentence – just too painful for him! Here, I struggle even more, of course. Phone numbers, dates and I still have to look serupticiously at the til display to be sure I understand what the bill is. Words it is then! 😀

    • MELewis · April 23, 2015

      Osyth, you outdo me in your null and void approach to numbers (and I know, it’s figures in Brit-speak!). Still, it must be intimidating to have a scientist as a dad, so you are excused. Glad to know I’m in such excellent company! 😉

  4. cheergerm · April 23, 2015

    What, you shall never be a spy? Maths ain’t my bag either. I leave the difficult Maths homework to the other half. We all have our talents! 😁

    • MELewis · April 23, 2015

      Interesting that you should pick up on the spy-thing, Cheerie dear. I’d imagined you cooking up a storm while secretly plotting something subversive, but if you’re no good at maths either… That reminds me, I forgot to mention recipe conversion, another bugbear. Half a cup is how many grams? No wait, that’s a volume measure…ugh!

      • cheergerm · April 23, 2015

        We would probably be fabulous spies until we had to pay for something or bake a cake….

  5. Suzanne et Pierre · April 23, 2015

    Another very interesting post. Before I even attempted to learn English, I was told by a German friend that you can never count in a second language. I can attest that it is totally true. I was never able to count to more than 10 in English before switching back to French though I have to admit that I also a total dud when it comes to Math (Maths…). I will also never be a contestant on Des chiffres et des lettres but was always jealous of the ability of the contestants…and no spying for me either: I pass out at the sight of blood – mine or someone else. (Suzanne)

    • MELewis · April 23, 2015

      Glad you enjoyed it, Suzanne! I know what you mean about envying people who can retain a lot of data and calculate quickly. Definitely not something I could ever do. Even in subjects that interest me most, I tend to remember concepts and ideas but forget the actual details. And it’s reassuring to know the numbers thing is challenging for all languages to learn. The other thing that’s impossible for me in French is speaking to pets and children – I lose all credibility!

      • Suzanne et Pierre · April 23, 2015

        Your last point about speaking to pets & children is quite intriguing. It isn’t something I have had trouble with in English though I must admit that I am not a pet lover so rarely speak to them! I seem to be OK speaking to children though. I wonder why you have more trouble with children than with adults while speaking your second language…maybe you are more self-concious.

      • MELewis · April 23, 2015

        I don’t think it’s that, Suzanne. Maybe the lack of vocabulary from childhood and feeling uncomfortable as an adult with limited language skills speaking to a child? I think it may have something to do with authority…have read similar comments before but can’t remember the context. Will let you know if I find anything that explains my lack of comfort!

      • Suzanne et Pierre · April 23, 2015

        Very interesting. I will have to pay attention to how I speak to children in English to see if I am OK or if I lose credibility…now you have made me wonder!

  6. BigLizzy · April 23, 2015

    Darling, Mel. I love this! You know me. I’m a sister-of-the-word, not numbers. Your post resonates with me deeply and has given me such a huge smile today. I love your words, your energy, your mighty wit so much. Math feels wrong to my body and brain. Yes, I agree that it’s just too much work. Numbers are sterile, cold, unblinking. Words are lush, fragrant, and emotional. I never want numbers inside of me, only words. Math might be the basis of all life, but words are the conveyance system of spirit, thought, feeling, and life force. You get it, sis. Bises!

    • MELewis · April 23, 2015

      I get it…but you somehow manage to capture it with so much color and emotion! You’re right about the sterile nature of numbers but it’s true that an instinctive understanding of them opens us up to a lot scientific knowledge. Merci mille fois, chère Lizzy, for sharing so much heart and soul. Je t’embrasse! 🙂

  7. Kat · April 25, 2015

    C’est complique indeed! I’m just OK with numbers but can’t do multiplications, divisions or percentages in my head – I need a calculator to do that! And I have been working in the insurance industry for past 5 months – my bosses are just superb with rattling maths stuff in their heads, spewing out numbers from their mouths, and I’m trying to catch up – can you believe that? hahaha…Oh well, soon I will get there…fingers crossed 🙂

    • MELewis · April 25, 2015

      Ha, ha…good for you, Kat, for admitting you need the tools. It goes to show that even the ‘pro’s’ in the business are not necessarily good with numbers – and in the end I’d rather deal with someone who uses a calculator but is able to communicate well with words! 😉

  8. Mélanie · April 26, 2015

    my parents-in-law have watched it for years… 🙂
    * * *
    @”Et toi? How are you with numbers?” – fâchée… upset! 🙂 I’m a literary person, but nobody’s perfect and I’ve been lucky to live with my beloved rocket scientist for several decades, so he’s still number 1! 🙂

  9. Pingback: 24 heures – FranceSays

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