I just finished reading an article in the March 3 New Yorker, “Numbers Guy – Are our Brains Wired for Math,” about the work of Stanislas Dehaene. I was particularly interested in this paragraph:
Today, Arabic numerals are in use pretty much around the world, while the words with which we name numbers naturally differ from language to language. And, as Dehaene and others have noted, these differences are far from trivial. English is cumbersome. There are special words for the numbers from 11 to 19, and for the decades from 20 to 90. This makes counting a challenge for English-speaking children, who are prone to such errors as “twenty-eight, twenty-nine, twenty-ten, twenty-eleven.” … Chinese, by contrast, is simplicity itself; its number syntax perfectly mirrors the base-ten form of Arabic numberals, with a minimum of terms. Consequently, the average Chinese four-year-old can count up to forty, whereas American children of the same age struggle to get to fifteen….
I have a hard time with Hindi numbers (partly, of course, because I don’t use them often) – anything over 50 is confusing for me. From 10 onward, the numbers are irregular – for example 10+1, which logically would be das-ek or ek-das, you have gyarah, and every decade has its own oddities. 21 is ikis instead of ikbis (ek+bis – 1+20). And what about the 50s? Pachaas, 50, is followed by ikaavan, rather than ikpachaas (1+50), and then baavan (52), and then trepan – not trevan – so even within the decade it’s weird. Sheesh.
Tamil, on the other hand, is very logical. Except for 90 and 900, once you know the system you can count anything. Eleven is 10+1, not a special word like 'eleven.' After 20 (iruvathu, i.e. 2 tens), you have 20+1 , 20+2, etc. Simple. (Aha -- I just noticed that there is some variation between p and v, just as there is in my Hindi example above -- e.g., 20 is iru-vathu, while 30 is mu-p-pathu -- so the Santhi rules for joining letters together are coming into play in both cases.)
Is this understandable? I’m putting it in a cumbersome way. And I'm sure my spelling of the words for Hindi and Tamil numbers is atrocious.
The article made me wonder if Tamil children pick up counting faster than Hindi-speaking children – the system is more logical, so there’s less rote memorization required of small children. At the same time, Tamil is more polysyllabic than Chinese, so Chinese children might have an advantage over Tamil children, but not as much of one as they have over English-speaking children…
What do you say?