28 August 2015


Life as a Language Learning Challenge, Step 2

As we've established, learning a new language involves the creation of a virtual alter-ego--or as I prefer to say, the discovery of a long-lost identical twin who was raised as a native speaker of your L2. And should you and this other actually meet, you will soon discover that language (as in words) is only one of the things separating the two of you. Another big difference is the way both of you use your hands.

Let's start with a country famous for its native speakers' use of their hands. Notice the way Veronica is counting with her fingers in this video:

Il contando comincia @5:24

Many years ago, a girl who had been raised in another country was tickled by the way I was using my fingers to count. On each hand, I start with my pinkies and work my way to the thumbs. That was how I learned in nursery school and how most Filipinos my age and older seem to do it. The other girl had learned a different method: she started with her pointer finger, went all the way to the pinkie, and then did the thumb last. And she said everyone from her country did the same.

Then there is the way people seem to count in Germany . . .

That's certainly the most orderly method yet--which surprises no one, I'm sure! Curiously, while it's not the way I count, it is the way I pray the rosary when I'm using my fingers as beads (except that I still start with a pinkie).

Something else to note is the way Veronica and Ralph hold up their hands: both keep their palms facing inward. Is this a European thing? I've seen the member of Il Volo who most resembles my future husband do the same to indicate a unit of one, so perhaps all Italians do. In contrast, both I and the girl I met are Asian and when we count for others, our palms face outward. Unfortunately, I can't remember which Asian country she was from, but if you've ever seen anyone using her manner of counting, you could probably remind me!

(Later in the second video, when they show you how to use your fingers for "binary" counting, they use what I now want to call "Asian palms." [What?] And @2:14 is all the justification they need. LOL! But then Ralph reverts to form anyway, and I ROFL.)

So now I know how my long-lost, separated-at-birth triplet sisters use their fingers to count!

How about you?


Hans Georg Lundahl said...

There is also the Corean method, which allows you to count on fingers to 99.

index - index through pinkie = 1 - 4
thumb only = 5
thumb +
index - index through pinkie = 6 - 9

And other hand counts tens, same way.

I take some little pride in having discovered it independently of Coreans, I reflected over Roman Numerals.

Sheila said...

Hm. I think Americans pretty much all do it this way: palms out (or in, if you're counting for yourself), pointer to pinky, thumb last.

But when I was in boarding school, there were a lot of Mexicans, and I was tickled to find that they counted starting with the thumb and going pointer to pinky after that. Also, instead of saying "one two THREE", they say "one, TWO, three." Also "ready SET go" instead of "ready, set, GO!" Even in English, they do it the Mexican way.

On the other side of things, my sister-in-law joined a French-speaking religious order and now no longer really speaks English. Her letters and phone calls are full of French idioms, and she has developed a faint French accent. It was quite odd to hear this person I knew well to be from Wisconsin saying "And then we had, ehhh, how you say? A fete, I cannot remember the English for it."

That's another non-language little thing that separates people of different languages -- their fillers. Americans usually say "uh" or "um." French say "eh." Italians are always saying "alora," to the point that you could probably get by in Italy knowing just that and "ecco." And the many little Spanishisms like "que bueno," "pobrecita," "ay carramba" peppered my language liberally in my boarding school years. (Along with Southern "y'all" and Canadian "eh.") And the Mexican hand gestures ... I bet you could find a video of them, everyone seems to know what they mean. Like putting your thumb and forefinger in a circle with your other fingers out straight, and then gesturing down across your body means "well dressed." Wagging your finger side to side means "no" but moving it up and down means "yes."

I suppose English has a few of these, too. Like polishing your nails on your shoulder means you think you're pretty cool, and putting your two hands on top of each other, palms down, is the awkward turtle. I wouldn't call either of those universal or anything, but they're pretty well-known at least in my generation. And a gesture like scraping a carrot means "shame on you" in my mother's generation.

Enbrethiliel said...


Hans-Georg -- That's what I described in the third paragraph! I guess the girl I met was from South Korea. =)

Sheila -- When joining a new group, I used to resist picking up its jargon or particular ways of saying things--because it felt affected rather than natural. If I remained in the group, however, it eventually became natural. But Khatz would say that waiting for things to feel natural is only slowing yourself down. Own those affectations immediately!

I believe it was Maria von Trapp who said that we always count and pray in our first language. Well, I'm "hacking" the counting and it looks as if your sister-in-law has "hacked" the praying (which is, of course, my next step).

Is it okay to ask why she chose a French-speaking religious order instead of all the possible English-speaking orders there are? I'm just curious!

r said...

Can most people raise their second-to-last finger without also raising the last one? I can't. So I go from thumb to last finger in order, but I skip the second-to-last one and do it after the last one.

cyurkanin said...

That's pretty funny, I just learned that German "way" (thumb first) for the very first time coincidentally about 2 hours ago watching a Tarantino movie. #jinx

Enbrethiliel said...


I don't know about anyone else, but that's how it has always been with my ring fingers! And enough people can say the same, I guess, for that "explanation" about why it is the finger for wedding rings to have circulated widely enough to reach me. (If you lay your fingertips on a table so that your hand looks like a relaxed Thing from The Addams Family, but then tuck your middle finger under, so that it is "kneeling" on the second knuckle . . . you'll find that the only finger you cannot lift is the ring finger. And since the middle finger is supposedly connected directly to the heart, this makes the ring finger the most romantic. No, I don't get it, either.) Anyway, I wonder why this is so. Why is one finger--and one particular finger--less dexterous than the others?

If I were having a contest, R, you'd win the prize for Most Unusual Manner of Counting! =)

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

That's what I described in the third paragraph!

Not very clearly, though. Saying thumb comes last may be interpreted as thumb plus other fingers already there = 5 instead of thumb plus other fingers there again = 9.

Enbrethiliel said...


Christopher -- You know, I don't think I've ever watched a Tarantino film! Unless you count From Dusk Till Dawn, which I don't. =P

Hans -- I find it a little funny that you told me I wasn't being clear and then proceeded to write a sentence that I had to spend five minutes reading over and over (with fingers!) and still probably don't understand. LOL!

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

OK: what I thought you meant:

"The other girl had learned a different method: she started with her pointer finger, went all the way to the pinkie, and then did the thumb last."

1 index
2 index + middle finger
3 index + middle finger + ring finger
4 index + middle finger + ring finger + pinkie
5 index + middle finger + ring finger + pinkie + thumb
6 as previous plus index of other hand
9 index + middle finger + ring finger + pinkie + thumb on one hand
index + middle finger + ring finger + pinkie (without thumb) on the other hand.

What I was talking about:

1 index
2 index + middle finger
3 index + middle finger + ring finger
4 index + middle finger + ring finger + pinkie
5 thumb only
6 thumb + index
9 thumb + index + middle finger + ring finger + pinkie

10 index on other hand only
11 index on other hand + index on first hand
12 index on other hand + index + middle finger on first hand

99 = 90+9
90 = thumb + index + middle finger + ring finger + pinkie on other hand
9 thumb + index + middle finger + ring finger + pinkie on first hand

Enbrethiliel said...


Well, that was much clearer, but now I'm embarrassed that you went to all that trouble! =)

Zagorka said...

If I may offer my opinion from Germany:
normally you start each hand with the thumb. I suppose the way in the video is for educational purposes, I have never seen anybody count like this. However, I do not regularly ask people to count to ten with their fingers... :-)
But, yes, we tend to both keep our palms facing inward. The other way feels somehow impolite ...

Belfry Bat said...

I would count in binary (usually on a surface... actually, this is how I usually keep track of a rosary! although that is less demanding...) except usually I can't help also "counting" in words, in my head... anyway, that gets you to 1023.

Enbrethiliel said...


Zagorka -- Thanks for chiming in! It was a little awkward for me, too, when I asked everyone in my family to count to ten with their fingers ("Pretend you're teaching little children how to count!"); but it was worth it to see everyone's individual "style" of counting. =)

That's an interesting impression of outward-facing palms. I can see how they would be more forward than inward-facing palms. On the other hand, the resemblance between an inward-facing 2 and a certain rude gesture always gives me a little jolt when I see it!

Bat -- Are you one of those finger maths prodigies???

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

but now I'm embarrassed that you went to all that trouble!

You shouldn't be, Enbrethiel!

I like explaining things, that's why I like being a writer (and I hate being interrupted when explaining things, that's why I didn't like being a teacher).

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

Besides, it is less trouble than you think, I made judicious use of copy-paste function.

Sheila said...

E, my SIL joined that order because it is the only convent belonging to the traditionalist order of the priests who run their parish. The convent was originally in Italy, but now I think she is in the formation house in Germany or Switzerland or something. I have trouble keeping track.

It's these ladies: http://www.institute-christ-king.org/vocations/sisters/ The website is out of date though. You'd probably love them. I have two more sisters-in-law there as well, though they haven't been there as long and so their English sounded fine last I talked to them.

As far as adopting languages goes, I spoke and prayed in Spanish for two weeks once, on a trip with a lot of Mexicans and Brazilians -- Spanish being the only language pretty much all of us knew. By the end I was not only thinking, but *dreaming* in Spanish -- which was hard, considering my limited vocabulary. Anyway, it was my "breakthrough" in Spanish, and the language never felt particularly difficult or foreign after that -- though I'm still not fluent and I no longer have the nerve to try to pretend I am. ;)