15 March 2016


"Word" Problems

Did you ever have those awful flashcard drills in Maths class? And was your Maths teacher also a sadist who thought it would be a good idea to divide people up into teams that would compete to solve the flashcards the fastest? . . . The PTSD never goes away, does it? 

I've been traumatised for life, but I'm betting my long-lost identical twin who was raised in Germany hasn't been. For addition and subtraction are vastly easier in German than they are in English. That is, Zehneruebergang is simpler to do than regrouping, although they are basically the same thing.

You see, the "problem" with adding and subtracting two-digit numbers in English is that we process the digit in the ones position first but say the digit in the tens position first. If you had to solve the first addition card on the left, you'd add 2 to 9 to get 11, set the leftmost 1 aside on some mental side table, add the rightmost 1, 2 and 5 to get 8, pick up the leftmost 1 (if it hasn't fallen off the table in the meantime), put the 8 and the 1 together to make 81, then finally say "Eighty-one" aloud.

In German, on the other hand, the digit in the ones position is both the first to be processed and the first to be said. So you can add 2 to 9 to get 11, say the leftmost 1 aloud as "Eins," add the 1, 2 and 5 to get 8, and immediately say ". . . und Achtzig." For everyone other than savants like Bat, it can mean the difference between being on the winning team and having everyone shun you at recess. Again.

I wonder if my Maths teachers would have let me get away with saying "One and eighty."

Granted, this German advantage breaks down as soon as the numbers get a third digit. But that doesn't make it less cool.

This is a discovery I made at work, where my console always shows me two real-time numbers from the production floor: the number of people processing calls and the number of people getting some silent time. A few weeks ago, just to have something German to do, I started pretending the numbers were on flashcards and that I had to add or subtract them. And for the first time ever, maths was einfach.

If I have all that time to do maths at work, you can bet I'm not doing any writing. My job's strict limitation of employee Internet use and even stricter rule that we can't even bring pens on the production floor means that I can't draft blog posts even during slow nights. And if you do another sort of addition, you'll see that the sum of my big crafting projects plus the restrictions at work is a slower rate of blogging.

Has anything been keeping you away from your blog lately?

Image Source: Addition and subtraction with regrouping


Belfry Bat said...

Oh, I could not stand arithmetic! It's still not my favourite; but now that I'm allowed to do most of my maths on paper rather than keep everything in my head at once (this brain is wired up funny, I tell you...) it's much more fun.

Hm. Carrying is a tricky thing, too. And borrowing, to subtract... that was even weirder. And it turns out, with "9's complement" subtraction-as-addition one is the same as the other... but. Well. There we are!

So, Hmmm! I wonder... but this is a difficult experiment for me, as I have to translate around doing the sums. That, or I'm too used to mixed-endian arrithmetic by now. ("fourteen" already is units-first; the earlier things are remembered longer, like "am/be/was/were"--- come to that, even Germans have gone Latin for lots of that verb.

I ramble; have clearly been awake too long. Happy Languaging!

Enbrethiliel said...


Translation would trip me up, too--unless I could say, as suggested, "Four and twenty" instead of "Twenty-four." But I suspect translation would take a split-second less than doing all the maths in English.

MrsDarwin said...

Heh, you're right! And our German here is getting to the point where I remember all the two-digit numbers, and even understand them if I hear them (which is different from remembering them to say them myself).

What's getting in the way of blogging? Children. US politics. Laziness. Facebook. Lent. Everything, and nothing.

Enbrethiliel said...


Congratulations on the German! Or should I say . . . Glueckwuensche! =D

Do you also use flash cards when teaching Maths?

Brandon said...

Italy was keeping me away from blogging!

Enbrethiliel said...


You have the BEST excuse!!! Happy Triduum. =)

Sheila said...

Oh, I don't say anything out loud while doing math! It would confuse me so much. Numbers are mostly a written thing for me.

I hear, though, that Chinese is best for doing math in -- which may be one of the reasons Chinese children test so high in math!

What has been keeping me from blogging? I don't even know. It might be stress, or it might be Netflix. All I know is that at the end of the day, I'm too exhausted to think of writing all the great ideas I had during the day.

Enbrethiliel said...


I first got an inkling of it back in uni, when I was paired up with a Chinese girl in one of my part-time jobs and we had to count library books. You'd think that going "One, two, three, four . . ." would be the same in any language, but I could feel the difference in the quality of her counting and the quality of mine.

If Chinese numbers are that efficient when all they're doing is counting, their language for arithmetic must be really amazing!