Multiple clocks - and multiple ways of telling the time - require maths. Picture by Odan Jaeger,

Time for Some Maths : When Language Learning Gets Numerical

Swahili has been occupying my mind a lot recently, and for good reason – I’m waist-deep in a postgrad beginners’ module on the language (and thoroughly enjoying it). But just when I thought studying something outside my language comfort zone couldn’t get any more eye-opening, this week through a whole lot of maths into the mix.

This time, well, it is time. Telling the time, to be exact, which – as it turns out – works a bit differently from what we might be used to in European languages. It requires a whole rethink in how we imagine the day.

Something Sunny Going On

Naturally, the sun has always played a huge part in how humans divide up time in thought and language. Europeans organise their time based on the two opposing highs and lows of the celestial body: noon and midnight. Consequently, most European languages count the number of hours from each of these points: one hour after midnight is one o’ clock, and so on.

But how the sun behaves differs from place to place. And being a language of equatorial regions, Swahili time revolves around the regularity of two different solar events: sunrise and sunset. Each of those events triggers a clock reset to the zero hour. So, lined up against the European system, this means that Swahili counts time with six hours difference. Six o’ clock in English is twelve o’ clock (saa kumi na mbili) in Swahili. Seven o’ clock is one o’ clock (saa moja), and so on.

Maths Tricks

Predictably, it did lead to some head-scratching in class. Thankfully, there are tricks, but even these require a bit of initially taxing two-dimensional mental transformation. Namely, to convert the time from English, you have to imagine the hour hand on a round clock, then say the number that is opposite. It works a treat, but it doesn’t come instantly at first!

Somehow, though, it all falls together in the end. It does feel a little counterintuitive to the European brain to talk about getting up at one in the morning, and having breakfast at two. That said, it ended up being a lot of fun performing those mathematic gymnastics in class.

Playing With Numbers

Of course, Swahili isn’t the only language to inflict mathematical problems on its learners. English learners of German, for instance, must quickly get to grips with saying half to the next hour rather than half past the current one. And there is more characteristically European mathematical trickery lying in wait for learners of several languages. It all has to do with the number twenty…

Vigesimal counting systems, using twenty as a base, have left a lasting mark on Indo-European counting. It’s one that insists on hanging around, too. For instance, despite the introduction of a decimal system in Scottish Gaelic, counting in twenties is still common amongst older speakers. Anyone who has tackled French May shudder at the slightly boggling number system from 70 upwards (that is, if you aren’t lucky enough to be learning Belgian or Swiss French!). And Danish numbers fossilise a notoriously quirky counting system including, amongst other things, multiple of 2½.

Swahili time suddenly feels comfortingly straightforward.

But who is really complaining, anyway? Half of the fun of language learning is the mental challenge. And whether letters or numbers, it’s all great brain gym!

Context can help language learners in familiar situations abroad, like the coffee shop

Context has your back: Why it’s OK not to understand everything

I have a confession to make. I failed miserably in my foreign language last weekend. But it was still fine. Context had my back!

Before you feel sorry for me, it’s not as bad as it sounds. We fail in our native languages all the time, for lots of reasons. We don’t catch things, we mishear words, we don’t hear above the noise. It’s a normal part of comprehension not to comprehend everything at first.

Imagine the scene…

Here’s how it went down. I’ve just spent a quick, cheapie getaway weekend in Oslo to practise my norsk and enjoy one of my favourite countries. It was a real budget immersion weekend, with low-cost flights from and a free hotel stay thanks to air miles.

I threw myself into every social situation, ordering food and drink, going to a concert and even sorting out a free tour of parliament using my Norwegian. On the whole it went well, but there was one conversation that stands out from a coffee shop:

Rich: Er melkekaffe som en latte?
Servitør: Ja, ********.
R: Ah, jeg ville gjerne ha to melkekaffeer. Takk.
S: **** ******* spise **** ?
R: Nei, takk. Kanskje senere.
S: Åtti kroner.
R: Is milky coffee like a latte?
S: Yes,********.
R: Ah, I’d like two milky coffees. Thanks.
S: **** ******* eat **** ?
R: No, thanks. Maybe later.
S: Eighty kroner.

Yes, those asterisks are bits where I hadn’t a clue what the other person was saying.

It might have been nerves. It might have been background noise. The server might have had an unusual accent. But I found myself struggling to understand what I thought must be the most basic Norwegian.

Measuring language success as social transaction

So, success or failure? Well, I could beat myself up about not understanding every single word that was said to me. In fact, I felt like I barely caught anything.

But on the other hand – I got my coffee! There was no serious breakdown in communication. I guessed what was said to me, and didn’t get any funny looks when I made up an answer. As a social transaction, it was as successful as one I’d have in my native language. I’d filled in the uncertain bits by guessing from experience what was meant. In short: I’d winged it.

Winging it is normal!

This got me thinking about how I operate in English, and I realised that I rely on context in English just as much as I do on 100% comprehension! In a noisy café in Edinburgh, I’d be making the same assumptions and filling in the same gaps with context. I made myself understood, and I understood what was required of me in that interaction. No self-flagellation required!

Maybe the biggest failure was that I unquestioningly paid £8 for two lattes in Oslo. *ouch*

Context is king

Context works when two speakers share the same common values or experiences. In my example above, it’s how a coffee shop works. Thanks to globalisation, that’s a pretty standardised environment these days. Whatever you think about globalisation and cultural imperialism, they definitely help when trying to speak a foreign language!

When contexts differ, then you can prepare yourself for speaking by observing how things work in the target language country. Just hanging back and watching / listening to people interacting naturally before you works wonders. You can also pre-arm yourself by researching attitudes and cultural traits before a trip; this article contains some very interesting points about context differences across several cultures.

Be kind to yourself

It’s important not to be too hard on yourself when you manage these ‘by the skin of your teeth’ situations. Remember that you’re probably doing it regularly in your native language, too. If you read a transcript of your conversation on paper, you’d no doubt understand it in almost all its detail. But you didn’t need to in order to get your coffee!

Having a conversation in a foreign language can be quite a feat. Never beat yourself up for not getting every word – context always has your back.