Counting in French

I’m not sure I’d call myself a polyglot, but I do like to learn languages. I like the feeling of cracking a code, and I bask in the enlightenment that dawns brighter and brighter as my vocabulary and understanding increase. I’ve at least temporarily mastered different sentence structure, different cases, and even different alphabets. Not only that, I think it’s all really cool.

At least, I did until now.

In French class the other day, we tackled one of the bare essentials: counting. Now, I’m a great counter, even without my fingers and toes. I get counting: learn 0-9, learn the ten splits (ten, twenty, thirty, etc.), learn the special numbers for 11-16, and the rest is a piece of cake.

Not so in French.

My French instructor was leading the class in a repeat-after-me exercise to introduce number vocabulary. Things were humming along fine—albeit with butchered accents—until we hit 70, at which point I started giggling. By the time we got to 80 and 90, I could barely stifle an all-out laugh of incredulity. 70 in French, if you don’t know, is sixty-ten, but it gets better. 80 is four-twenties, 90 is four-twenties–ten, and 96, for example, is four-twenties-ten-six. With all due respect to L’Académie française, that’s not counting; that’s math!

As I grapple with this frustrating language twist, I am humbled by the fact that I still have a lot to learn. Perhaps arrogantly, I waltzed into this language endeavor thinking I knew all the steps—just give me the vocabulary and a few grammar rules, and I’ll can-can my way to the Moulin Rouge, right? Not this time. I have to stop and relinquish the lead. I have to remember that part of making connections is not following a formula; it’s being open to different perspectives. It’s appreciating that there are all kinds of dances, and that each one is beautiful in its own right.

Every once in a while, I need to give up the lead and just follow the steps. Then maybe I’ll hear the music.

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