Numbers and figures make me panic
October 20, 2012 11:46 PM   Subscribe

Any methods for instantaneous number recognition in foreign languages?

I live in Japan and have recently taken a job that involves extremely fast paced face-to-face and telephone interaction with business customers. I can speak Japanese fairly fluently, which was a condition of getting the job in the first place, however in the month since starting the job I have come across a problem that I never realised I had before. The nature of the job involves constant negotiation of numbers, (i.e. in the form of prices, percentage points and dates/times) back and forth between myself and clients. I am fine with spitting out long numbers myself as I can do this at my own pace, but I am having trouble being able to process numbers spoken to me without having to pause for a moment and think. This culminated on Friday with a customer complaining to my manager that I didn't understand his order the first time therefore wasting his time. The fact was that I did understand it, but I had to get him to repeat the figures and even the date of effect a couple of times because he said it so fast.

I'd always had a bit of trouble with maths subjects at school, so this weekend I did an experiment to see if I was simply "number retarded" or "Japanese number retarded". First I got an American friend to speak out a heap of prices and figures in English at top speed to see how quickly I could type them down. Then I got a Japanese friend to do the same in Japanese. Unsurprisingly, I got all the English number 100% but got all flustered with Japanese and made a heap of mistakes.

What I'd like to know is if there are any known systems or methods that I can try to make number recognition in Japanese as quick and natural as it is in English. When someone says "roppyaku hachi juu san" I want the number 683 to pop into my head as instantly as if someone said "six hundred and eighty three".

One final point is that even numbers below 10000 are problematic (i.e. when the base counting system for each language corresponds). So the problem doesn't seem to be with the "1 man" vs "10 thousand" thing. Mefi Japanese speakers will know what I'm talking about here.
posted by thesailor to Education (5 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
one of the hardest things to do when learning a foreign language is dealing with the numbers- your brain is still processing them in its native language. this is extremely normal. unless you really put in concerted effort to change this, it may not change on its own no matter how much exposure you get generally to Japanese.

I suggest you bombard your brain with numbers and force yourself to process them in Japanese actively, during practice sessions. If you want as quick of a switch as possible, spend several hours today doing this, and then one hour a day as practice, if you have the patience for it. Find a list of numbers and read them out loud going as fast as possible in Japanese, same with a list of sums like '43+ 22 =' and then also say the sum out loud in Japanese- you'll notice that you're doing the calculation in your head in English, and that's the issue- you're trying to switch your mathematical/numbers process in your brain to a new language, which uhhhh is REALLY hard. So practice with that list of sums until at least some parts start flowing better!

Many people who speak in a foreign language 100% of the time still think/dream/etc in their native language. this is an example of something in the same vein as having trouble with Japanese numbers, so don't be too harsh on yourself! Good luck.
posted by saraindc at 11:57 PM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd think conscious practice and math in your head would be the way to go. Like, do math based on spoken numbers, and maybe make flash-cards for yourself, or audio flash cards - read a bunch of numbers into a recorder or into your computer and then try to randomize them.

Hearing them a lot of times is the only way you're going to get there, I suspect.
posted by Lady Li at 12:40 AM on October 21, 2012

I find the following two tactics have helped me for French numbers:
1. I try to get into the habit of reading the numbers and letters off a car number plates as they go past. There will be a few letters (to be correctly spelt out in French) and a couple of numbers in the hundreds or thousands range. What makes it tricky is the need to finish one number plate before the next one comes along.
2. I transcribe numbers heard on radio station commercial breaks. Most commercials have some prices or dates in their script and they tend to be delivered super-fast. If I can record a program then I can check my results.
posted by rongorongo at 12:55 AM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm with everyone else: practice is the only thing that will help.

Since it's Japanese, specifically, that you're dealing with... Do you have an iPhone? There's an app called Japanese 101: Numbers (link is to the developer's website) whose sole purpose is to help you improve your accuracy in interpreting spoken Japanese numbers: you hear a number spoken at natural speed and have to identify it.

When it first came out, the app only went up to 9,999 and gave you multiple-choice options for the number you'd just heard, but it's since had an update bringing it to 16,000 and letting you type in the number directly.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 6:17 AM on October 21, 2012

Games are a good way to focus on speed. See if there's a game you can play that requires you to recognize and produce numbers.

Also, work on any of the four language skills that you have trouble with: speaking, listening (which your example reflects), writing, and reading. Would practice writing the numbers help? Or is your problem just with hearing and understanding?

Finally, I love music for this kind of thing! Can you find some Japanese pop or folk songs with numbers featured in the lyrics or title? Songs have an emotional component that can help bind meaning to sounds.
posted by amtho at 9:42 AM on October 21, 2012

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