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A mathematical look at the daily life of Dutch expats

In the majority of languages, digits are written and read from left to right. Normally, you do all the calculations (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division) from left to right. In Dutch there in only a ‘slight difference’. Because of this many expats have mathematical problems in Holland..

Twenty-three sounds like thirty-two

The small difference is all in the order of the digits, in Dutch you read the numbers from right to left. For example, 23 is ‘Drieëntwintig’. (For more information about why it is not written ‘Drie en twintig, read my article here.) In other languages such as English (Twenty-three), Spanish (Veintitrés – veinte = Twenty – Tres = Three), French (Vingt-trois – Vingt = Twenty – Trois = Three), Russian (Dvadtsat’ tri – Dvadtsat’ = Twenty, Tri = Three), Swedish (Tjugotre – Tjugo = Twenty, Tre = Three), you read the left digit first and then move to the right digit. However, in the word ‘Drieëntwintig’ you first pronounce Drie (Three) and then Twintig (Twenty). If you put these together in a non-Dutch mind like mine, it sounds like thirty-two.

These mathematical problems cause troubles for expats in Holland who go to shops, markets and similar places. When someone says ‘Drieëntwintig’ to a person whose dominant language reads digits from left to right (such as the above-mentioned languages), the brain first receives the number that is announced first, ‘Drie’ in this example and then the second ‘Twintig’. Normal reflection time of human brain to a piece of information is one second but it is for seeing objects and reacting to them in the case of driving or walking on the street. When it comes to interacting with a shopkeeper or an announcer, things can be a bit complicated.

What problems are you talking about exactly?

Of course, today, almost all shops and services have a digital device or a calculator that actually shows the digits on a little screen. So, you will not really pay € 32,– instead of € 23,– But the feeling of sounding like a 4-year-old or an illiterate can be both funny and discouraging at the same time.

A real-life example

Every Friday there is a Friday market in Breda (in the south of the Netherlands). Sometimes, I go there to have a short walk and see the people and feel the atmosphere. You can see many street vendors and businesspeople. My observations confirm that these vendors do not show the calculator to Dutch people who are shopping which is, of course, very natural. But when I buy something from the same shop and it is time to pay, they sometimes show me the amount I should pay on the calculator. This, however, happens when I speak English. My observations also show that when I speak good Dutch to the vendors and they think I have been living here for some time, they do not show me the screen.

I personally try to think of this behavior as an attempt to be more clear and more understandable. On the other hand, it may also be a bit discouraging if you look at it from another angle. “Hey! Do you think I am dumb? Or I can’t understand math?” But I always try to be optimistic.

The problem at the train station

All the train announcements in the Netherlands are in Dutch (Sometimes you hear English or French for international trains). It means that if there are any changes in the departure/arrival time of trains, you only get the Dutch version. There is a planning phone application that has a useful English version but when you are in a rush and are worried about missing your train or you are wondering why the train is late, the application does not translate the announcements. As you can imagine, the announcements are prior to the plans in the application because announcements are made for instant information to the passengers.

Another real-life example

I was once sitting in the train waiting for it to depart. The waiting time took longer and longer, and you could read from the faces of people that they are murmuring. The announcement said something quickly. Instantly, some people left the train and some stayed. After a while more people left and a few people like me were still sitting. I really had no idea what was going on. I checked the application and it only said “Attention, disruption”. Well, this is not enough information. I knew the announcement said something about the time, but I didn’t know if it was for the next train or the departure time of this very train or something else. I solved my problem by asking someone but again you would sound like a 4-year-old and/or an illiterate. As an adult, normal people don’t like to sound like a 4-year-old and/or an illiterate.

The solution

To overcome the mathematical problems that expats have in Holland, I’d refer you to a proverb. In Farsi there is a proverb which is translated into: ‘You can’t walk a 100-year path overnight.’ It means there is no immediate solution or any quick fix in the world. If you are an expat and have mathematical problems, I encourage you to keep walking this 100-year path.

Expat courses for your goals

Also, take a look at these language courses, especially made for your goals. Surely you don’t feel as confident as when you speak your mother language, but you should only be better than your yesterday version.
If you have any questions or you want to share your similar experiences, please contact me at my office. You can also contact the training advisors of Elycio Talen, they provide you with a suitable language solution.

More about my language journey

Check my own Dutch learning videos on TaalTV and see what I do to learn Dutch. You can also find free short videos that help you communicate more successful on TaalTV!

Article Written by Sina Afshar

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