Numbers Mistakes in a Foreign Language

Quarantine update: We’ve been locked down here in Algiers now for four months. The situation isn’t terrible here: Stores have reopened; I go in to work one day a week (and work from home the rest of the week); we play tennis often; we order Indian food often from our favorite restaurant; we’ve drank through our entire bar pretty much. So, yeah, not terrible. But I’m feeling so very cooped up, likely confounded by the fact that our car died on us and and no Algerian mechanic can seem to fix our old Honda. (Hot tip: It’s probably best to bring a car to a foreign country only if that country has some familiarity with the make).

What is getting me through these Groundhog days is that there’s a whisper of being allowed to fly to another country (one not very affected by Coronavirus) for a two-week vacation, and Adam and I are really hoping this pans out.

Meanwhile, I’m still plugging along with learning French, still enjoying it, but also still being a lazier language student than I should be. The gains are small these days, but it’s gratifying to be able to communicate at stores, something that was a long time coming for me.

But one thing that remains so difficult: Understanding spoken numbers. It’s a rare day that an Algerian shopkeeper tells me the price of something and I understand it it right away. In the beginning of our time Algiers, and probably back in Morocco too, I’d hear a price and just thrust my fistful of cash to the vendor. Leave it to them to count it out. Now, I just ask them to repeat themselves lots of times.

I still remember how to count to 10 in Spanish, German, and Japanese, mostly thanks to a sixth grade Intro to Language class, which is a terrible idea for a class because you need YEARS to learn a language. What will you learn with two weeks of Japanese? Answer: How to count to 10. But counting to 10, well that ain’t nothing. Hearing the price of something, or the quantity of something and understanding it, well that really takes some effort.

Not to mention, numbers in French are kind of messed up, as this bloke hilariously explains in his video Counting to French in 100 with a New York Cabbie. I mean the number 70 is “60 10” with the implication that you add those two numbers to get 70, but the number 80 is “4 20” with the implication you multiply four by 20 to get 80. So when you’re standing at the checkout and are told a price, you not only have to strain to understand and to count your money, but also to do math.

I’ve already staked my claim that the most hilarious language gaffes involve accidental obscenities, but there’s a category of faux pas that is more common: Not understanding prices or amounts and accidentally ordering a hilarious quantity of something.

In 2014, my parents visited us in Madrid, and I wanted to show them all the great Spanish things, including churros and chocolate. Our family is not really into fried dough unless it’s in the form of a cinnamon sugar donut from a Michigan cider mill. But still, when in Spain, you gotta at least try churros. But instead of simply trying a churro, I accidentally ordered three massive orders of churros, probably 36 churros in total, each about the size of a ruler. It was a bustling churroria and despite my protests of “demasiado!” or “too much!” we walked away with armfuls of fried dough and many paper cups of hot thick chocolate. I think we gave them to a person we thought was homeless, but I’m sure I had no words for that other than “churros!” and handing over our bundles.

Last year when we were living in Rabat, we were sitting at the bar of a Spanish restaurant and I think Adam was speaking to the bartender in Spanish when we ordered us two glasses of sangria. The bartender delivered two pitchers of sangria. For some reason, Adam said “Oh no worries! That’s fine!” He’s up for those kind of challenges and it was indeed more of a challenge when I took a sip and confirmed what I already knew: I usually don’t like sangria because it’s often too sweet and not boozy enough. I ordered a glass of wine. My husband drank two pitchers of sangria and who can even remember what happened next.

I posted on Facebook asking for my well-traveled friends’ similar gaffes. Here are a few of the best:

Scoop da Doop

Mary Grace, former Foreign Service Officer who pens the history blog MyLife100YearsAgo, speaks a trillion languages, some of which you’ve probably never heard. Here’s her story: “During a solo trip to Kuala Lumpur when I was living in Cambodia, I was having dinner in a restaurant and was very excited to see that they had Haagen-Dazs ice cream. I ordered a scoop and waited expectantly…and waited…and waited… After about 45 minutes I managed to flag down the waiter and ask why it was taking so long. He said angrily, ‘It’s because you ordered 14 scoops!’ I said I only ordered one scoop and he showed me his pad where he had written a 1 that looked kind of like a 4 next to a vertical line printed on the pad. This was 25 years ago, and I’m still wondering how he could think I would order 14 scoops of ice cream.

Not the Cheaper Chicken

Foreign Service spouse Maureen said she often inadvertently orders kilos of something, rather than a few individual groceries, but then acts like that’s what she meant to do. “I feel like this has become a habit of mine. I ALWAYS forget the conversion. I’ve ordered 5kg of chicken in error. 2kg of chocolates in Paris when I was trying to buy 2lbs (not my worst mistake), in Italy, a liter of wine at lunch thinking I was getting a small pitcher. I too am often too embarrassed to admit I didn’t want 11lbs of chicken and just smiled and accepted the package like I knew what I was doing. the worst part is the guy confirmed with me 3x like he knew I was making a mistake but I just kept repeating ‘yes, 5kg’.”


The time my friend Keyonna, who is a communications pro, went hungry. “In Panama, I ordered a delicacy — sea bass or some other kind of fish prepared in a way that’s unique to that region. The server kept repeating something long and drawn out in Spanish, but I’m rusty and wasn’t hearing the word ‘no’ so I just smiled and nodded and said ‘That’s fine.’ My friend got her dinner, while I sat and waited. And waited. And waited. Until I realized I needed to ask the server what was up. It turns out that I’d ordered nothing. He’d been trying to tell me that they were out of the dish I wanted.”

Anyways, just a little interlude to share some language gaffes, because they’re always funny. Back soon with a reveal of our guest bedroom. Or maybe some vacation pics? (Please, oh pretty please let this be).

To learning numbers in a foreign language,



  1. Emily, this was funny! My own experience — or inexperience — was less dramatic. I had arrived in Europe for the first time, and my bargain flight on Icelandic Airways landed in Luxembourg. So somehow I found myself in Geneva the day before I could catch a train to Paris. I strolled the elegant grounds of the University of Geneva and was glad to sit down at an open-air café. I ordered an iced coffee — “Un café glacé, s’il vous plait,” I must have said. In two minutes, the waiter brought a dish of coffee ice cream! It was fine, but it was a hot day, I was still hungover from my arrival less than 24 hours before, and I wanted icy liquid. I didn’t have the skill to explain this, and I would have been too embarrassed anyway, to blow my cover as a sophisticated European student. See? Not really funny, nothing like Mary Grace’s 14 scoops of ice cream, but a valuable lesson in the treachery of high-school language classes. I hope your vacation came through! I’m enjoying your blog! Barbara

    1. Easy mistake to make! I am always careful these days to order a “coffee with ice” when I want a cold coffee, because too many times I’ve ordered an “iced coffee” and gotten a sugary coffee slushie.

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