Yesterday I talked about writing tips for college papers.

One of the issues that arises is how to write about numbers. Researchers study how people respond to number (I know, this sounds sexy). Seems that people typically have mental blinders when it comes to numbers. Someone talks about numbers and our brains hear blah-blah-blah-blah.

When I studied languages in school, numbers were hard for me to keep in my head, and I’m not allergic to numbers. But my mind seemed to be set on autopilot when it came to asking the French clerk, how many Francs for the cheese? I would have to translate the French to English numbers and then back again to French.

When you develop a fluency in another language or music, your mind seems to find a way to bypass the mental translation. For example, my daughters Megan and Rachel played violin and piano, and I was mightily impressed that they could read music and translate the notations into musical frames. You get to a point where you no longer think how the chord or note is played; your hands seem to know how to do it.

But I never got to that point with numbers: I still have to translate from French to English to French.
So here’s my confession: I’ve been listening to Osage language tapes since returning from Oklahoma this summer. But when it comes to the numbers, I fast forward the tape.

But when I looked at what I’d penned about numeracy in the writing tips I gave my students, something stuck with me. So, when I listened to the Osage tape, I didn’t fast forward. I listened to the numbers all the way through.
And I began to see patterns. The first 10 numbers are pretty distinct. But then when you get to 11, 12, and upward, it’s just ten-plus-one, ten-plus-two—well, you get the drift. Then when you get to the number 20, it’s two-tens. And 30 is three-tens. And so on.

The basics mean knowing numbers one through ten. From then on, it’s not too bad.

I had told myself I didn’t need to know numbers. I needed to know important words like pie, cake, coffee and fry-bread. But now I’m getting the numbers. And I can say:

I want three fry-bread.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in Indian, journalism, Native Science, Osage, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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