Learning to count

I am fascinated by watching children learn to count. There are many surprising twists and turns kids take along the way.

Even more surprising, perhaps, is that what seem like crazy mistakes to us adults are completely sensible attempts at getting it right for kids.

For example…

  • In English, the pattern that occurs in the teens is complicated. “Thirteen” doesn’t sound very much like what it is: three plus ten, while “Fourteen” does.
  • Likewise, the names for the “decades”: “Twenty” means two tens and “Thirty” means three tens.
  • But once you get to twenty-one, the pattern is regular until twenty-nine.
  • We start counting at 1 (not 0), but we don’t start the decades at 21 or 31, so kids following the 1, 2, 3 pattern will often skip 20 and 30.

If you put all of this together, you might expect a typical young child who is counting “as high as I can” to:

  1. Have trouble in the teens
  2. Skip 20 in favor of 21
  3. Have more success in the twenties than in the teens, and
  4. End the count at or about twenty-nine (since the word thirty is not very predictable from the previous language patterns).

Here goes…

4 thoughts on “Learning to count

  1. Kind of fascinating. There’s something people don’t consider when comparing countries – the grammar of their number systems. Is it possible that math is harder in English than, say, Japanese? That language only has words for one through ten, then one hundred. Everything between ten and a hundred is concatenations (‘four tens and five’ kind of thing). Even the French use ‘four twenties’ instead of creating a new word like ‘eighty’.

    Or… maybe it’s not harder to learn, but it’s harder for those at an EARLIER AGE? There seems to be a desire of late to start sooner and sooner, which I don’t understand at all. Pity we can’t compare counting in different languages. Incidentally, how much of the above analysis was done prior to the count, and how much after?

  2. Don’t forget those two bizarro words, “eleven” and “twelve.” I’ve read more than one person’s argument that this alone can account for difficulties in US math learning at the elementary level compared with countries whose languages are much more logical when it comes to counting (e.g., Japan, Korea, etc.)

  3. Great question, Gregory! how much of the above analysis was done prior to the count, and how much after? The answer is that most of the bullet points in the first list come from place value work I have doing for a long, long time. Many people before me have observed these things (although relatively few have been so obsessive about delivering the knowledge widely). But there are lots of bullet points that didn’t make the list because they don’t pertain to understanding this particular instance.

    The numbered list was written after the fact. The post is a demonstration of an instance rather than a report of a research result. It is aimed at helping parents see that their own child’s errors are not nonsense. Instead these errors are normal, predictable and interesting.

  4. Pingback: If it’s true for other language… | Talking Math with Your Kids

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