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Happy Pi Day March 14, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Speaking.

It is probably insignificant to a lot of people. Today is 14 March, the Pi day.

This is the day celebrated by Pi enthusiasts all over the world (by eating pies). I used to be a Pi maniac and I was a member of the 100-club, a club dedicated to those who can remember Pi to 100 digits or more. (Surprisingly, the club is still around after all these years! My name is still on the list!)

What is this to do with language learning? Well, I always believe that numbers are something you need to learn when you begin to learn any language. They belong to the fundamentals. Ironically, numbers are also difficult to master. It takes a long time to say them smoothly and correctly.

To prove my point, try this. Say out loud the first 100 digits of Pi in your native language as quickly as possible. Now, do it in your learning language and try to match the speed.

3.14159 26535 89793 23846 26433 83279 50288 41971 69399 37510 58209 74944 59230 78164 06286 20899 86280 34825 34211 70679

Easy? Perhaps. Now, try this. Memorize the first 15 digits. Recite them aloud in your learning language. Not as easy as it may seem!

Here is a Pi poem composed in different languages. Eve’s Pi page was one of the earliest of its kind since the dawn of the Internet. I visited there when I was at university more than 10 years ago. I am surprise it is still up and kicking today.



1. Jaŋari - March 14, 2007

What if your learning language only has word for one, two and three, no word for zero and no word for ‘point’?

2. edwinlaw - March 14, 2007

That’s interesting. Which language could that be?

3. Jaŋari - March 15, 2007

A lot of languages are like that. The one I’m thinking of is Wagiman, from the far North of Australia (I’m a field linguist, by the way), but I’d hazard an educated guess that most Australian languages are similar. It doesn’t mean people can’t count of course, but they traditionally didn’t need to know how to say ‘fifteen’ specifically. They can say ‘one’, ‘two’, ‘three’, ‘a few’, ‘lots’ and ‘heaps and heaps’.

4. edwinlaw - March 15, 2007


So how does it work? They need to say 3+1 when they mean 4?

The French do something similar. To say 98, you would say 4*20+10+8. What a pain for the learners!

5. Jaŋari - March 15, 2007

Here’re the numbers:
one = nungarin
two = larima
three = murrkkun
four (or several) = larima-larima (but not used so often)
Other numbers aren’t really used. You would never have to say 98 traditionally. For all intents and purposes, it’s just ‘lots’.
It’s not that it’s less expressive than languages with number systems like European languages, it’s as expressive as it needs to be.

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