Updated: Apr 7, 2020
You’ll often need to quickly say and understand numbers and values in French: prices, time, quantities, you name it. Here’s a hands-on guide on how to learn efficiently to count in French.
Counting in French can be tricky and yet it’s definitely not something you should overlook.
My philosophy as a teacher is to focus on the things you would have a hard time learning on your own (pronunciation, structure, etc), leaving the rest for autonomous study (eg: vocabulary). And since learning how to count in French pretty much falls in the second category, so we shouldn’t waste too much of the precious Skype time learning all these numbers. But still: many times the way textbooks or Youtube videos want to help you learn that skill is terribly inefficient! They provide you with unending lists of words, some of them quite confusing (quatre-vingt-dix?!), and the best thing you can do with them is to try to memorize it all. Fortunately, we can sum up in an article all you need to learn efficiently how to count in French. Let’s first see how special a skill “counting in French” can be. Then we’ll discover how to study smartly these numbers. And finally we’ll make sure you have concrete tools that you can start using today. Allez, trois, deux, un… on y va !
Why should we pay special attention to counting in a foreign language?
First of all, because it’s terribly useful! We manipulate numbers all the time, and often in context where there’s no room for approximation. Want to do some shopping in Paris? You’ll hear sizes, and prices, and discounts, and if you’ve been there before you probably know that in many places you shouldn’t rely on the salesman’s English! What about the cute guy who gives you his number in the bar, or the nurse who gives you date and time for your appointment over the phone?
But counting is not just memorizing words. I’ve seen so many textbooks listing all the numbers as they do with their vocabulary lists. So many students copying them carefully, trying to read the whole series over and over until maybe they finally commit it to memory. Flashcard decks prompting the student to learn each single number as if it were a completely new thing… This doesn’t make any sense. I’m often astonished to see students only able to recall a number by counting from the beginning: 5?… un-deux-trois-quatre-cinq… ah, cinq! I want my students to be able to name each number independently, just as they do in their native language.
So, how can we learn to count in French efficiently?
The key here is learning a system and not just what looks like vocabulary. To count in French until 99, all you need is 22 words. Then, with 2 more words, you can reach 999 999. Of course, just the words are not enough: we need to make a series of discoveries about how these words can be combined. Find what’s the logic behind. The good thing about discoveries and relationships is that they’re fun to explore and can be made yours with less effort than memorized stuff. So, what we want here is to know the key words and to see how they can work together.
Let’s see what these 22 words are, and how they would combine.
As cryptic as the table might look at first, I’m sure you can figure it out with just a bit of observation. For instance, we would have: vingt-huit (28), trente-quatre (34), dix-huit (18), but quarante-et-un (41). After 69, we just recycle words you already know to create the new numbers: soixante-dix (70), soixante-douze (72), quatre-vingts (80) and quatre-vingt-un (81) that has neither the “et” nor the final “-s”, as shown on the table. Care to take a guess as what’s the word for 99? (answer in the comments and see if others got it right too).
Here’s a video I’ve made to introduce this logic to new students: Dizaines en français (youtube). You can practice by trying to say the numbers a bit before your hear them. Notice how I avoid being too linear in the progression: I want you to be able to recall each number independently from the previous one.
What can I do concretely to put all that to good use?
I’ve created a flashcard deck on Memrise for two important purposes. If you’re not familiar with Memrise yet, just know that you can freely access either the website or the mobile app, it’s really easy to use. The deck will provide you with all the words you need (not so many, in the end), and will present them in a way that you can understand how they combine with each other and already get some practice. It also has all the pronunciation and spelling, plus a table that will look cryptic at first, but makes sense after some time! After learning how to create any number, the deck will serve its second purpose: giving you some concrete practice through basic operations.
After a few days’ work on the Memrise deck, you’ll know which words you need to use and how you’re supposed to combine them. So, it will be time to practice. Again, this has little to do with memory. My best tip would be: do some maths! The level doesn’t actually matter, simple additions are a good place where to start. In the Memrise deck above, the last part consists of several exercises. If you’re already familiar with the French numbers but you’re not comfortable using them without going back to English, you can focus on these math activities. If you don’t really enjoy dealing with numbers, there are many other ways to practice: read in French any phone number, car license plate or any price that you can see. Again, avoid counting in a linear way, and prefer jumping from number to number, especially while looking at their numerical forms (1, 5, 37…).
So, it’s clear now that counting is important and that we need to give it some special attention. There are a few things to memorize for sure, and flashcards can help greatly for that. But then, it’s mostly about combining words and creating strong links between the numerical forms and these words. This takes a bit of logic and a good amount of practice, but then it will also take out a lot of stress in many very common situations. Besides, I’d like to point out that this applies to other things that should never be learned as a list: the days of the week, the name of the letters, the different months, etc. Study them in random order, making sure each name is associated with what it refers to, and not as “the following element” of a long string…
I’ll be writing more articles about learning as systems (for French conjugation for instance), so some feedback would be very precious! If you liked some of the tips here, please take a second to leave a comment below!