Transnumbering – The Concept of Numbers Across Cultures Part I

In a previous post, we defined sociocultural competence, the third goal of Dual Language Education, to mean being able to fight for the rights of those who don’t speak, look, or think like you. It is about grappling with our racist and discriminatory history and being willing to change the future.  To do this, we ourselves must ensure that we are not violating the rights of those who don’t speak, look, or think like us.  For some, this seems easier to accomplish when they expect differences.  For example, everyone expects those from another country to have a different accent and therefore, those who consider themselves socioculturally competent are unlikely to ridicule when they hear words pronounced differently, but when the difference comes from an unexpected source, those who may think of themselves as socioculturally competent, often suddenly find themselves unaware.  

LaRay M. Barna (1997), names assuming similarities in cultures as one of the six barriers to intercultural communication. Hence, statements such as, “We are all the human race,” and “We are all the same,”  while at the surface, appear affirming, do not allow us to see unexpected differences and thus, paves the way to discriminate against those of cultures that are different from our own.  This axiom was brought once again to my attention this past week when talking to a friend of mine who had experienced a cultural conflict over a phone number.  

Phone Numbers and Culture

A simple phone number, many would think, has nothing to do with culture.  However, the cadence of reciting phone numbers changes according to cultural norms.  For example, in the US, we break our phone numbers down into a set of three numbers, which we call the area code, then another set of three numbers, and then, four numbers.  While some variations may exist, and in small towns, the area code may be dropped, this pattern is culturally accepted.  On the other hand, many cultures outside of the United States use different patterns when reciting phone numbers. For instance, in some Spanish speaking areas, a seven digit phone number may be said in this pattern: the first two digits as a number “with” the third digit, then, a pause, and then, the final four digits.  For example, the phone number that in the United States would be recited as, “4-6-6,” followed by a pause, and then, “9-6-1-2,” is said, “46 with 6,” followed by a pause, and then, “9-6-1-2.”  In yet other Spanish speaking regions, the same phone number would be read, “4-66-96-12.”  Furthermore, in India, all digits are read as singular digits without pauses.  For example, the same number is read, “4-6-6-9-6-1-2.” Our students, depending on their backgrounds, may use any of these patterns or a whole different pattern not mentioned in this post.

In my friend’s situation, she gave a phone number to someone, in English, albeit with the cadence of a Puerto Rican speaker and was met with ridicule.  “Who says that?”  “I have never heard anyone say a phone number like that,” the recipient of the phone number very publicly decried.  And so for what my friend has now coined “transnumbering,” she was publicly embarrassed and discriminated against because someone else had expected similarities across cultures when it came to phone numbers and couldn’t handle otherwise.  

Transnumbering – Similar to Translanguaging

The term transnumbering is fitting, not just for cultural differences related to telephone numbers, but for when someone who has two or more cultures within them uses numbers in a way that demonstrates that they are using all of their numerical repertoire.  This is similar to translanguaging, a concept long accepted in Dual Language Education, where those who speak multiple languages use all of their linguistic repertoire often, making intentional choices to combine languages while speaking. 

How might we see transnumbering in our classrooms?  While writing numbers, a student may separate periods, or groups of 3 digits, with points, spaces, or semicolons rather than with the US convention of commas.  For instance, the number 437,456,999 as written in the United States, may be written as 437.456.999, as 437 456 999, or as 437;456,999.  These modes of writing follow conventions in a number of Latin American countries.  Another example of transnumbering would be if students use commas where most Americans use points to separate the whole number from the decimal.  For instance, rather than writing 47,098.05 as written in the United States, convention dictates in some Latin American countries that the number be written as 47.098,05.  

While the above may cause some initial confusion, some cases of transnumbering could cause mathematical errors when one doesn’t understand the cultural connotation.  For example, take the following number. 

In the US, a bar over a number signifies a repeating decimal.  In some parts of Mexico, however, the bar denotes a negative number. Instead, an arc like the one that follows signifies a repeating decimal.

Finally, computational methodologies can also differ across countries.  For example, long division can be set up differently than in the United States, depending upon the country where the process is taught, as seen in the linked video.  And I, myself, learned from my mother, who is a mathematician from India, to find averages, not by adding the numbers together and then, dividing, but by listing the numbers and redistributing values.  As a child, I deliberately chose to transnumber in class because I found the Indian method quicker and far more intuitive.

How to Deal With Transnumbering in the Classroom?

First, unlike the person with whom my friend interacted, do not ridicule anyone whom you see use numbers differently than you do.  (To be honest, I strongly suggest not ridiculing anyone for any reason.) Instead, seek to learn from the person, student or otherwise.  Celebrate their culture and knowledge.  Then, if the meaning is not affected, such as when a student sets their long division problem up differently or the student uses a different pattern in saying a phone number, follow Elsa’s lead and let it go.  In situations where test scores or understanding could be affected such as when writing bars over numbers to represent negative numbers, affirm that the student is using the correct symbol in their home countries but gently inform them that in the United States, we do it differently and that you don’t want the student to lose credit on exams because of a cultural misunderstanding. Be sure to emphasize that you recognize that their method is not wrong, just different.

What ever you do, the most important reaction is one that ensures that the student feels welcome and accepted in your classroom to be themselves, that allows all of our students’ identities and cultures to accompany them, and that encourages transcultural acculturation.  Our students deserve this kind of respect.


  1. […] Last week, I shared how a friend of mine was humiliated for transnumbering – an action I define as when someone who has two or more cultures within them uses numbers in a way that demonstrates that they are, intentionally or unintentionally, using all of their numerical repertoire.     This is similar to the concept of translanguaging, a concept widely accepted in Dual Language Education, to denote when individuals who have two or more languages within them use all of their linguistic repertoire, intentionally or unintentionally, when communicating.  Because of the overwhelming interest you, as readers, demonstrated in transnumbering, I decided to continue exploring this topic with you.  […]


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