Don’t lose that number

Recently I placed an order in a shop, and the owner wanted my mobile number so that she could call me when the order came in.

I have had the same mobile number for nearly eight years. It’s burned into my brain. But I can never repeat it in Portuguese. It always happens the same way: I get five numbers into it and then lose track of where I was. Under pressure, with the clerk’s pen poised and an expectant look directed my way, I flounder back and forth in my mind, pulling up the number in English and mentally translating, then losing my place again halfway there.

Clearly, our brains (or my brain) handle the memory and translation of numbers differently from that of words. I have no problem rattling off Portuguese numbers or translating English numbers into Portuguese. But remembering a string of nine numbers in Portuguese rather than English? It just doesn’t happen. Translating it on the fly? Nope. There’s something in the combined process of numeric memory recall plus translation that puts a wrench in the works.

One of these days, I’m going to remember to print out a card with my damn number on it and stick it in my wallet. So long as the numbers are written down, I’m golden.

In the meantime, I keep finding this song running through my head.

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About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
This entry was posted in life, Portugal. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Don’t lose that number

  1. scriptiocontinua says:

    Print the Steely Dan cover and write your number on the piece of paper she is tucking away. Unless those legs would be too distracting. I have to listen to that song now 🙂

  2. Lisa Shaw says:

    I used to have a friend who taught music to middle schoolers, and she said one could memorize pretty much *anything* — all the state capitals, every US president in chronological order, any lyrics in any language — if you put it to a tune. So maybe you could do that with your number in Portuguese. In the meantime, print yourself up some business cards! 🙂

  3. I used to feel like an anomaly, but not anymore. I deal with a lot of other numbers in my work (order numbers, shipment labels, employee numbers, whatever can have a number assigned to it, you name it). To memorize a number, I say it in Portuguese. To bring it back and repeat it to someone else, I write it down and read it in English. There is definitely a difference between the way we memorize numbers and anything else.
    I looked it up once and found an explanation for it. I believe it was a fairly simple one, but it probably involved a lot of numbers in English, because I can’t remember it now.

    • Lisa Shaw says:

      I think it might be that words are represented by letters, which represent sound. We both see them and hear them in our mind as collections of letters. Numbers are represented by either letters or figures, so we have dual and conflicting streams of data in our heads when we attempt to say or spell them. The numerals are the same in every language. The letters are different in every language.

  4. Karien says:

    I found the same thing this week. My first language is Afrikaans. Much to my surprise, I found out I couldn’t write the binary table while thinking in Afrikaans (I’m studying Cisco CCNA in English).

  5. oregon expat says:

    I’m feeling much better after finding out I’m not the only one with this limitation! And yes, I definitely need to print out that Steely Dan cover…

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