French Language Blog

Thumbs Up! Counting with Your Fingers in France Posted by on Apr 21, 2016 in Culture, Vocabulary


It’s no secret that counting in French for beginners comes with some difficulty. Even after years of practice, your natural reaction may be to think of the numbers in your native language. That’s how it’s been for me, anyway, and it’s been over 14 years. If a number comes up while I’m speaking in French, I’ll automatically think of it in English first then say it in French. The process itself is fast, but it’s always English first with numbers for me. I even considered taking a job as a cashier in France so numbers would become second nature to me.

It makes sense why the blog’s #1 viewed post last year was about the numbers 1-100. They can be tricky: which numbers are hyphenated? How do you pronounce quatre? Is 94 really four twenties plus fourteen? Do I really need to know how use the 24-hour clock? (Yes). How do you say first, second, and third? And why do you not say “the first floor” of a building? So many questions. So many differences.

In this post, I wanted to focus on counting in particular. Our numbers are different, but our way of expressing them is different, too. If I asked you how many drinks you’d like me to bring to the table, and you tell me two, how would you show me that with your fingers? Your answer may vary where you grew up because finger counting varies by location. Let’s take a look:

For most North Americans, we would hold up our index and middle fingers to express the number two. This is how we’d count:
1: l’index (index finger)
2: l’index et le majeur (middle finger)
3: l’index, le majeur et l’annulaire (ring finger)
4: l’index, le majeur, l’annulaire et l’auriculaire (pinky)
5: l’index, le majeur, l’annulaire, l’auriculaire et le pouce (thumb)

In France, the process is a bit different:
1: le pouce
2: le pouce et l’index
3: le pouce, l’index et le majeur
4: le pouce, l’index, le majeur et l’annulaire*
5: le pouce, l’index, le majeur, l’annulaire et l’auriculaire

* = I’ve asked a few natives how they express the number 4 on their fingers, and more than one said they pull the thumb in and use the index, middle, ring and pinky. When they get to 5, they pull the thumb out again. Looks like you may have 2 options here 😉

Dactylonomy (finger counting) is a fun topic to research. It’s been reported that there are 27 different ways people around the world count on their fingers. I definitely recommend this article by Yutaka Nishiyama. It’s a fun read.

Are there any other small cultural differences
that have taken you by surprise during your French studies?

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About the Author: Josh Dougherty

Just your typical francophile. If you have any topics you'd like me to discuss, feel free to let me know!


  1. Marie Moffitt:

    The French way of counting on fingers lives in the US in American Sign Language, with slight modifications. ASL developed from French sign language.