Backpacking Series How to Speak American

How to Speak American?

Looking for travel advice to the US? Chances are you will hear everything else but this intangible and one of the most useful tip. Sometimes, learning languages means going beyond dictionaries and accents. Abhijeet Deshpande shares a perspective on American number system.

As an Indian expatriate, I loved my time in The USA and everything about it. Well, almost everything. Everything, but for their numbers. After living on west coast (CA), north east (MI) and traveling to places in between, American numbers continue to confound me. If you are on your way to The USA, remember this: learning to speak American is incomplete without getting a grip on it’s counting system, measurement units or even reading cell phone digits out in a particular fashion.

Counting System

Millions, Billions, Trillions

This is applicable only if you have been using a different system, and is the least troublesome. Simply because everyday transactions rarely run into millions, billions or trillions. Unless of course, like mine once upon a time, your job involves number crunching.

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I grew up in India at a time when multiplexes, cable television, and shows like ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire’ weren’t popular. My preferred method to count was hundreds (100s), thousands (1000s), lacs (10,0000s), tens of lacs (10,00,000), crores (1,00,00,000s), etc. So, when America happened before the birth of smart phones, I was so ill prepared with the denominations that I had to rely on an iconic American software product (Microsoft Excel) to help convert and insert punctuations automatically. Since then, I have become slightly comfortable with mental conversions between hundred thousands and lacs, or between millions and tens of lacs.

Units or Measurements

Fahrenheit, Gallons, Ounces, Pounds

For some reason, I did not feel the chill of Michigan winters in degrees Fahrenheit, the way I would when I read a sub-zero data with a ‘–‘ (minus) sign preceding the temperature on television. Sample this: In the extreme snow conditions, it was easier to convey to folks back home that it was freezing under at “-18” degree Celsius against a mere “0” degrees Fahrenheit. But if your body is warm with fever, Americans use a Celsius thermometer. So, 36.8 degree Celsius is the new normal and not 98.4 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature conversion is way too complicated for my abilities to mentally compute. It made me look up an unwieldy formula from school physics to convert Fahrenheit to Celsius.

Measurements and more measurements. Expressing my weight in pounds (over kilograms) was awkward. For instance, “160” pounds felt heavier than “72” Kilograms. Americans dubbed a few their auto-mobiles as ‘guzzlers’. Perhaps because it swallowed gallons (almost four times a litre) but ran miles (only 1.6 times its metric equivalent of a kilometre). But nothing takes the cake as the baffling experience of shopping at K-marts, Sams, Costcos, or Walmarts, and figuring out how ounces and pounds translate into grams.

Measurements was one of the worst things to cross over. If you are like me, you may call upon the services of two other iconic Americans named SiRi, (iPhone’s intelligent assistant), or Android (by Google) – to help with conversions.

Cellphone Digits


Technology is useless with the way your mind chunks digits and that’s why this one is my favorite.

If you are from India or any other country that chunks digits in sets of five or any other locus, beware of memorizing ten-digit cellphone numbers. Most people in The USA read, write and memorize cellphone numbers in a different format. This by itself, is not a problem. But it gets interesting when you read out a number to someone, or when someone reads back the numbers you just gave out.

I was predisposed to memorize a ten-digit cellphone number in two sets (or chunks) of five digits each. For instance, I would memorize 0123456789 as 01234 56789. Please note the single breather separating the two chunks. Hence, while giving away a phone number I naturally put a pause in between.

I did this while speaking with someone at the car rentals (Hertz, Enterprise), truck rentals (U-Haul), AAA or the utilities (SBC Pacific, Comcast, etc.). The operators would pause for a moment, re-hash the chunks in their minds and write them down in whatever forms they were required to fill. When reading the numbers back to me for verification, they did so in chunks of three, three and four digits. For instance my 01234 56789 would be read out as 012 345 6789. As much as it might have confused the locals, the rehashed chunks confused me too. The way they read, it did not seem familiar until I re-rehashed 012 (first breather) 345 (second breather) 6789 back to 01234 (only breather) 56789 before confirming.

Learning to Speak American?

If you, like me, grew up using a different numeric language, and are at odds to mentally compute conversions or re-re-chunk digits, please rewire yourself to speak American digits. I have lived in a few countries and, without doubt, America offers one of the best quality of living. Just get the numbers right.

Oh, and don’t forget this piece was first written on 10/04/2016. That’s the American mm/dd/yyyy format for 04/10/2016 or 4th October 2016.

As a visitor to the US, how was your experience with numbers? We would love to hear from you (please scroll below to leave a comment).

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