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  • Counting to Ten: Language and Hands-On Activities

    Why do the Chinese have two words for the number "two"? They say "liang" in the phrase "two glasses of water" and "ar" when they are counting, as in "2+3=5".

    While we are at is, why do Chinese and Japanese have words you add to the number when speaking so that you know that someone is describing cups of a liquid or quantities of a currency?

    The mystery of numbers does not stop in Asia and the Pacific Islands. Why do French speakers call the number eighty "four-twenties" instead of "eight tens"? How did the English come up with a twelve-based currency system (twelve pence to the shilling) that tracks twelve-based counting systems found in the Chepang language of Nepal as well as in parts of Nigeria, Indonesia and Polynesia?

    Each day at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, someone will be on hand to describe the mysteries and fun found in an Asian or Pacific Islander language. Chinese calligrapher Bertrand Mao will be in the Family Activities tent on June 24, next to Sushmita Mazumdar’s Indian handmade books and Melissa Mokihana Scalph’s Hawaiian lei-making demonstrations. Kids can talk and watch and try their hand at making leis. At 4:15 p.m., Mr. Mao moves to the Talkstory tent, where he will give us a lesson on the Chinese language and tell us how the Chinese count from one to ten. Similar events will take place with Korean (June 25), Japanese (June 26), Thai (June 27), Samoan (June 28), Punjabi (July 1), Mongolian (July 2), Lao (July 3), Vietnamese (July 4), and Urdu (July 5).

    Whether you are eight or eighty, there will be something for you at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival this year.

    Phil Tajitsu Nash is a curator of the Asian Pacific Americans program at the 2010 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. 

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