Bilingualism in Units of Measure

Well, I’m back from Germany and everything went quite well, except for one little incident with a spontaneous bloody nose brought on by the descent in to the Atlanta airport. Thankfully there’s a bathroom before you actually have to go through customs in Atlanta (there was not in Stuttgart), because I’m pretty sure the border patrol folks would have been less than impressed at my attempts to clean myself up with my leftover bottled water and that weird mesh they cover the complimentary pillow with. Good times.

It was a fun trip overall, and my lack of German didn’t end up making a difference. The town we were in was a college town, so nearly everyone spoke English as a second language. It was a little interesting though, as it was clear very few people we talked to were used to conversing with native English speakers (we saw quite a few people conversing in English where it was clear they were both ESL with different primary languages), which led to some fascinatingly idiosyncratic translation issues. For example, one of the people we spent the most time with clearly only knew the pronoun “he” and applied it to everything. The sign above the coat rack in our hotel informed us “We are not responsible for your wardrobe”, which didn’t quite come off as I believe they intended it. Not judging of course, since it’s all better than my forays in to other languages, but I actually love seeing where the unusual phrasing comes up.

Anyway, while thinking about various translation issues, I started thinking a little bit about units of measure. There were a few times over the course of the week where distances or volumes came up, and I was interested to see that I have minimal problems translating kilometers to miles/pounds to kilograms/liters to quarts or vice versa. Part of this is just general quick mental math, but I did realize that I’m actually pretty comfortable in thinking in either the metric system or the US/imperial system. My engineering degree and lab work both used a lot of metric system units, and being a runner keeps you familiar with 5k and 10k distances, which make all the distance translations pretty straightforward.

The only unit I have real trouble with is temperature. I simply cannot think in Celsius. Every time I see a temperature in Celsius I have to spend quite a bit of time calculating before I get to the right ballpark. I’m not sure why this is, though I suspect it’s something about the simultaneous change in the magnitude of a degree and the reference numbers. Somehow trying to doing both at once throws me off.

I’m curious how many people are actually comfortable in both sets of units. I’m guessing there’s a strong influence of profession here.

On a related note, here’s the history of the US relationship to the metric system as told by NIST.

On an unrelated note, here’s a map of Europe and what each region calls Germany:

Apparently this is directly correlated with which occupants of Germany invaded which country first, though I can’t confirm that.

10 thoughts on “Bilingualism in Units of Measure

  1. Ditto with Celsius. Even having to deal with Chris for years talking about the temperature in Norway and Romania, it’s never become intuitive. Instead of messing with 9/5 C + 32 I use 2C + 30*, but it still just doesn’t flow. I think it can only be done experientially, until one intuits what 15 degrees C feels like.

    Fahrenheit is simply a better scale for human temperature, even though it creates a disconnect with the temperatures used for other purposes. 0 is really cold for humans. Anything colder than that is too cold. 100 is hot for humans. Anything hotter than that is too hot. While that modifies somewhat according to where you are used to living and what the wind and moisture are, it’s still a darn good approximation.

    * (F-30)/2 should be easy, yet I never remember it.


    • One of the reasons the US system hangs on is because most of it is actually easier for everyday use. Metric is cleaner for science, but most people would rather say “one cup” rather than “.25 liters”.


  2. Having worked in a town in Argentina which was considered “the country’s stove,” I became familiar with Celsius.
    10 C (50)- better have that sweater- maybe coat- on. Sweater inside, as little or no central heat.
    15 (59 F)- close to my favorite temperature, and a little below the average winter high in the “stove.” Which could vary quite a bit, with occasional winds from Antarctica or from the tropics.
    20 C (68)- the upper limit of my ideal temperatures.
    30 C (86) – starting to get warm, but still OK. Time to ditch polyester,
    35 C (95)- if dry, surprisingly comfortable.
    40 C (104)- don’t want to go there. I was told that in the years after I left, 40 and above became more common.

    BTW, Argentina’s “stove” was no hotter than Texas. Which reminds me of the 19th century joke about the Devil and Texas. The Devil bought Texas, and was not sure where to live- Hell or Texas. He decided to live in Hell and rent out Texas, as Texas was hotter. Below 100, bearable.


  3. Any chance you could post a larger version of the map? I can’t really read this one.
    I read once that the English system is easier to conceptualize because it grew organically, rather than being rather artificially imposed. So, an inch is about the length of a finger joint, a foot is about, um, the length of a foot, a cup is about what you can hold in two hands, and so on. Don’t know how important that is, though.
    And it drives me nuts when people say the the Celsius scale is metric. No, no, no! Just because it goes from 0 to 100 on some arbitrary scale does not make it metric. If you wanted a truly useful scale you would use Kelvin or Rankine. Celsius is inferior to Fahrenheit because each degree is almost twice as large. No one wants to talk about half-degrees, so you lose precision.


  4. Larger version of the map:

    I had a car where the climate control could only be set to round units, and on road-trips to distant locations I found that I had to switch the display to °F because 23° was just that bit too cold for air-conditioning yet 24° was just that bit too hot. As a sensometrician I had to look up the JND at room temperature, which in the studies I found equates to approximately 0.5°C – as opposed to a change of 1°F being 0.5556°C.


    • Oh my goodness, we have office temperature wars that were settled by setting it at 74, so I can’t imagine if we had to use only degrees Celsius.


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