Last updated: 11 february, 2011 - 16:59 GMT

Community and Society

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe

An Indian schoolgirl. Getty

What are the world's most popular number rhymes and how do they overlap between different cultures?

"One, two, three, four, five, once I caught a fish alive" in Bengali is "Ak, dui, tin, chaar pach, ami dhorlam akti machh."

In Jamaica you get "Mosquito one, mosquito two, mosquito jump in a hot callaloo", and in America its "One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish."

While in Spanish it's "Uno dos y tres, cuatro cinco seis, siete ocho nueve I can count to diez."

For the BBC, presenter Kim Normanton discovers how children from Japan, Portugal, Finland and Russia play with numbers and realise that even times tables - when put to music or chanted - can be fun.

So, what are the different approaches to counting around the world?

The Europeans count on their hands while the Yupno people in Papua New Guinea count using their eyes, nostrils, nipples and belly buttons. And in Japan, children seem to enjoy reciting their times tables by rote.

According to the writer Alex Bellos:

"The reason why it's different in Japan is because it's taught like a nursery rhyme, with a syncopation in the voice almost like a rap. Also, they manipulate the words to make the maths easier: reciting it like poetry and this music sinks in."

Kim also speaks to ethno-musicologist Kathy Marsh, author of The Musical Playground, who points out that often in counting rhymes children make up their own language, for example "Ip dip sky blue and ibble obble black bobble ibble obble out."

She tells the story of a group of friends she met in an ethnically diverse school in Australia who had learned a Greek counting song. When she asked them to perform it they separated into pairs and broke into a spontaneous performance of the same game in various mother tongues including Tongan, Romanian, Cantonese and Mandarin.

First broadcast on 11 February, 2011

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