Where multilingualism doesn’t shine

I know this is going to sound conceited but I fancy myself as a cool multilingual type who nimbly juggles three languages in his everyday life and has no difficulty expressing himself in either. But I must admit that even I seem to have areas in my brain where there’s only room for one language. Most of them have something to do with numbers.

Phone numbers, mostly. I memorized my phone number in English a long time ago and since then, I can only recall it in English. Ask me in English what my number is and I’ll answer promptly, no problem. But ask me the same question in Czech or Irish and I’ll stammer and go red in the face: I actually don’t know. All I can do is answer in English, or say it to myself in English and then translate, which is awkward. And it’s not just phone numbers I have this problem with, it’s any kind of numerical sequence I happen to need to remember, such as credit card PINs, access codes and so on. I can always only recall them in the language in which I memorized them. Which is a bit of a bummer, given that you can’t live in the world today without a good share of these numbers in your life.

Another area where I often find myself linguistically challenged is mental arithmetics. Each time I need to do a quick calculation in my head, such as six times eight, I have to actually say those numbers silently in my mind, and the language in which I have to do it is Czech. Czech is the language in which I learned maths in primary school and it is the only language in which I am able to do maths. I cannot do it in English or Irish, even though I use those languages routinely in my everyday life. The reason probably is that all the arithmetic factoids my brain remembers, such as “3 × 7 = 21”, are language-specific. Ask me in Czech how much tři krát sedm (3 × 7) is and the answer pops up automatically in my head: dvacet jedna (21). Ask me the same question in English or Irish and nothing pops up – unless of course I silently translate the question first, which is in fact what I usually do. It works but it takes longer and makes me look dumb (or dumber).

As if that wasn’t enough, it’s not just numbers that cause me linguistic embarrassment. Any kind of mental operation that involves an arbitrary sequence of symbols is likely to be “locked in” to just one language: names of the days of the week, names of the months of the year, even names of the planets of the solar system. I am constantly having problems with months in particular. I do of course remember the names of the months in all my three languages and can list them off, that’s not a problem. It’s connecting the lists crosslingustically that’s a problem. If somebody tells me in English that something will happen “in August”, I’ll remember “August” in English and if somebody else then asks me for that information in another language, say in Irish, I’ll be having a hard time deciding what “August” is called in Irish. I’ll probably have to perform a lengthy process in my head in which I will first run through the months of the year from January up to August in English to find out what number it is and then run through them again in Irish to find out what that number is called in Irish.

My only consolation is that this is probably normal. I haven’t done any proper research into this but I think I’ve seen other multilingual people struggle with phone numbers like I do. I also vaguely remember reading somewhere that it is common for people to continue performing mental arithmetics in the language in which they had learned it as children, even after they’ve been living in a second-language environment for most of their adult life.

If I’m right and if this is in fact common, then that is a significant finding. It means that there are types of knowledge stored in the human brain that are language-specific and can only be recalled in the language in which they were acquired. It is often asserted that multilingualism, rather than monolingualism, is the normal state of affairs for humans and that there is ample space in the human mind for multiple languages. Although that is probably true, it is equally probably true that there are certain areas in the mind where there is only room for one language, where multilingualism simply doesn’t happen. Which is sad news for those who fancy themselves as cool multilingual types.


11 thoughts on “Where multilingualism doesn’t shine

  1. Tá an rud chéana agamsa leis na uimhireacha i Spáinnis agus le Frainncis..a real problem to get numbers when they speak them quickly..perdona puedes repetir por favor 😉

  2. Hi Michal,

    Re mental arithmetic, i learned all my tables etc through English in primary school, but after 5 years of Irish-medium secondary education I could only do calculations in my head in Irish.

    But after I spent my 20s mostly living/thinking in English I was back to doing numbers in English.

    Since then I’ve reclaimed a lot of space in my life for Irish, but the arithmetic is still in English.

    Bhí orm m’uimhir ghutháin i nGaeilge a mheabhrú go speisialta, os rud é go mbím á thabhairt do Ghaeilgeoirí chomh minic sin!

    Ádh mór,

  3. In the case of arithmetic, I suspect some people encode their facts linguistically and others encode them by other methods – either visualising the numerals (so that for example you’d know the answer to “what’s three times seven” by visualising 3 x 7 = 21), or for very mathematically-minded people, the straight numerical concepts.

    I wonder if there are any areas of the mind that are consistently monolingual, or if it’s just some domains are monolingual for one person and other domains for another person.

    I can even imagine, though it seems a little convoluted, that people who are good at languages might have more of a tendency to have monolingual bits of their mind, if people who think in words and encode information in words are likely to be good at languages; people who think more in pictures or concepts might be less likely to be good at languages, but more likely not to have other bits of knowledge dependent on the language they’re memorized in.

  4. That sounds reasonable, Estel.

    I suppose there are many ways to remember factoids like “3 × 7 = 21”, some of them language-dependent and some not, and different people may use different tricks to commit them to memory.

    Somebody who remembers this in a language-independent way, such as by visualizing what it looks like when written down, should have no problem recalling it in any language.

    But the notation of numbers and mathematics is also a language, isn’t it? So, if somebody’s memory of “3 × 7 = 21” is based on what it looks like when written down in Arabic numerals is likely to have troubles recalling that when prompted in a different format, such as “III × VII”.

    So the question now is, is it possible to remember a fact in a way that’s completely independent of any particular language or notation? Outside mathematics, this doesn’t seem to be a problem. When I see a dog or when I wish to talk about a dog, I have no problem recalling what a dog is called in either of my languages, regardless of the fact that I originally acquired my knowledge of dogs through just one of them. So my knowledge about dogs is probably language-independent, and I figure that’s how it is for most people.

    Numbers seem to be a different matter. I guess there may be some lucky individuals out there who remember numbers language-independently and notation-independently (in “straight numerical concepts” as you say). But like I said, I haven’t done any proper research, so I simply don’t know whether such people exist.

    I’m sure folks have written papers and dissertations and theses about this, I just haven’t dug deeply enough to look for them.

  5. I wouldn’t call myself completely bilingual but I get by rather well in Spanish. My Spanish is at least good enough that after returning to the US after a few months in Spain, I literally forgot some English words. (It was an awkward, embarrassing couple of days.)

    Numbers are always English to me. I can fluently read a Spanish newspaper article aloud but my pace grinds to a halt at the slightest mention of a number- whether it’s the price of a gallon of milk or the year some important event occurred in. My mind immediately crashes back to English and I have to resort to word-by-word translating, a method I haven’t needed for basic sentences for years. I tried like hell to memorize my phone number in Spanish but just couldn’t do it. I had to memorize it in English and translate every time I gave it out.

    My close friend learned French as a small child and quickly became bilingual in English as a slightly older child. She’s lived in English speaking countries for the vast majority of her life, did ALL of her schooling in English, but still adds in French.

    I rather agree with you that everyone has certain areas of their brain that like one particular language over another. But for me, it’s all numbers, only numbers, all the time. I studied to be an engineer, and I actually suspect that might have a lot to do with it. I’ve spent a lot more time doing math in English than most people probably have, making it more ingrained.

  6. Any time you rely on a mnemonic or memorized phrase, you’re locking yourself into that language. The way we remember phone numbers is that we say them to ourselves over and over and get a feel for their cadence. We do a similar thing with multiplication tables. There is nothing special about numbers in our brain, I think; it’s just that for many numerical pieces of information, we tend to make use of mnemonics or the rote memory of phrases, locking ourselves into the language we learned them in.

  7. I think Alex is on to it with the mnemonics – I don’t really remember my phone number as a series of digits but as a word-based melody. And thus I can’t repeat this melody in a language where those words don’t exist.

    I discovered a similar phenomenon with online banking: I didn’t really know my account number as a series of numbers. It is recorded as a movement around the numeric keypad. So much so that I have trouble when I’m trying to enter a transaction at a keyboard without the numeric keypad, where I have to use the number row above the letters. I have to picture my right hand at a numeric keypad and ‘translate’ those movements into number before seeking them out at the top of the keyboard.

    Thanks for the VERY interesting article which does indeed mirror my experiences as a multilingual.

  8. My nursery and primary school (age 10) was in French. Mental arithmetic for me always happens in French and I divide in French (in English you divide differently).

    I never did learn to tell the time in either French or English but I learnt it officially in Spanish at the age of 13. So time for me comes very naturally when I hear it in Spanish but Jesus I have to think twice in English and in French I am O K.

    I learnt the alphabet as a child in English, I did so my singing along to the ABC song on Sesame street. Today I can’t help singing the alphabet in English… it just happens and then I silently correct myself. The alphabet is unnatural in French.

    As for swearing it comes out in French only because there was less swearing in my English speaking environment. (sh** was sugar) and F*** was fudge. Yes that’s how we swore in secondary school but it was best not to play around with such vocabulary.

    And depending on my mood, on some days I wake up more English than French or vice versa and my sentence constructions are not quite right. I monitor the way I speak sometimes to make sure I don’t start making things up and above all I read in English when I am in an French environment or read in French when living in an English environment.

    Thanks for sharing. xx Layinka

  9. Interesting read. I was testing myself and came to the conclusion that I think of numbers as numbers, and sometimes, when I need to calculate complicated things in my head, as pictures. That way I can count in all four languages, Finnish, Swedish, English and German, in which I know more numbers than 1-10, even if I in school learnt maths in Swedish.

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