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.