What Languages Do Bilinguals Count In?

It is often said that bilinguals continue using their first language for simple arithmetic operations, such as addition or multiplication, long after they shifted to the second language in other domains.

I am not an exception to this phenomenon. After two decades in the U.S., I live, lecture, and write in English but when it comes to balancing my checkbook, calculating a tip, or counting the number of reps at the gym, I often switch to Russian.

Do others also count in their first language while living in the second, and if so, why? And what does this adherence mean for kids who study math in a second language or shift languages mid-way through the schooling process?



Martinez-Lincoln, A., Cortinas, C., & N. Wicha (2015) Arithmetic memory networks established in childhood are changed by experience in adulthood. Neuroscience Letters, 584, 325-330.

Salillas, E. & N. Wicha (2012). Early learning shapes the memory networks for arithmetic evidence from brain potentials in bilinguals. Psychological Science, 23, 745–755.

Spelke, E. & S. Tsivkin (2001) Language and number: A bilingual training study. Cognition, 78, 45-88.


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