A Bilingual Child: Count me in

Numbers 0-9

One, two threeUm dois três (mrsdkrebs)

As someone who learned Portuguese as an adult there are two things that I find it very difficult to do in my second language: maths and swearing.  When I swear in Portuguese it just doesn’t sound right.  It feels a bit childish, a bit too funny.  There is nothing like a proper, old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon swear word to express exactly what I am feeling.

When it comes to numbers, I can count perfectly well, but if I have to do any sums, my brain stops working.  I have to translate the numbers into English, do the maths in my head and then translate the number back into Portuguese.  My theory for this is that numbers are such an integral part of our lives, that because we learn them almost from day one, at the same time as learning to speak, that they are a part of us and represent something about ourselves.

This is probably nonsense, but it works for me.

Mr. T can now, more or less, count up to 10 in both languages.  He can go from 1-6 quite easily in either English or Portuguese, but he then struggles with 7 and 8 in both languages, before saying 9 and 10 very easily.  I have tried to figure out a theory as to why he struggles with 7 and 8 in both languages, but so far I have nothing.


Not a Captcha (runran)

He is also starting to be aware of other numbers.  The other night he was having difficulty getting to sleep so my wife suggested they count together in order to calm him down.  He started in English and so she kept going with him.  After 10 she said 11 and Mr. T repeated, so she 12 and he repeated it again.  This kept on going until they got to 34.  Apparently 34 is a very funny number because he giggled at it and got Headess of the Heard to say it again, at which point he giggled again.  Apparently this went on for a few minutes before she continued on up to 100.

By the time they got to 100 he was almost asleep.

The other aspect of counting is that it is one of the first areas that Mr. T has words in two languages and he doesn’t mix them up.  If he starts counting in English, he doesn’t suddenly switch to Portuguese, and vice versa.  I am sure that this is because he has only ever heard numbers in one language at a time but I am wondering if it is one of the first signs that his brain is compartmentalising the two languages for language production.

One of the hopes I have for my son is that, as he grows up to be bilingual he will be able to do maths in his head equally well in both English and Portuguese.  I realise that the fact that he will have formal maths instruction in Portuguese means there is a possibility he will favour that language over English, but we have got off to a good start.

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15 thoughts on “A Bilingual Child: Count me in

  1. I can do math fairly easily in Polish, German and English, but when I count things, it is always in Polish- the same goes for months, etc. As for 7 and 8, my girl had a similar problems in German with the same numbers and my father-in-law’s explanation is this. Up to 6, you have only one syllable, one number- one, two three four five and six are one syllable words. If you caount stuff, it is one syllable-one thing- one number. But seven are two syllables, and she would often do the mistake of counting two things and saying: Se- for one thing and -ven for the next, thus counting two things where should have only counted one. And then there is eight, nine 10 which again are single syllabe words. Does it make sense/ She didn’t have that problem in Polish becuase in Polish all of these wrds for numbers are longer than just one syllable

    • I had never thought about months before, and now that you mention it I think I do all dates in my head in English and then translate them.

      I don’t think your father-in-law’s great theory works for our son because the Portuguese for 4 and 5 both have two syllables (quatro, cinco) but they never presented a problem. It’s a shame because I liked the theory.

      • Stephen, exactly- in Polish, the numbers have more than one syllable (jeden 2 syllables, dwa , trzy,- each one syllable cztery- 2 syllables etc) and she never has had problems, only with German. Which pretty much proves my theory- if it’s different in Portuguese right? I mean maybe it is only confusing if all of the numbers so far have one syllable adn then it is confusing when they have more syllables?

  2. Counting and times tables, they will always be in Swedish in my mind. This makes sense as I went to a Swedish-speaking school and we had to learn our times tables by heart and be able to pass an oral test in front of the class. Months are however in Finnish – I must have learnt them from my mother 🙂 Well done to the Headess of the Heard for not falling asleep before one hundred!

  3. Yep, counting for me is always in Hebrew. And about swearing–I can swear in English, and if a driver cuts me off, perfect swear words come out. But the truth is revealed whenever I get hurt, because then it’s only Hebrew words (well, they’re Arabic swear words, but we used them in Israel when we were kids, because Arabic has the best swear words).

    • Excellent! I had a Wlesh house mate who would talk to his mates on the phone in Welsh. Obviously I never understood a word he was going on about except for the various English swear words he used quite liberally. When I asked him about this he just said that Welsh swear words were very tame in comparison to Englis ones.

  4. I’m too teaching my kids to count in different languages and they still get a bit confuse at time when using the 2nd or 3rd language at home. My 3yr old skips the numbers 14-15 when we count in Cantonese. I guess it takes practice as I don’t have difficultly counting in any of the 3 languages that we use at home.

  5. How intriguing! My daughter also used to struggle with seven! In both her languages. And also thirteen, I never managed to work out why. She worked it all out in the end, though. I am also multilingual, and tend to do arithmetic in English. Now that my children are at school, and I am the minority language speaker, I make an effort to help them learn maths homework and so on in English with me – they get enough input in Greek, their dominant language, at school. We discuss history/ geography/ whatever topics together in English – I’ve found it helps to enrich their English vocabulary with words that they would otherwise have picked up in an English-medium school, and they are then quite capable of switching back to Greek to write their assignments and talk at school.

    • It’s amazing how many parents of bilingual children are reporting problems with the number 7.

      It seems your kids are some way ahead of my 2.5 year old, but it is good to see a strategy that works for other subjects that my son will one day be studying.

      Thanks a lot for your comment 🙂

  6. Pingback: Mathematics and the Bilingual Brain | Bilingualism Research Today

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