Many language learners consider they are getting fluent when they start dreaming in the target language, others when they count in that language rather than their own.
Number counting tends to be one of the language areas most deeply ingrained, so that even people who have lived in another country for many years still count in their native language. This can be the case even when they do everything else in their second language.
Part of the reason for this is that languages vary in the way they handle numbers. The way numbers are formulated in one language may be more user-friendly than in another. For example, where European languages have odd words for numbers in the early teens (eleven, twelve, quinze, seize…), Japanese, Chinese and Korean count one, two, three up to ten, then “ten-one, ten-two, ten-three, and in the twenties count “two-ten, two-ten-one, two-ten-three” and so on. Research shows that this makes it easier for children to learn their numbers and helps them master the early stages of addition and subtraction more efficiently.
European children tend to be slower to learn their numbers, with numbers often being muddled in the early stages. In many languages the units come ahead of the tens, which makes counting harder. For example in German 16 and 60 are said as sechzehn and sechzig – the 6 comes first in both numbers, and when counting numbers in the tens, twenty-one, twenty-tow is “ein und zwanzig, zwei und zwanzig”. French takes the prize for needless complication with seventy “soixante dix” (sixty and ten); eighty “quatre-vingt (four twenties) and ninety “quatre vingt dix” (four twenties and ten). The Belgians have given up on this mullarkey and use “septante” for seventy and “nonante” for ninety – we sympathise!
Some bilingual language speakers report using numbers in one language for specific activities and doing everyday counting in another. For example, if you learn to dance in Spain and count the beat in Spanish, you may find that you use Spanish whenever you count in the context of dancing. Or if you’re used to dealing telling people your phone number in your second language, you may need to think extra hard when you give it to someone in your native language.
Counting backwards is the true test of whether you’ve truly mastered numbers in another language – try it yourself! And share your number experiences with us – which language has the hardest-to-learn numbers and which numbers are fixed in your head most firmly?