Gary Shteyngart has an enjoyable essay in The Threepenny Review called “Mother Tongue,” about his attachment to his native Russian and the slow process by which he took up English while living in a house “Russian down to the last buckwheat kernel of kasha.”

Vladimir Girshkin, the struggling young immigrant hero of my first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, shares a few characteristics with me, notably his penchant for counting money in Russian, which, according to the book, is “the language of longing, of homeland and Mother, his money-counting language.” And also, I might add, the language of fear. When the ATM coughs outs a bushel of cash or I am trying to perform a magic trick with my checkbook, trying to glean something from nothing, I leave English behind. American dollars, the lack of which constitutes an immigrant’s most elemental fright, are denominated entirely in the Russian language. And so with shaking hands, the fictional Vladimir Girshkin and the all-too-real Gary Shteyngart count a short stack of greenbacks, a record of our worth and accomplishment in our adopted land: “Vosemdesyat dollarov…Sto dollarov…Sto-dvadtsat’ dollarov…
Many of my dreams are also dreamt in Russian, especially those infused with terror. There’s one, for instance, where I emerge into a sepia-toned Manhattan, its skyscrapers covered by the chitinous shells of massive insects with water-bug antennae waving menacingly from their roofs. “What has happened?” I ask an unmistakably American passer-by, a pretty young woman in a middle-class pullover.
Nichevo,” she answers in Russian (“it’s nothing”), with a bored Slavic shrug of the shoulders, just as I notice a pair of insect-like mandibles protruding from the base of her jaw. And I wake up whispering bozhe moi, bozhe moi. My God, my God.

(Once again via wood s lot.)


  1. Of course, it might also be noted that it’s just really hard to do something as routinized as math and quick counting in a foreign language. I know several very fluent non-native speakers of English who still revert to their native tongues if they have to do math out loud.

  2. This might be somewhat off topic, but not entirely. I’ve noticed that native speakers of languages other than English, resident in the U.S., though they might speak their native tongue most of the time, revert to English numbers in certain situations, e.g. when reciting telephone numbers. I’ve heard this among Yiddish and Spanish speakers. Is this a widespread phenomenon with regard to minority languages vs. the vernacular?

  3. Um, I do this all the time. I can be happily cruising through a piece in Swedish or French and then I come to a number or a date, and then all the bets are off. English is most likely in private, followed by French (even if it was Swedish text) and having to read date/number rich passages out loud in class is horrible.
    I would bet actual cash money that this is a very common phenomenon among L2 speakers, for any L2 and any L1.

  4. Funny you should mention telephone numbers. I can easily rattle off my cell phone and home phone numbers in Hungarian, but have to translate them slowly into my native English if I have to use English. I usually find myself beginning to count in Hungarian, and then switching to English after six or seven. Needless to say, I’ve lived in Budapest for 15 years.
    Shteyngart is a great writer. We Budapest foreigners used to laugh at Prague, and I never laughed better than reading “The Russian Debutante’s Ball” last month. A couple of years ago I got hired as Editor in Chief for a Russian owned newspaper, that was to be for the foreign (I hate the word ex-pat) community in Budapest. It was a fiasco, but one of my funniest employement experiences ever. Vodka and zakuski office parties every day at one PM to celebrate the end of the working day. Advertisers who were completely sleazoid mafiya. Vodka parties for every Russian holiday. An advertising staff of five women all named Natasha and all dressed in startling red mini-skirts with high heels, who never sold an ad. The boss’ daughter was hired as my copy editor, except that she didn’t speak English. A nice old guy named Gennady who had been the superintendant of schools in some Russian city, now working as an office boy. I lasted three months.

  5. Tatyana says:

    That’s hilarious, zaelic – especially when I compare it to the verbal account given to me by former contributor to Novoe Russkoe Slovo. (Too long to share:I don’t want to be a pest and ocupy all the space here) But for the Prague update, here is the excerpt:
    [I was a so-called student – in quotes of course – I was a student at Charles University. The semester there would involve the professor coming in drunk and saying: ‘No class today – I am liquidated’. And then he’d send us home. It was sort of an excuse for a bunch of Americans to get together and have a very, very good party. But I learned nothing. Of course, I would go to all these bars and listen to poetry readings. I actually read at Beef Stew one day. I remember listening to this poem and it was the most god-awful thing I ever heard. And when I heard it I thought ‘Oh my God, I’m here in the middle of kitsch’. I think that going to Beef Stew and hearing this god-awful stuff was instrumental in my deciding to begin this novel.]
    Oh, and on the numbers – alas, another of my illusions of self-exclusivity shattered: phone numbers/home address/#SS&c in English, counting above 10 – in Russian…Typical.

  6. Doing counting and arithmetic in ones native language is definitely the norm. Think about how you learn counting and arithmetic. Most kids are taught to count before they have a clear idea of what counting represents, so three year olds can say “one two free four five six seven eight” but can’t count five pennies. We also learn multiplication and addition by recitation and repetition.
    Another example of this: ask someone what nine times six is and the answer will on average be slower than the six times nine answer. People memorize the multiplication tables one row at a time, so they rehearse “six time nine is fifty four” until they get it, then do nine times six by mentally looking up six times nine.

  7. Should also note that dreaming of mandibled female passers-by under a chitinous sky is quite common, nay practically universal in modern-day America.

  8. Part of being an ESL teacher in an elementary school involves teaching basic arithmetic. Most days I give my darling first graders addition and subtraction practice. All these kids speak Spanish or Vietnamese as their home languages. I hear them calculating and counting quietly as they do their sumas y restas at their seats. Almost all do their calculations in English as they have learned what we call their “math facts” at school in English. Those who attended school in their home countries calculate in Spanish. One child, whose middle class Bolivian father taught his some math at home adds and subtracts to himself in Spanish yet can do it fluently in English. There’s nothing romantic or sentimental about it. We do math in the language we learned it.

  9. Telephone numbers are not, strictly speaking, numbers: we don’t perform arithmetic operations on them. They are simply sequences of digits and sounds, to be pronounced like a mantra in the language of the listener. Counting is a very different process.

  10. Ohmygod, I just read the exerpt. He brilliantly captures the feel of being a Soviet Jewish refugee child finding his way in a new country. I love his style.

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