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.

  11. Lars Mathiesen says

    7 x 8 was the last entry of the little multiplication table I got confident about, as I remember. The one in the sevens row.

    I was the type of kid who made math exercises of everything I saw, and somewhere along the line I think I started just manipulating digits in my head without naming them, so I can read out the result in whatever language. But if I have to “push” some intermediate result, I read it out silently in Danish and then try to remember it as words later.

  12. January First-of-May says

    When I read out numbers-in-figures in my mind it’s technically in Russian, but a very clipped form of Russian; essentially, the digits are ground down to their initial syllables, and sometimes even further. (Notably 1 is down to something like /di/ medially and /i/ initially.)

    I recall writing out the details in a LH comment box at multiple separate times, but, as far as I’m aware, never actually made the comment (for whatever reason).

    just manipulating digits in my head without naming them

    Never managed that skill, alas. Maybe my thinking wasn’t abstract enough. Or maybe it helps if the transition between digits and words is as complicated as in Danish.

    (I just tried to looked up whether Danish 50 kroner banknotes use “femti” or “halvtreds”. Apparently the 1997 series used the former and the 2009 series used the latter. Where did I get “femti” from anyway?)

  13. I adopted English numerals for counting and phone numbers very early after coming to the US. The reason, very clearly, was that most English digits (all but ‘7’) are monosyllabic and most Hebrew ones (all but ‘6’) are not. It hurt my pride.

  14. Lars Mathiesen says

    femti — it’s how they say it in Norway and Sweden. Apparently, one of the post-the-great-war Nordic Unity treaties specified number spelling for checks and so on, with the tens being ti, toti, treti, firti, …. We were actually taught that in school, including putting the units last, but the other countries never dropped tjugo/tjue, trettio/tretti, firtio/førti and so on in those contexts.

    Also, as I’ve reported before, it is a scurrilous lie that Danes invented the twenties-counting system to confound the Swedes sometimes in the 17th or so. It was actually pan-Nordic in the 12th but only Denmark kept it (to confound the Swedes).

    (The ones are very similar across Scandinavia, fire/fyra and syv/sju being the most divergent, so just using the language spellings of each (and dropping final vowels) would go a long way as long as everything just used -ti).

  15. John Emerson says

    I have read that in Mediterranean port cities (let’s say Valletta) there are street kids who not only are multilingual in arithmetic, but can do currency exchanges in their heads and only make mistakes to their own advantage.

  16. John Emerson says

    On the question of mother tongue, a remarkably embittered multilingual English teacher at my alma mater said he had no mother tongue. He was an Indio (mixed-race Indonesian). partly of Indian descent, who was fluent in Indonesian, Dutch, German, and English and lived his life mostly in English.

  17. David Eddyshaw says

    Danes invented the twenties-counting system

    Welsh substrate. As always, it explains everything.

  18. John Emerson says

    Many features of Welsh not found in the less authentic Celtic languages can be explained by its Dravidian substrate.

  19. The substrate is generic Dravidian, but the mother of them all is Tamil.

  20. I definitely read slower in English. Ask me to find a word “butter” on a large page and a word “масло” on a similar page in Russian. I think i will do the latter much faster.

    Naming digits in your L2 is likely a hindrance in counting. Perhaps it is a hindrance even in your L1.

  21. Lars Mathiesen says

    Mathematically, it’s all names of course. “Numbers” are order types we have given names to. (The inductive subset of the class of order types, I think it is unique).

  22. You don’t believe in transfinite induction?

  23. Lars Mathiesen says

    Oh, I do, but only mathematicians call the infinite order types “numbers”.

    EDIT: Ah, you mean the other way around. Well, any prefix of the ordinals less than a limit ordinal will be an inductive set innit? So not unique, but the numbers are the minimal one.

  24. John Cowan says

    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.

    This report is very interesting, because it is quite contrary to all the other reports: it’s saying that Yiddish-speakers in the U.S. revert (why revert?) to using English digits in their Yiddish when reciting telephone numbers, whereas all the rest are about native Yiddish-speakers reverting to Yiddish (mutatis mutandis) to pronounce telephone numbers even though they live their lives in English. Of course it might just be a case of multiplex negatio farblondiat.

    7 x 8 was the last entry

    For me it is and remains 7 x 9. My daughter exhibits a lot of uncertainty about both of these.

    sevens row

    7 being relatively prime to 10, it is remarkably hard to see a pattern in the row. 3 is also, but it is in the scope of intuitive counting; 7 is not, at least for me.

    Ask me to find a word “butter” on a large page and a word “масло” on a similar page in Russian.

    When Unicode was first introduced, the creators felt it necessary to give an explanation of why A, B, C were distinct characters from their Greek and Cyrillic lookalikes; after all, Spanish Ó is the same Unicode character as Polish Ó (though there will be a difference in a high-quality Polish font, as kreska is properly shorter and steeper than til).

    It boils down to search. If you are looking in a bilingual Russian-English document for “ABCOULOMB” by typing the first three letters (which pretty much identify it uniquely) you do not want to find “АВСТРАЛИЯ” mixed in with it.

    it is a scurrilous lie that Danes invented the twenties-counting system […] it was actually pan-Nordic in the 12th

    And yet it cannot be original, for in Old Norse 55 is simply fimm tigir ok fimm, structurally quite like fifty-one.

    Welsh substrate

    Usandsynlig (which actually looks pretty Welsh on the surface). “Three and a half times twenty” is not very much like “ten on three twenties” pan fydd popeth yn cael ei ddweud a’i wneud (or for those of you who prefer it, når alt er sagt og gjort).

    said he had no mother tongue

    Kissinger made a similar remark about having no native accent.

  25. Lars Mathiesen says

    original — let’s blame the Hansa, they are not around to protest. (I don’t think the article I read carried the twenty-based system further afield than Scandinavian 12th century sources, so I’m just spreading blame here). Or the Welsh, it’s a non-falsifiable fact. (Didn’t good Christian Wales supply any missionaries to the benighted North?)

    The adverbial form is usandsynligt. (Or maybe it’s a neuter predicate adjective, in any case it’s what you use as a bare comment on something).

    Introspecting (Danger, Will Robinson!) I think it’s short for (det er) usandsynligt (at det er et walisisk substratum) — so it agrees with a secret neuter anaphoric.

  26. Can you say walisisk basilisk?

  27. David Eddyshaw says

    You could, but there would then be the danger of invoking one. That would be Bad.
    (You might be turned to carreg.)

  28. Lars Mathiesen says

    I think that was a specific you, not a generic one. And sure I could, but very softly. (As tongue twisters go, it’s pretty feeble — walisisk is stressed on its long second syllable, in basilisk the second is short and the third is stressed).

    Et Holmbladsk lys’ styrke er større end et Aspsks — Otto Jespersen said it was an example of something.

  29. I think that was a specific you, not a generic one.

    Actually, it was meant as the latter, but I’m happy for it to be taken either way so long as it got an answer. And I didn’t think it was a tongue-twister, just a funny phrase.

  30. John Cowan says

    Secret neuters are the best neuters!

  31. David Eddyshaw says

    Not at all. Neuters should be proud. They should require agreement.

  32. David Eddyshaw says

    Many features of Welsh not found in the less authentic Celtic languages can be explained by its Dravidian substrate.

    It’s substrates all the way down!

    (Actually, not: because the substrate of Dravidian is – of course – Welsh*, thus resolving the paradox. All paradoxes, in fact.)

    * This is clear, for example, from the SOV word order, which shows the exact same ordering of subject and object as in the Welsh VSO. Such striking resemblances in core grammatical systems cannot be dismissed as coincidence.

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