I'm not a native speaker but English has been my language of choice for more than 10 years now. I think and dream in English... However, I'm always struggling with numbers.

If I'm watching a video for example and the person says some number greater than 100, I need to slow it down and repeat it a few times before I can internally "visualize" what it actually means. I can perfectly understand sped up videos, but I find it very difficult to understand numbers at a normal speed.

I also find it difficult to say numbers or calculate stuff in my head. My speaking (and thinking) speed drops significantly, and I can even mess up frequently or mispronounce numbers that sound similar (e.g. thirteen vs thirty).

I do try to practice counting and manipulating numbers in my head, but I hardly see any improvements. And this issue also happens with another foreign language that I speak somewhat fluently.

I think that the issue is that different languages have different ways of representing numbers (for example, saying 2 before 3 in 23, or the other way around). And when you learn your first language, the brain structures how it sees numbers based on those rules, and strongly associates the words and symbols with the notion of a "number".

I would highly appreciate any suggestions that might help.

  • Don't worry about the thirteen and thirty. Just imagine the words as a string of letters and you have to hold on to the sound until you reach the end of the word. If it takes you one second to say thirty,it should take you two seconds to say thirteen. Hold the second syllable that little bit extra. Jun 28, 2020 at 13:31
  • Are you numerate in your native language? Jun 28, 2020 at 13:43
  • @WeatherVane Yes. But it depends on what you mean. My middle school math, high-school math and college math were all in different languages. But if you just mean if I have any issues with numbers in my native language, then the answer is no. Jun 28, 2020 at 13:47
  • @BruceMurray I understand. Though, I should clarify that the issue is not about my pronunciation or ability to understand the words. Instead, I'm just frustrated that I have to put in conscious effort to understand and decipher number. (By contrast, understanding other things is just effortless.) Jun 28, 2020 at 13:49
  • Would it help if you write the number on paper in numerals? Sometimes a physical action can help or complement the brain's working. For example, if I want to reason some problem, it helps having a pencil to jot with, even though what I write isn't really useful. Jun 28, 2020 at 13:51

1 Answer 1


Numbers are odd.

It is often observed that a bilingual who is capable of functioning in their second language will still revert to their native language for numbers. For example, I've known people who have near-perfect English skills having lived in the UK for half their life, but can't remember their phone number in English, and have to say it in Japanese, and then translate digit by digit.

The source above suggests that it is the "language of instruction" that determines which numbers a bilingual will be most comfortable in. So perhaps you could find out if a local college has maths classes that you could enroll in, If you spend a couple of years doing A-level maths (or whatever level is appropriate for you... I'm not sure how to translate this into American or Australian) you will certainly develop a lot of experience in numbers in English, and you get an A-level qualification in the process.

Of course this depends on having colleges that teach in English, which is no problem if you are in the UK, but maybe an issue if you are not living in an Anglophone country. And, of course, it isn't cheap or quick.

  • The link was so awesome. The last paragraph mentions "there are also those who do not rely on words and vocalizations at all when dealing with math" and I guess I, by contrast, rely heavily on words for mental computations. And I think it makes sense since I probably calculated far fewer multiplications in adulthood compared to childhood. I assume your answer is saying "keep practicing mental computations in English and you'll get better". Thanks! Jun 28, 2020 at 16:24

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