Number word structure in first and second language influences arithmetic skills

Anat Prior, Michal Katz, Islam Mahajna, Orly Rubinsten

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


Languages differ in how they represent numerical information, and specifically whether the verbal notation of numbers follows the same order as the symbolic notation (in non-inverted languages, e.g., Hebrew, "25, twenty-five") or whether the two notations diverge (in inverted languages, e.g., Arabic, "25, five-and-twenty"). We examined how the structure of number-words affects how arithmetic operations are processed by bilingual speakers of an inverted and a non-inverted language. We examined Arabic-Hebrew bilinguals' performance in the first language, L1 (inverted) and in the second language, L2 (non-inverted). Their performance was compared to that of Hebrew L1 speakers, who do not speak an inverted language. Participants judged the accuracy of addition problems presented aurally in L1, aurally in L2 or in visual symbolic notation. Problems were presented such that they matched or did not match the structure of number words in the language. Arabic-Hebrew bilinguals demonstrated both flexibility in processing and adaptation to the language of aural-verbal presentation - they were more accurate for the inverted order of presentation in Arabic, but more accurate for non-inverted order of presentation in Hebrew, thus exhibiting the same pattern found for native Hebrew speakers. In addition, whereas native Hebrew speakers preferred the non-inverted order in visual symbolic presentation as well, the Arabic-Hebrew bilinguals showed enhanced flexibility, without a significant preference for one order over the other, in either speed or accuracy. These findings suggest that arithmetic processing is sensitive to the linguistic representations of number words. Moreover, bilinguals exposed to inverted and non-inverted languages showed influence of both systems, and enhanced flexibility in processing. Thus, the L1 does not seem to have exclusive power in shaping numerical mental representations, but rather the system remains open to influences from a later learned L2.

Original languageEnglish
Article number266
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Issue numberMAR
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Addition
  • Bilingualism
  • L1
  • L2
  • Number processing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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