Inversion effects on mental arithmetic in English- and Polish-speaking adults

In some languages the order of tens and units in number words is inverted compared with the symbolic digital notation (e.g., German 23 → “ dreiundzwanzig,” literally: “ three-and-twenty”). In other languages only teen-numbers are inverted (e.g., English 17 → “ seventeen”; Polish 17 → “ siedemnaście” literally “ seventeen”). Previous studies have focused on between group comparisons of inverted and non-inverted languages and showed that number word inversion impairs performance on basic numerical tasks and arithmetic. In two independent experiments, we investigated whether number word inversion affects addition performance within otherwise non-inverted languages (Exp. 1: English, Exp. 2: Polish). In particular, we focused on the influence of inverted ( I; English: teen-numbers ⩾ 13, Polish: numbers 11–19) and non-inverted ( N) summands with sums between 13 and 39. Accordingly, three categories of addition problems were created: N + N, N + I, and I + I with problem size matched across categories. Across both language groups, we observed that problems with results in the 20 and 30 number range were responded to faster when only non-inverted summands were part of the problems as opposed to problems with one or two inverted summands. In line with this, the cost of a carry procedure was the largest for two inverted summands. The results support the notion that both language-specific and language-invariant aspects contribute to addition problem-solving. In particular though, regarding language-specific aspects, the results indicate that inverted number word formation of teens influences place-value processing of Arabic digits even in otherwise non-inverted languages.