Counting in a foreign language is one of the first things we learn, yet it takes very long to master. This is not because counting in Chinese is exceptionally hard, but because it’s the case that counting is a task that looks easy but is actually quite difficult. I also think that most students abandon practising numbers too early, leading to a surprising and serious gap in our knowledge. I include myself in this category of students; this post is mainly the result of my finding out that I’m really bad at numbers in Chinese.
What makes counting difficult
In this article, I will discuss a few reasons why counting is difficult at different stages of learning Chinese.
- Learning numbers as a beginner – Why context is bad for you
- Learning to talk about large numbers – Why context is necessary
- Learning to understand spoken numbers – Why lack of testing makes us lazy
Let’s look at these problems in turn, but feel free to skip to the second and third question if you’re an intermediate or advanced student. Beginners and teachers should really look at the first question, though.
Learning numbers as a beginner – Why context is bad for you
Beginner courses typically teach you how to count to one hundred after just a few days. I think this is excellent, because the numbers from 1 to 99 contain most tone combinations and is therefore perfect for pronunciation practise. At the same time, everyone knows that being able to count is essential in everyday life.
The problem is that counting is almost always done in sequence, at least for numbers above ten. 一二三四五六七八九十 and so on. This is a natural place to start, but many teachers (and therefore, their students) get stuck here. This means that students learn the sequence, not the numbers!
Thus, I have met many beginners who can count to 100, but struggle to translate individual numbers (78, 23, 40 and so on). They know how to say 78, but only if they say 77 before that. And only 77 if they said 76 before that. Of course, given enough time, they can still produce the right answer, but the point is that simply counting to one hundred doesn’t teach us all those numbers properly in Chinese. We need to actively think of the meaning of the sounds we produce.
Here are a few exercises you can try:
- Count backwards
- Count only odd/even numbers
- Read a random string of numbers (paste a =RAND() into Excel or similar program)
These exercises remove context, which is good. Since I started learning Chinese, I have never ever been requested to count to one hundred, so this skill isn’t what we’re after. Naming any number between 1 and 100 is essential, however, but we don’t practise that if we’re just counting up starting from zero.
Moreover, as a beginner you need to learn that a zero has to read aloud in numbers that don’t require that in English (101 is read as 一百零一) and that the number of tens has to be specified, even if it’s only one (110 is read 一百一十), but most normal textbooks and teachers will tell you this.
Learning to talk about large numbers – Why context is necessary
Talking about large numbers in Chinese comes with two problems. First, Chinese switches word every four zeroes instead of every three as is the case in English (and all other languages I know). Let’s look at the difference between the two languages:
English: 1 000 000 – one million (one thousand thousand)
Chinese: 100 0000 – one hundred ten thousand (一百万/萬)
This continuous up through the counting system, so ten thousand ten thousand gets a new name: 亿/億, which is equally to one hundred million. Curiously, the pronunciation of this character is yì, which might lead to some confusion However, this should always be obvious based on context (if you think a company is worth 51 dollars, you can be quite sure it’s 五十亿 and not 五十一).
This is very easy to learn in theory, but hard to master in practice. Use a stopwatch to see how long it takes you to figure out how to say the following numbers in Chinese. I’ve grouped them as we would in English.
- 10 127
- 688 284
- 4 824 854
- 70 042 032
- 513 963 776
- 6 836 238 955
Now do the same in English. Here are my results:
Chinese: 57 seconds
English: 18 seconds
Swedish: 16 seconds
Naturally, we’re not requested to say large numbers very often, but I needed almost five times longer to say these numbers in Chinese compared to my native Swedish. When someone asks you how many people live in your country or how far it is from your home city to the capital, you don’t want to spend 15 second trying to figure out how many zeroes there are in the number and how to divide that into a Chinese number.
Knowing how to say 10 000 and 100 000 000 is not enough, it takes too long to derive the correct number from these. Instead, I suggest learning one example for each zero added to the number. For instance, if you know for sure how to say that there are more than 十亿 people in China and know that the population is over one billion, you can use this reference to any other number which is reasonably close. Here are some more or less random examples:
- Ten thousand – 如果你想要掌握某一项技能至少需要学一万个小时 (the 10,000 hour rule)
- One hundred thousand – 我出生的城市的人口超过十万 (I come from a small city, okay?)
- One million – “百万“富翁是英文的”millionaire”
- Ten million – 瑞典的人口接近一千万
- One hundred million – 日本的人口超过一亿
- One billion – 中国人口超过十亿
- Ten billion – 地球的人口可能会达到一百亿
Learning numbers is not only for your first week in class.
Learning to understand spoken numbers – Why lack of testing makes us lazy
The third and last problem is related to listening ability. Because of the above-mentioned phenomenon of having zeroes in groups of fours (0000) instead of threes (000), understanding large numbers in natural speech is quite difficult. Of course, if you hear a random number, you might be able to write it down. However, what if it’s in a lecture or news broadcast and you have lots of other things to worry about? You can’t think for five seconds and then have your answer!
I think the problem arises because we are almost never tested on numbers, neither inside nor outside the classroom. What do I mean by this? Basically, when you listen to news in Chinese and someone says a big number, you don’t need to know what it means, you just need to know that it’s big. You think you know how big the number was, but could you actually write it down while listening without missing something else? I’m sure you can do this very easily in your native language, but I find it hard in Chinese.
Another example is telephone numbers. I did a small experiment with myself. A native speaker read 16 randomly generated numbers to me in Chinese and I tried to write them down. To check the writing speed limit, I did the same in English (which should be very close to my native Swedish). Here are my best times (i.e., in how short a time all the numbers were read and I still managed to get all of them right).
Chinese: 8 seconds
English: 4 seconds
Twice as long! When people read phone numbers at a natural speed, they don’t read that slowly.
So what if you don’t understand big numbers or small numbers read quickly? Does it matter? Yes, it does, for a number of reasons, most of which are related to listening speed. Numbers are supposed to be very easy and people will assume that you know them. If you listen to Chinese produced for natives and don’t know numbers quickly enough, this creates a lag and probably gaps in your listening comprehension. If you take exams in Chinese, they might ask you about dates, prices and phone numbers, so simply knowing roughly what the answer is isn’t good enough.
In short, counting counts, even for intermediate and advanced students!