Do you really know how to count in Chinese?

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.

  1. Learning numbers as a beginner – Why context is bad for you
  2. Learning to talk about large numbers – Why context is necessary
  3. 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 , 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!

The importance of counting what counts

Have you ever felt that your teacher is correcting the wrong things or that she says that one thing is all-important but then ignores that when setting grades anyway? Have you tried measuring your own progress and found that it’s not easy to quantify language learning?

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We humans seem to like counting things, we like to measure ourselves and our surroundings. Counting language learning is about quantifying something which can’t be easily quantified, so in this case counting by necessity equals simplification. This process is not simple and can be done in many ways. In this article, I’m going to argue that the way in which we count learning has huge impact on the way we learn. We will look at two examples: formal grades and self-assessed studying and see that even if they are both meant to be measurements, they have significant influence on the way we study.

Formal grades

Everybody knows that the way grades are set determines how students approach the subject being taught. This is more true for compulsory education than it is for grown-ups attending courses in their spare time, but it’s still a widely known phenomenon. Language learning consists of many different skills, but it’s seldom the case that all these cases are being formally graded, leading to some parts being more emphasised than others.

The problem is of course that humans are lazy (or smart) and only do what is required of them. Even diligent students (a category people tend to place me in, for instance) look closely at what is required. Perhaps they do more than that, but if they care at all about grades, they are still affected by which grading criteria are being used.

Let’s look at two cases:

  • Neglect is about overlooking an aspect of language learning. It might be intentionally, because of a lack of resources or because of ignorance. For instance, I took an advanced course in Chinese last year which contained no graded spoken element whatsoever. Sure, you needed to be able to communicate, but formal grades were still only based on written exams. Likewise, I’ve attended courses where you don’t need to write characters on the exams (perhaps you’re allowed to type or there are multi-choice questions).
  • Emphasis means the opposite of neglect, i.e. placing more focus on one skill rather than another. As is the case for neglect, this might be because of a number of different reasons. For example, a teacher or education system might strongly emphasise one aspect of language learning. I know teachers who are very strict with character writing and who deducts points for minor writing mistakes, even for beginners.

I want to make it very clear that I’m not saying that either neglect or emphasis is inherently good or bad, but we need to acknowledge that they influence the way people learn. In the first case, people are less likely to learn characters or focus on speaking and in the second case, students will probably spend lots of time handwriting characters.

Intention is great, ignorance catastrophic

If this is what the teacher wants, this is perfect. If not, it’s catastrophic. In other words, if neglect or emphasis done intentionally by a teacher, we can call her “competent”, but if it’s done unintentionally, I would say the she’s a bad teacher. I’ve found that many teachers aren’t fully aware of the impact their choice of examination method has on the students. If a teacher says that communication is priority number one and then deducts many points because of bad handwriting, this teacher isn’t aware that there is a discrepancy between what she says and what she does. The students will heed the latter, not the former.

  • As teachers, we need to make very sure that we are measuring what we think is important and that we communicate this to the students.
  • As students, we need to be aware of that not all teachers do this. In short, we need to take responsibility ourselves and make sure we learn what we need to achieve our goals.

Self-assessed learning

From time to time, I’ve had some extra time on my hands and have devised various plans to study Chinese more efficiently. Even though I realise that this might not be the case for everyone, I think that most people benefit from some kind of goal to strive towards, like learning X characters, reading Y pages or writing Z articles. Setting goals isn’t easy (see my article series about goal management), but as if the basic problems weren’t enough, measuring itself also causes problems.

If we’re going to measure our progress, we need to make sure that we measure every area in which we want to make progress, because otherwise we will neglect the areas we aren’t counting and emphasise those that count.

A personal example of self-assessment

For instance, I’m taking fewer credits than usual this semester and have a fairly ambitious plan to learn more Chinese. I devised a system for keeping track of how much I read, wrote, listened and so on. It worked very well, except that I had neglected to include some areas that I thought were important, such as writing articles here on Hacking Chinese or reading articles and books about Chinese or language learning in general that weren’t in Chinese. Because I didn’t count this as studying, I didn’t include it in my overall count. Result? I stopped spending time writing and researching articles. I read fewer and fewer books I knew I would benefit from reading.

This is an example of neglect. I didn’t count some aspects that really counts (or that at least were as important as what I counted). After adjusting the measuring system a bit, things stabilised and I now have a fairly robust method which takes all aspects into consideration (and if I find something which is related to Chinese, but doesn’t count, I will change the system).

Counting what counts

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

– Albert Einstein

This quote from Einstein really captures it pretty well, even though he didn’t have language learning in mind. Just because something is counted (measured by grades or when you assess your own progress) doesn’t mean it’s truly important. Likewise, some things that actually count can’t be quantified. This is because measuring is a simplification and some things will inevitably be lost in that simplification.

Being aware of this doesn’t make the problem go away, but it certainly makes it less serious.