Talking about big numbers in Chinese and English

I put the chart below together for someone I know who, despite having a strong grasp of English, often seems to get tripped up when talking about large numbers. It may seem like a trivial topic but this particular person works in a financial institution in a sales capacity…… I’m sure you can understand how a slip of the tongue in this kind of context might make someone lose confidence in their abilities.

I figured I could put something together that they could put beside their desk and refer to in a pinch– maybe it will work for you?  Feel free to print/cut it out.

big numbers

As it happens, this can be an issue for English speakers learning Chinese as well— the primary challenge being that English and Chinese (this is actually true of Japanese as well), put breaks at different points in large numbers. While English leaves things in clusters of three digits (thousands, millions, billions, trillions), Chinese groups the digits in clusters of four (i.e. units of 10,000: 万,亿,兆).

It’s easy to understand the differences in your head, but numbers are such a familiar beast that we say things like “75 million” without really having to think about it very much.  The trouble comes when we have to quickly refer to a number like that in Chinese, you have to rearrange your approach and translate the number into a multiplier of 10,000: “seven thousand, five-hundred ‘wan'” (一千五百万).

Your homework: anytime you see a sign advertising the next lotto Jackpot on a billboard or sign, say that number to yourself in the language you’re studying.

Another strategy I might suggest: memorize the translations of common numbers in tricky ranges (for Mandarin, my two peg numbers are: the approx. population of China–1.3 billion is thirteen yi, 十三亿–and the approx. population of Canada–35 million is 3500 wan, 三千五百万.  If I’m really in a pinch, I just have to think about my nearest peg number, visualize the number I’m trying to vocalize, and then I can get myself back on track.

To give an example, if I needed to say 300 billion (not a number I say very often in Chinese, I might say to myself “ok, China’s population is 13 yi, so let’s take 10 yi as a billion and go from there”.  This method may sound contrived, but when these numbers start playing tricks on your head, it’s better to have some reliable numbers in your head from which you can do some simple math (i.e. 300 x 10 yi is 3000 yi= 三千亿).  This will only work if you have complete confidence in your memory of your peg numbers.

I added the bottom line in the chart because I keep meaning to memorize the complicated of Chinese so-called “banking characters” that you might find on a cashier’s cheque, etc. in China.  I know how to read them but I never seem to get around to practicing how to write them.  Maybe I should just practice writing myself ridiculously large cheques, like my homework is some sort of positive visualization exercise……

Anyway– I had a teacher once comment that things like music/poetry and math (he also talked about wordplay) were some of the hardest skills to really grasp and ‘flow’ in another language.  Here, I’m not thinking of simply reading numbers, but following the logic of someone making a spirited and quick-tempo cycle of debate/rebuttal of a series of calculations— could you keep up?

Anyway—I try not to beat myself up about the fact that full numerical fluency isn’t quite within my grasp. It’s also a good reminder not to be too quick to judge when I hear someone tripping over numbers in English.

3 thoughts on “Talking about big numbers in Chinese and English

  1. This is a really great post! I have a hard time explaining to non-Chinese learners why big numbers are so hard (I’ve definitely been off by a factor of 3 or 4 before). I’m an engineer, so it’s really important and the metric system seems built around groupings of three . . . Your tips and the picture are really handy, thanks!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.