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).

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Use your target language to learn something new

Since the middle of last year, I’ve needed to learn a number of new Excel skills to manipulate and analyze data at work; for the most part, this has meant paying regular attention to youtube videos by Bill Mr. Excel Jelen, and Mike Excelisfun Girvin.  They have both quick and easy “here’s something you might not know about Excel” videos, as well as longer “clear and concise instruction of an Excel function” videos.  In addition to their own ‘shows’, they also get together and share unique approaches to the same excel problem and share their differing answers together, as part of an ongoing series of “Dueling Excel” episodes.  I’ve learned so much from these videos, as well as their books (many available at my local ibrary).

Excel in French?

A while back, I wondered if it would be hard to track down similar Excel videos in other languages.  As it is with most things these days, all I needed to do was turn to Google and ask “comment utiliser index match excel youtube“. Once a youtube video that was remotely close to what I was looking for opened up, I was set— Youtube’s “suggested videos” eventually guided me (as expected) to videos with a decent number of views.  Without trying very hard, I found a short video introducing the =VLOOKUP function, which is evidently called the RECHERCHEV function French– voila!

Other hobbies?

If learning Excel in another language isn’t your thing, what about guitar?  In English, you can have James Taylor teach you how to play Fire and Rain, himself. If happen to enjoy the guitar and also want to learn Brazilian Portuguese, why not try learning how to sing and play a song? Or just sing along…. or just play along.. etc. etc.


I don’t know how to say “how to play guitar” in Portuguese, so I used Google Translate, and then used copy/paste to put the results, “como tocar guitarra,” into a google/youtube search.  Once you start adding in the names of artists and songs that you like, you may find something.  In my case, I ended up finding a high-quality guitar lesson for Caetano Veloso’s ‘Sozinho’.  The video wasn’t done by Caetano Veloso himself, but this teacher quite cleverly incorporates great on-screen tabs as well as original audio from the song.


What if the language level is over your head?

At this point, I don’t understand more than a few words of this video (i.e. I don’t speak Portuguese); however, looking at the guitar instruction, it’s pretty clear that it’s a good video (over 80,000 views at this point).  If I stuck with this video long enough to pick up the song on guitar, I’m confident that at least a few of the phrases from the teacher would stay with me.

Don’t torture yourself

If you don’t feel like learning the whole song, remember you might just want to try learning the chorus before moving on to another song.  I don’t think I would ever encourage people to treat these kinds of videos as something to memorize; however, if you’re not using your target language as a tool for learning something new every once in awhile, then you may find that this kind of exercise is an interesting change of pace.

Again– if Excel and Guitar aren’t your thing, what about French instruction on how to cook?  Are you a student in the Sciences? Why not listen to how a French math teacher explains integral equations?  There’s nothing really revolutionary about anything that I’ve written here, but I think many language learners would benefit from giving it a try.

If you were held to the same standard as English learners….

The other day I got to thinking of the standard to which English language learners in my community are held every day.  I wonder how well I would measure up if the shoe were on the other foot?

Regardless of your performance on standardized tests, If you’ve developed some competency in another language, do all of the following describe your level of comfort in that language?

1. Able to write coherent text, explaining somewhat complicated circumstances? Able to do the same verbally, over the phone.
2. Able to persuade, teach or train?
3. Able to calm a tense situation?
4. Aware when you are being misunderstood, and able to get conversation back on track?
5. Develop professional rapport with someone who initially doubts your abilities?
6. Write a comprehensive report?
What makes a few of these difficult (I’m sure there are better examples), is the cultural context in which they rest. Added to that, the consequences of ‘getting it wrong’ tend to rattle your confidence and, over time, it get’s harder and harder to step out of your comfort zone.
Which part is ‘hardest’ will be different for everyone; however, in terms of being able to think on your feet in a professional context, I think the fourth one is especially valuable— and probably the one over which you have the most control (or at least practice).

What works for you?

So many arguments about ‘the best way to go’ for language learners at different levels…

The tricky part, of course,  is that what works for one person might be totally off-base for you.

Ultimately, we can only really judge ‘what works’ for ourselves—if you find yourself arguing, it’s probably a sign that you should try something different…… conversely, what works for you may not work so well for someone else…..  “learn and let learn” I guess.

The designers of most language tests (DELFJLPTHSK, etc.) are trying harder and harder to make test scores reflect real world communicative ability; are you aiming beyond standard language tests (that really only mark the beginning of the next stage of learning)?

As you consider your goals (however broadly), what works for you?

DIY tools: make your own tracing sheets for DELF/HSK/JLPT writing practice

With a strip of  rainbow-coloured carpet weaving a path up the stairs and onto the wall around the whole store, it’s not hard to understand why any kid would love to spend a few hours hanging out in a bookstore like the Poplar Kid’s Republic Bookstore in Beijing (蒲蒲兰绘本馆).   Located right next to a cafe I used to visit in the Jianwai SOHO area, it had lots of great origami paper and Japanese (as well as Chinese and Korean) books. I picked up some books for my son the last time I was in Beijing but, if anyone knows of a similar kind of international children’s bookstore in Canada *please* let me know!

Tracing Practice

One book that I picked up from that shop is called (えんぴつで書いて読む日本の童話), which you might translate as “Penciling your way through Japanese children’s stories”.  The concept of the book is remarkably simple: famous pieces of children’s literature printed in an large font (I’d guess 36pt?), the font colour is probably about 35% grey so, as kids read it aloud, they trace over each character with their pencil.  One can assume that their parents would also read the story to them at the same time—neat way to experience a story, eh?

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Passed JLPT N1 一級を合格したぜ〜!!

Just got the results from last December’s Japanese Language Proficiency Test, and I was delighted to discover that I had squeaked out a pass on the new JLPT N1!

I consider the JLPT ‘hard’ simply because  the bulk of the test concentrates on my main weak points.  (No chance to talk!).  It’s surreal to have finally bested the legendary “Level 1”, especially since Japan seems quite ‘far away’ from my work and surroundings these days.

I’ll most likely take it again this year, but it will be a relief to have ‘passing’ out of the way—- my current score follows a familiar pattern: high points for listening, but reading could benefit from some more attention.

I’ll leave study strategizing for later—today is definitely a happy day!

DIY tools: language flashcards in a digital frame

The bulk of my language ‘study’ these days is listening to podcasts and other audio materials during my commute to and from work.  That’s pretty much been my pattern for the last couple of years– it works for me, but I’ve had a nagging feeling that I could/should be doing more work on reading and writing.

On my last HSK test, my suspicions were concerned— my listening section score was much much higher than the writing score.  Thinking about what I could do that wouldn’t take up tons of time (having a three year-old in the house means different priorities!), I hatched an idea.

I remembered that, awhile back, my mother had given us a couple of old digital photo frames– you know, the ones you can plug in and they will cycle through any images that you have on a USB key?  They weren’t the latest and greatest crystal-clear version of the technology, “but they were on clearance, and maybe we could use them to entertain [her grandson]?”  Because I’m still trying to keep him away from electrical cords, I didn’t really put the frames to use until a few weeks ago when the idea struck me to put one of them on my desk at work and make jpg flashcards of Chinese characters/phrases that I wanted to better remember.

The concept is pretty simple— use a free graphics editor like Paintbrush to type up two versions of an image, one with just the Chinese characters and the other with any pinyin or English comments that I wanted to add.   Naming them with sequential filenames ensures that they come up in order on the picture frame on my desk.  It’s not like I stare at it for hours, but every once in a while, a word will catch my eye and I’ll get reminded again about the strokes that make up that particular character.

When I’m reading something that contains an expression that seems worth remembering, I quickly open up paintbrush and make a white background flashcard.   Dumping it into a folder, I’m free to update my USB key whenever the inspiration hits.

When it comes to using flashcards, there are lots of folks talking about spaced repetition— sites like BYKI and Anki are good places to start if you want to give it a try.   I like the concept, but my ‘passive’ picture-frame cards are much more my speed these days.     This way I can keep some ‘word souvenirs’ from things I read and the review process weaves its way into my day.

Passed the new HSK level 5, as well as the intermediate spoken Chinese test

I sat both HSK tests last November, but didn’t see the results until yesterday—- what a great way to start off the year!

I did extremely well on the spoken test, as well as the listening section of the HSK 5 (fifth level of the new six-level scheme); however, my reading and writing scores are definitely telling me that I need to do more practice in those areas.

It’s worth noting that the written section of the test requires you to write chinese characters by hand— if you’re used to typing chinese, you may find it easy to compose text by inputing pinyin and ‘choosing’ the correct character, but it can be a bit of a challenge to recall the character when you’re stuck clutching your pencil.

As I recall, there were a few different kinds of questions in the writing section— some involved putting sentence fragments in the correct order, and others involved being given three or four words (eg: 电脑, 游戏, 学校) and having to compose a sentence.


DELF listening practice: French Podcasts

If you’re looking for French podcasts to throw on your ipod, try a few of these.   I have a number of different podcasts all organized into a smart playlist on my ipod– it all sort of flows together like a multilingual radio station….   Of special note is the United Nations podcast– if you need to follow up with something, often times you’ll find a transcript of their stories at the UN Radio site.

France Inter – L’humeur de Stéphane Guillon
[edit] **Guillon was fired by the station, so the audio archive is gone, but you can still watch lots of his videos here.

Un livre sous le bras [itunes link]
Radio des Nations Unies en français [itunes link]
RTL :  Z comme Zemmour  [itunes link]
RTL : Les livres ont la parole [itunes link

Why not simply browse the podcast directory?

Don’t forget that  you can click on the “Change Country” link at the bottom of the podcast page in itunes—if you select France then why not try out some random ‘picks’ from categories that appeal to you?     If sports is your thing in English, then you should definitely be looking to French sportscasters as an *ideal* learning resource.


Linguathon 2: New HSK

Linguathon HSK

Welcome to “Linguathon 2”!

Just as I did with a French exam earlier this year, I am asking people to sponsor me in my attempt at the new upper-intermediate level of the HSK Chinese proficiency test.

The money raised will be donated to the Tamaraneh Society, a development project that I support as a volunteer. You will receive an official tax receipt for your donation through our partner,Change For Children.  Your contribution will depend on how well I do on the test.

To calculate your donation, what we will do is multiply my final HSK score (i.e. 75%) by your pledge amount (i.e. $20)— in this hypothetical example, I would end up collecting $15 from you in June when the results come out.

If you’re game, just drop me a note to let me know how much you’re willing to pledge.

Why do this?

I actually have three goals:

  • I have made it a personal goal for 2010 to improve my proficiency scores in the three languages in which I have the most experience (Chinese, Japanese, French).   Additionally, the format of the HSK test has changed a little this year so I’m curious to see how I’ll do.
  • for the fundraising part of the exercise, I’m happy to sit down and chat with you about the work that is being done in Sierra Leone through the Tamaraneh Society.
  • ultimately, my biggest motivation for doing this is to remind as many people as possible that language learning is thriving in Edmonton–if you aspire to learn another language, all the resources you need can be found right here in your home community!