For a foreign language learner, studying numbers means more than getting down the one, two, three. A Chinese learner needs to know how to count from one to ten, learn the models for numbers from 11 to 99, and then 100 up, then 1000 up. There are also the hand gestures for numbers below ten, the superstitions of numbers, number phrases, and if you are in China, the painstaking way of writing out numbers at banks.
Is learning Chinese difficult? Yes and no. What makes learning how to count in Chinese difficult? Olle Linge from Hacking Chinese breaks down the reasons for each level:
“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”
For beginners, counting from 1 to 99 is relatively easy, as 1 to 10 is 一二三四五六七八九十, and as it goes up, simply add a 十 between the the first and the second of the double digit number (for instance, 65 would be 六 + 十 + 五). For numbers bigger than 100, they would read (single digit) + (百) + (single digit) + (十) + (single digit), or (single digit) + (百) + (single digit) + (零) + (single digit). E.g. 255 reads 二百五十五, and 609 reads 六百零九. But getting the right answer is not enough, as Olle suggests some exercises to remove the context:
- “Count backwards
- Count only odd/even numbers
- Read a random string of numbers (paste a =RAND() into Excel or similar program)”
For large numbers, the main problem is that a large number’s digits are not divided into groups of threes. As demonstrated in Olle’s article:
“English: 1 000 000 – one million (one thousand thousand)
Chinese: 100 0000 – one hundred ten thousand (一百万)”
He also points out how 亿 (a hundred million) sounds similar to 一 (one), and that one can avoid the confusion by factoring the 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.” His suggestion for getting down these large numbers is to learn “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.”
Another method, although it increases the time to read out large numbers, is to memorize the sequence as each 0 is added: 个, 十, 百, 千, 万,十万, 百万, 千万, 亿. Sometimes, if a number involves many digits, it helps to write it down and count from the last digit to know whether the number is a 百万 or a 千万.
The last problem Olle tries to tackle is the problem with listening and comprehension. He finds that it takes him twice as long to write down a telephone number hearing it in Chinese than hearing it in English. This can only be solved by practice. But it would help to be familiar with how Chinese break apart the digits. For a cellphone number (11 digits), most Chinese read it 3-4-4, some also read it 3-3-5, so when you are taking down someone’s number, focus on the numbers in that format, expect there to be a pause in between. You’ll find that knowing there is a pause coming to be much easier.
Image courtesy of hujiang.