How are Large Numbers in Chinese Different?

Chinese numbers can be annoying for language students. The numbers for 1-100 seem easy enough. Twenty (二十) is literally “two ten” and thirty (三十) is literally “three ten” and so on. It is the large numbers that give students trouble. In English, one million is 1,000,000 but in Chinese we write it as 100万, which is more like “one hundred ten thousand.”

For students, thinking one million as “one hundred times ten thousand” can seem like… a lot of math. This can be especially distressing for students who chose to study Mandarin Chinese because they want a challenge that is not a STEM class. So do students have to do multiplication problems with large numbers just to use numbers in Chinese? No they don’t. Just like any other aspect of language, students will be able to use the correct words as long as they have heard and read enough input that includes those numbers. Students can learn anything with enough repetition.

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

Even though students can learn anything (when it comes to language) with enough repetition, we still have what Stephen Krashen calls the affective filter. As mentioned in an earlier post, high levels of anxiety, embarrassment, etc. can raise students affective filters and make it more difficult for students to learn. When students first encounter large numbers the Chinese way, they often resist because they are different to how we write large numbers in English. Giving students lots of input that included large numbers in context is one way to lessen the natural feelings of anxiety about Chinese numbers.

Getting Input with Real Estate Advertisements from Chinese Cities

The key to language acquisition is comprehensible input. Comprehensible input is language that students hear/read and (crucially) understand. For adult students, one way to give students a lot of input that includes large numbers is through…. real estate advertisements! Looking at real estate ads, we see the “easy” numbers. For example, the apartment is on the 16th floor, and it is 80 square meters. Ads also have large numbers for the prices. If you look at real estate ads for Shanghai or Beijing you are guaranteed to see prices that are in the millions and tens of millions (RMB).

Real estate ads are also a way to use authentic resources (authres) in the classroom. They are short so the students do not get overwhelmed. They are also a good spring board for further cultural discussions. Buying a home is very important in both American and Chinese cultures. But there are differences in the age of first time home buyers, living arrangements and what people value in a home.

photo of Chinese real estate ads
This could be a basis of a discussion on buying a home in China vs the US

Conclusion

As with everything else in language learning, students learn through getting input in a meaningful context. When we focus on creating meaning and using repetition, students can acquire anything. Even something as annoying as large numbers in Chinese!

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