Do you struggle with numbers in "difficult" languages? I still do in Chinese after 4 years

I have been studying Chinese on and off for 4 years now. However, numbers are still killing me. When I listen to Chinese content and dates, fractions, percentages or large numbers are mentioned, my brain still goes blank. Can anyone relate (e.g. in languages unrelated to your mother tongue).

I know my mother stil counts and adds numbers in Finnish even though she has been living in Germany for 40+ years and her German is, in general, better than her Finnish…

Any tips?


Iso mies!

suurkiitos sun kysymyksestä!

I struggled with the spoken version of the Finnish number system for a while. I suppose you just get used to it. Exactly the same with years, how many times have i heard ‘tuhatyheksänsataa…’ tai kakstuhattaakakskyt… I’m sure I would struggle if someone started spitting random numbers at me extremely quickly, but it’s just a matter of time right?

Yes! I’ve noticed the same thing and I find it really interesting. My mind also tends to skirt right over numbers without processing them in the same way it does other words. It’s like the number system is a very particular form of domain specific knowledge and if you haven’t learned math in your target language you don’t have the internal structures required to process them on the fly.

I have no tips because I have not solved the problem. At this point it’s not important enough to me to try to clean up, but I have thought in passing, at times, about getting elementary level math materials in my target language and working them over, forcing myself to only think in the target language.



The linguistic ”unit” being 10,000 in Japanese instead of 1,000 like in English took me quite some time to get used to, and to be truthful the systems basically exist separately in my head. What is 1億?It’s 10,000万, but if someone were to ask the number in English I might have to resort to counting zeros. :slight_smile:

I did wonder at one point why they wouldn’t move the commas in numbers to agree with the language (i.e. 1,0000,0000).

This was complicated by the (at the time) roughly 100:1 Yen to USD ratio that made a quick mental calculation for currency possible. 100万 Yen was roughly 10,000 USD, but how many yen is it in English? Ha! I know that one off the top now, because I did run into situations where I needed to translate that, but when I read about figures in 億 or 兆 I don’t even try to relate them back. I just accept them in their own system.

And don’t get me started with dates. Though I do know I was born in year 50 of the Showa emperors reign.

1 Like

When I was in France, at the beginning I was struggling to understand numbers, counting fast or pronounce them. Then when I worked as hotel receptionist I didn’t really have a choice and those numbers became just natural as they still are today after almost 20 years.

Same thing now I can see with German numbers, the difference is that I don’t care anymore, I know that in case of necessity, if I had to live few months in Germany and work in some environment that require counting numbers, my brain would just learn to deal with them very fast.

So, I can see two options for you:

  • one, you don’t care because it is just a “mental” problem, a “thought”, but not a real problem and you might not really have a necessity for it right now. So you can relax and keep doing what you are doing and improving the language the way you are doing it.
  • two, you just tell your brain that it is a necessity, that there is no other option and you start doing a fixed time of numbers calculations every day, or deal with numbers and so on. You keep the pace and you don’t give any other options to your brain. Either you learn them or you learn them. Sooner or later it will give up and will give you the tools to understand them and you will.

You decide your priorities; trust your brain.

Only learned ‘easy’ languages so far, but my 2 cents:

I tend not to pay much attention to numbers when learning a language as an adult because they don’t interest me.

I also feel that I could learn them quickly and easily if I was about to need them ie to actually do business or go to the country that speaks the language (so I could ask about prices, buy things and get change etc).

Schools emphasise that kind of thing during modern foreign language classes, as an adult, they don’t really interest me and they’re not relevant to the things I read or want to read or listen to.

1 Like

Repetitive listening helps and is important. Living in Germany is an advantage for me because I get to hear how numbers are being pronounced by shopkeepers. If I am hearing them every single day then my subconscous mind can pick up on them by osmosis.

1 Like

Similar to what hiptothehop wrote Korean also bases the way they say numbers on 10,000 instead of 1,000. And in addition there is a second number system. I don’t consider it an issue, though. (I haven’t dealt with fractions and other more complex stuff, though. But English also does it partially different then German).

If you learn units in your mother tongue you don’t have any understanding of what they mean, too. What is a kilo, what is 100 €, what are 20 kilometres? You get a “feeling” for those by using them for long enough. When you start to use a second system, it is natural to try to convert this to the one you are already familiar with. At some point this should usually stop, though.

In germany we use a 100 based system for years before 2,000 and sometimes for random sets, too. So we say 17 houndred 35 for 1,735 if it is a year or something like “it costs 14 houndred euros”. (The latter is less common and depends on the person and maybe the region). We also introduced the Euro, so we had to adopt to the new currency. In the beginning, everyone tent to convert to the old one, too.

It’s basically similar to when learning a new language, where you translate everything to your mother tongue at the beginning, but at some point you stop doing that. You just switch.

I must admit, though, that I am a mathematician. So I may be a bit biased when it comes to numbers. :wink: My advise would be to not think too much about it. Try to think of what is actually meant instead of translating it.

Yes! I know what this is like! The numbers are tough! If you travel, the numbers are worse! For example, going from a country that uses Metric to a country that uses Imperial, or vice versa. And certain ancient measuring systems that only apply to certain circumstances. And then throw the currency exchange and time zone differences into the mix. The doctor says your temperature, and you have no idea if that’s good or bad. Or the weather prediction, should you wear a jacket? You buy something and have no idea whether you got a good price. Someone says, “How tall are you?” or, “How much does it cost to attend a university in your country?” and you’re just stumped. Bonus if the exchange rate is in flux. You order something online but misjudge the volume or size. You need to call home; what time is it there? 16 hours ahead is 8 hours behind and then add a day. (No, that doesn’t make it easier). Bonus if one of the countries uses 24 hour clocks and the other doesn’t; bonus if one country shifts for daylight savings time, or if both do but on different dates. Then of course the years may be numbered differently or they may have an entirely different system for dates (years, months, and days). And people wonder why you can’t answer such an easy question as, What size shirt/pants/shoes do you wear? How many minutes do you want your steak? Versus: Do you want it rare, medium, or well done? And, yes, the 10x1000 versus 1x10,000 thing especially with big numbers. When they go by fast, forget it! LOL

Sometimes it’s therapeutic to just laugh about this stuff (by yourself somewhere).