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Learning Mandarin numbers – different units

Any student of Mandarin will tell you what a stumbling block the numbers can be. Numbers are hard enough to read out in your own language (try reading out ‘2300002’ at a glance), but for native speakers of English and many other languages, Mandarin numbers can be really tricky.

The main difficulty is that Mandarin has some numerical units that English doesn’t have, and English has some that Mandarin doesn’t have. Up to the 1000s, everything is fine:

  • 1: 一 (yī)
  • 10: 十 (shí)
  • 100: 百 (bǎi)
  • 1000: 千 (qiān)

A new unit

And now we find a point where the two languages differ. In English, we simply say “ten thousand” to express the next decimal place after the thousands. Mandarin, however, has a unique word for this unit - 万 (wàn). So instead of “ten thousand”, you say “one wan". So far so simple, but it plays havoc when you want to say numbers like 12000. In Mandarin this is 一万两千 (yī wàn liǎng qiān) - “one wan, two thousand”.


Not to be outdone, English steps up with a unit that Mandarin doesn’t have - millions. Mandarin does not have “a million”, but instead says 一百万 (yī bǎi wàn) - “one hundred ten thousands”. I’m waiting for CCTV to make a show called “Who Wants to be a One-Hundred-Ten-Thousands-aire?”

Hundreds of millions

Now Mandarin retakes the offensive with another unit of its own - 亿 (yì). This is what English-speakers would call “one hundred million”.**

The combination of these differences in units can really make you stutter when you’re trying to say things like 1458000 .

Breaking it up

So to use Mandarin numbers fluently when speaking, you’ve got to get very fast at breaking up numbers in a different way. English speakers tend to split long numbers up into groups of three digits. For example, the number mentioned earlier is a lot easier when it’s written 2 300 002. For Mandarin, a good trick to is to break a number up into groups of four digits. This way, our twelve thousand example becomes 1 2000 - it’s now much easier to see the “one wan, two thousand” break down.

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Contact me: mhg@eastasiastudent.net