The numbers racket

I’ve been hammering away at Japanese for just on three years now.  I studied German in high school, but the two learning experiences don’t really compare at all.  In high school, you learn the set of words your teacher tells you, in the constructs they tell you, remembering them for one semester until you’ve finished the exam.  In a foreign country, you learn because you actually want to express yourself.

That’s simply said, but the desire to communicate on a peer level with others is incredibly powerful.  Take away one’s ability to effectively communicate, and you take away a large amount of their influence, power and confidence.  To truly communicate on a peer level, you need to be able to not only think and dream in that language, but have an intimate feel for the culture it represents.

The road to thinking in another language is of course, paved with the rote memorisation of many, many new words.  I’ve noticed there are several stages of learning a word:

  1. A new word glides by you many times without you even catching it.
  2. You finally decide that the word is finally interesting enough to pay attention to, having learning all the more important surrounding words.
  3. After you’ve tried to learn it, you see it again later, but forgot that you’ve even learned it.
  4. You see the word again and don’t know what it means, but you suspect you’ve seen it before.
  5. You see the word, and are sure you learned it before, but can’t remember what it means now.
  6. You see the word, know that you know it, and have to consciously struggle to remember what it means. “Something to do with… fish?”  You’re exasperated when someone finally tells you the meaning.  “Oh, of course!  Octopus!  I knew that!”
  7. You see the word and know it well, but still have an intermediate processing step of translating into your native language (“Ringo is… apple!“) or using a simplified meaning in your second language (‘That’s right, an “automobile” is a “car”‘).
  8. You see the word and can instantly grasp the concept it represents with no internal monologue.   A ringo is a ringo. This is where you want to be.

Repeat these eight steps around five thousand times, and congratulations, you’re somewhat fluent in a foreign language!

The terrible twos, teens, twenties, thousands…

Well, that all sounds like a neat and tidy way to learn, doesn’t it?  However, there’s one class of words that for some reason, refuses to yield to my eight simple steps.

It’s numbers.

But numbers are easy, right?  Chances are, you can still remember how to count to ten in whatever you learned back in school.  Eins, zwei, drei, vier, fünf, sechs…

Of course, most people learning Japanese for more than a week can do this too.  Ichi, ni, san, shi, go, roku.  But unlike some of my most frequently-used Japanese words that are at that eighth, effortless level now, numbers are still refusing to co-operate.   I still see a number in a Japanese context, have to say it to myself in English, process it, then translate it.  My numbers in Japanese are stuck between steps 6 and 7.  It’s something that’s baffled me for a long time, but I have some theories…

People write in arabic numerals in Japan

Words in Japanese (English loanwords too) are represented using completely different symbols (hiragana, katakana and kanji), so it’s easy to look at a word written in Japanese and think in Japanese.  The visual cues of the characters help you switch into Japanese mode.  As a level 8 word, you see the Japanese symbol for “car”, but you don’t think of the English word “car”, you just think of the concept.

However, while Japanese has long used Chinese-derived pictograms for numbers, like a lot of other languages they’ve adopted the Arabic numerals.  Numbers, being something deeply ingrained in us all since early childhood, seem to be locked into my head, immutable.  I see something that looks like a 9, and I cannot help but hear “nine” in my head, not “kyuu”.  I then must think “Oh, that’s 9, which is kyuu.”

This is particularly tragic when I have to tell someone my phone number.  Having made a little memorisation jingle in English, I have to repeat the song over and over in my head as I painstakingly translate each digit.

Strangely, this is only true of numbers as abstract values (for example, large sums of money or mathematics).  I’ve talked about how crazy the numbering system is in Japanese is before, with different type of objects having completely different counting words.  The concept of one person, for instance, has its own special word: hitori.  Since “one person” is a concept that’s easier to grasp than the abstract, mathematical concept of “one”, it turns out to be a lot easier to memorise at that effortless level 8.

Numbers are grouped differently in Japanese

In English, we group our numbers in thousands once they start to get big.  I’m sure you’re familiar with this:

Ones, tens, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions, billions.

We even reflect that in how we write our numbers: 1,000,000.

In Japan, numbers are grouped in ten thousands.  It looks like this:

Ones, tens, hundreds, thousands, ten thousand, tens of ten thousands, hundreds of ten thousands, thousands of ten thousands, billions.

Today, I happened to be dealing with an issue that had a number in the millions.  I thought it was quite impressive that we’d reached this figure.  “Wow, we’ve hit a million!”.  Speaking to my co-worker though, in Japanese I had to say “Wow, we’ve hit one hundred ten thousands!”.  It somehow took the shine off it.

The word million, I think, has a very special meaning in English.  It’s a gateway to numbers which are really big and difficult to imagine.  It also confers magical status; millionaires for instance.  “One hundred ten thousands” really makes it lose its zing.  I wonder if this affects the arbitrary goals people make for themselves?  “Hurrah, I’m a hundreds of ten thousands-aire!”

Faced with this unaccustomed grouping system, I have to sit there in a meeting and convert 234 410 to “Uh, Two hundred ten thousands, um, sorry, drop a zero… twenty three ten thousands, forty-four, sorry (again), four thousand, four hundred and, uh, ten?”.  I’m ashamed to say that yes, I sometimes count off zeros on my fingers.

So, I try to shoot for projects involving smaller numbers to avoid embarrassment.  For example, “How many of you would like coffee?”.


The yen has no sub-denomination like our cents.  There’s only units of yen.  One hundred yen is worth roughly one Australian dollar.  Accordingly, ten thousand yen is worth about $100.

When I went to an ATM for oh, the first year, and wanted to withdraw $200, I’d type in: 20000.  I’d sit there, looking at the number on the screen, daring myself to push the confirm button.  “Wait, that can’t be right… can it?  Am I about to empty my account?”.  My brain, used to thinking that 10000 is a number representing what you pay for a small car, still sometimes refuses to accept that in Japan, it’s merely a number to represent a very nice night on the town.  It’s difficult to fight that hard-wired programming of how a number equates to concrete values.

South American field trip!

There was a story doing the rounds a while back about an Amazonian tribe whose language and perception of quantity only deals with values up to five.  Anything above that is just “bigger than five”.  The numbers below five blur together too.  Three and four are really almost the same, aren’t they?  We do it too, of course.  One billion?  Ten billion?  They’re both just big, right?  We both have similar perception problems, just on different scales.

It’s amazing stuff really, when you consider that some of the most central pillars of how we understand the world turn out to be made of modeling clay rather than stone.  Numbers just happen to be one of those apparently fundamental concepts that’s more flexible than it might seem at first glance.  Still, that’s the fun of travel and language learning – finding out that those truths you held to be self-evident are evidently not so truthful after all.


5 thoughts on “The numbers racket

  1. Chris this is a fascinating post about literacy, numeracy, learning and culture. I’m sure other educators would be interested too. Thanks for sharing your experience as an adult learner.

  2. Hi! I noticed your blog via your Tweet about learning Japanese. I’m Harvey from

    We actually made an iPhone App specifically to help people get used to big numbers in Japanese. It’s called Japanese 101: Numbers. (Simple name for a simple app)

    The thing is, it takes a long time to -really- get used to numbers in Japanese, especially big numbers. I have been using Japanese professionally for 7 years and still have to stop and gather my senses when I hear a Japanese number greater than 100,000 or so.

    Anyway, check out the app for some native speaker audio number drilling for you.

    • Hi there Harvey,

      Thanks for the heads up. Even though I know how to technically form all the numbers I need, I think it’s just a case of practice, practice, practice. I’m sadly iPhone-less since the good people at SoftBank don’t seem to want my money – but that’s another blog post, really. Anyway, if I can get an iPhone at some point, I’ll be sure to check it out.

      • Yeah the the numbers really is a 慣れ thing thats for sure. I’m going to mention your blog post in a JapanNewbie blog I think. This numbers thing is always something that’s on my mind.

        I’m doing Chinese now and ran into the same difficult large numbers thing!

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