English: a hundred thousand
Chinese: 十万 (literally ‘ten wan‘)
In English, we have ten, a hundred, and a thousand. If we want to go up another power of ten, we don’t have a separate word for it, so we say ‘ten thousand’. With me so far?
But in Chinese (and in other East Asian languages) we do have another word. So instead of ‘ten thousand’ we have ‘one wan‘. Ok, not so complicated.
How about a hundred thousand then? Look above, and you’ll see it is ten wan. The next number up? We have a new word in English: A million. In Chinese, a hundred wan. Ten million? A thousand wan. A hundred million? A new word in Chinese: one yi. And the rest:
A billion: ten yi.
Ten billion: A hundred yi.
A hundred billion: A thousand yi.
A trillion: One zhao.
Like I said, other East Asian languages have the same counting system.
Try this on an East Asian friend. Ask them how much an average car costs in their country, and watch them scratch their head. The reason for their confusion isn’t that they don’t know the answer, it’s because they are trying to translate ‘one thousand wan‘ (or some other large number) into English. (‘So how many zeroes in ten yi?’ Let’s see, ten has one zero, a hundred has two, a thousand, three…)
This makes interpreting particularly hard. When an English speaker says ‘millions upon millions of people around the world who need our help’ how should you interpret it? Because literally interpreting it would result in ‘there are hundred wan upon hundred wan of people who need our help’ which doesn’t have the same ring to it, I think you’ll agree.