Most people think that there are 2 languages in China: Mandarin and Cantonese. Well, that is simplifying things a bit. There are actually dozens of different languages similar to the way there are dozens of different accents in America. But unlike an accent, these are actually different dialects that people from other places can’t understand.
For instance in my city, Lin’an, the local dialogue is Lin’anhua. In Shanghai the local dialect is Shanghaihua. (In Chinese, Mandarin is called putonghua or literally common speech.) Despite Lin’an and Shanghai being a mere 3 hours away by car the two dialects are so completely different locals can’t understand each other.
Oftentimes I will see two Chinese people struggling to communicate. While all the young people know putonghua many of the older people (such as the farmers at the market) only know their own dialect.
This is where counting to 10 on your hands becomes quite handy. And, even more clever, the Chinese have come up with a system for counting to 10 using just one hand so you could be holding a bag, or doing something else and still express 8, or 9. It’s very convenient!
Personally, learning to count on one hand Chinese style has been a big help for me to clarify things. For instance the number 4 is pronounced si, while the number 10 is pronounced shi. But here in Lin’an they pronounce them both the same (si.) This is a major point of confusion for me. To make sure I understand I can do the hand gesture and repeat the number. Then they nod, or correct me by doing the other hand gesture.
So without further ado, here are the hand gestures for counting to 10. I’m going to skip 1-5 because it is the same way we do it in America (1 is pointer finger, two is pointer finger and middle finger etc.) Next to each letter is the Chinese character for that letter.
Six: (Looks like the surfer hang 10 gestures)
Nine: (Kind of looks like a 9)
Ten: (Okay, okay, I know I said they count to 10 “on one hand” and there is a way to do 10 with just one hand cross your middle and pointer finger like your making a promise but that is less common and I don’t see it that often. I see the cross much more often because it resembles the written character. )
You can also communicate much higher numbers by combining them. Like 42. You would do, 4, then 10 to express 40 and then 2. (That is the way it works in spoken Chinese too.) Sometimes doing the hand gestures feels a little silly (especially for 6 because I feel like a poser surfer) but they are very handy and a great way to communicate when you are having trouble speaking!