Chinese Tuesdays: Guess my age


In English, a typical age guessing exchange might go something like this:

A: Guess how old I am

B: 30?

A: Older

B: 35?

In Chinese, it's the opposite:

A: 猜猜我多大 (cāicāiwǒduōdà)

B: 30?

A: 大了 (dàle)

B: 25?

The difference is that in Chinese the response 大了 dàle – literally "big", an adjective used for both numbers and for age – is about the guess (i.e. "you guessed too high") rather the age itself, so the second guess is lower.

When the two meet in a second language situation, it can lead to exchanges like this one with a Chinese student of mine:

Student: How old are you?

Me: Guess!

S: 30?

M: Older

S: 25?

M: Older!

S: 20??

M: I said older, older than 30! *gestures upwards wildly*

S: Uh, 28?

The confusion is because when I say "older" in English, they translate it as "大了" (instead of 更大, gēngdà, which is the correct Chinese for "more old") and so think you're saying their guess is too high, due to 大 being used for both a high number and an old age.

I have tested this out on friends, students and coworkers, in both English and Chinese, and so far all of the exchanges have gone as above. This could be regional though, and if anyone thinks that the response 大了 (dàle) is non-standard, I’m happy to stand corrected.

Update from Sam, 26.12.13: Sent to me by a friend. Native Chinese speaker on the left in green, native English speaker on the right in grey:

Update from Alec, 21.1.14: OK, so I tested this too, with an unsuspecting Chinese acquaintance on Weixin, and it actually does work: