French Language Blog

Have you ever counted to one billion? Posted by on Sep 16, 2015 in Vocabulary

Les grands nombres (large numbers) are hard to understand in any language. The difference between one trillion and one billion seems so abstract that it’s impossible to conceptualize the huge quantities that are being referenced.

French numbers are already difficult at 70 and 80 et en plus (and what’s more) the punctuation for numbers is not the same as in English. Now add on to that the confusion of un billion not being the same number as one billion!

The technical description of why they’re different is that in English every number greater than a million gets a new name for every number that is a thousand times larger than the previous number. Mais en français (but in French), every number greater than a million gets a new name for every number that is a million times larger than the previous number.

After that confusing paragraph, I can already hear the shouting.

Je ne comprends pas !
I don’t understand!

To make things easier to understand, voici des exemples (here are some examples):

One million       1,000,000
One billion       1,000,000,000
One trillion      1,000,000,000,000
One quadrillion   1,000,000,000,000,000

Un million        1 000 000
Un milliard       1 000 000 000
Un billion        1 000 000 000 000
Un billiard       1 000 000 000 000 000

The French words un milliard et un billiard (one billion and one quadrillion) make these grands nombres a bit confusing. Ce qui est important (what’s important) is remembering that un milliard is not one million and un billion is not one billion.

Heuresement, there’s another way to express these large numbers if you get confused. Un milliard (one billion) can also be called mille millions (thousand millions), and un billiard can be mille billions. Keep all this in mind the next time you have to count les zéros of a large number!

As a challenge, try to count all the way to un milliard in French!


I stumbled across une vidéo several months after writing this post that explains how les très grands nombres work in French and English. Malheureusement (unfortunately), it does not have des sous-titres (subtitles) and they use le français canadien (Canadian French), which may make it difficult for some people to understand.

That said, it very clearly explains how les très grands nombres work!

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About the Author: John Bauer

John Bauer is an enthusiast for all things language and travel. He currently lives in France where he's doing his Master's. John came to France four years ago knowing nothing about the language or the country, but through all the mistakes over the years, he's started figuring things out.


  1. Madeleine:

    Depends whether you’re English or American I think, a billion in English is a million million same as French…

  2. Clive Cass:

    When you say that a billion in English is a thousand million, you are only partially correct. In later years we have adopted the American leaning towards that definition, but for us oldies, a billion is still a million million, like the French. Not that it is ever likely to be an issue for us minions! Thanks for your delightful blogs!