It will only take 6 minutes to read this post!
So, you’re wondering whether to study Chinese or not?
Probably one of the biggest questions you have is, ‘how many Chinese characters do I have to learn?’
Problem is, there are lots of numbers flying about on the old interweb, such as:
- 50,000 (whaaaaat?)
- 91251. According to the Beijing Guoan Consultant Company, there are 91251 Chinese characters (even crazier).
- 85,568. The 中华字海 (zhōng huá zì hǎi), China’s most comprehensive dictionary had 85,568 entries in 1994.
Luckily, we don’t need to learn anywhere near this many characters (sigh of relief)!
The reality is, that a lot of Chinese characters become obsolete over time because they’re no longer relevant to modern day culture.
垚 (yáo) an embankment
嬛 (xuān) a girl’s dancing is soft and beautiful
劼 (jié) care / stability / diligence
From time to time, there are new characters ‘invented’ (remember DUANG?). In the case of ‘creating’ new characters, companies often take existing characters and add new radicals to make them more relevant to a product they want to name or promote.
Fortunately, these new characters are rarely added to dictionaries.
But, there are several facts we need to address before REALLY deciding how many Chinese characters you need to learn:
1. A Chinese character does not equal a ‘word’
Although a single character does have meaning, most of the time, a ‘word’ is made up of more than 1 character, usually 2, to make what is called a ‘bigram’. So, for learning’s sake, it is much easier to learn with bigrams than by taking each individual character at face value.
2+ 汉字 ‘characters’ = 词 ‘word’ / bigram
For example, the 词 ‘word’ for ‘computer’ is made up of 2 汉字 characters 电 (diàn) ‘electric’ and 脑 (nǎo) ‘brain’.
So, if you’re just learning to read Chinese for fun (yes, it does happen), you’re probably better off focusing on Chinese ‘词’ and not obsessing over each individual character.
2. Read 75% of Chinese with 500 Characters
HSK exams also cater towards ‘words’ instead of Chinese characters, so you often see recurring characters that you already know.
According to MIT, learning a little over 500 characters will allow to read 75% of Chinese! How is that possible? Well, the first reason goes back to the bigram revelation above. If you know 500 characters inside out and back to front, then you must be able to read even more actual Chinese words, or bigrams. Even if the characters are repeated in those bigrams, there are so many combinations to create from those characters, you eventually end up learning more.
3. Jobs Requiring Chinese
Talking of HSK exams, most jobs or universities requiring Chinese fluency ask for levels 5 – 6, which requires you to know between 1500 – 2500 Chinese characters.
Essentially, you need to know approximately 2600 characters to be able to read to the highest degree. To pass an HSK exam you will need to know approximately 5000 words, which will be a combination of said 2600 characters.
4. How many characters can a native read?
Consider that a well educated native Chinese person knows approximately 8000 characters, but in order to read a newspaper, you only really need to know around 2000-3000 characters.
Interestingly, an English native speaking adult should know around 20,000-35,000 words!
How Can I Learn So Many Chinese Characters?
So, we’ve established that to be able to read Chinese fairly well, you need to know around 2500 Chinese characters. Well, that’s way better than 85000, 50000, or even 8000, but 2500 still seems a daunting number.
How is it possible to read all of these characters? Here are just a few ways you can get closer to becoming fluent in Mandarin:
As I mentioned before, learning 500 Chinese characters, allows you to read 75% of Chinese, which is a start, right? So let’s go from there.
1.Study the first 512 Common Characters
One of the reasons why this is a good option, to begin with, is that these are the most common SEEN Chinese characters, so you’re actually learning to read useful Chinese characters or bigrams that you’ll see in newspapers, for example.
2. Take an HSK Exam
Another option is to study towards an HSK examination. There are six levels, with 1 being the easiest, and 6 being the most difficult. Our HSK flashcards are free to study, and we also have free PDFs for levels 1-5. The exams are held all over the world, usually once a month.
If you’re not sure which HSK level you might be working towards, why not test yourself?
If you’ve been learning to read for a while, you might want to test yourself with HSK 2 or 3 for which you need to know 300 and 600 words, respectively.
3. Write the characters
Even if you’re not interested in learning how to write Chinese characters, actually writing with a pen and paper can really help solidify the strokes and shape of a character, helping you to remember it. If you like using your tablet or mobile to practice Chinese, then you can also use the Chinese keyboard to practice the strokes and see if you can recognize the right character.
Additionally, coming up with a memory technique, will also aid recollection and help with learning so many characters.
4. Learn Radicals
Yep, those little things again. Learning Chinese radicals will create an association between other characters. So every time you see the dog radical, 犭(quǎn), you’ll know it has something to do with an animal, such as 狮 ‘lion’, 猪 ‘pig’ and obviously 狗 ‘dog’. This is effectively like batch learning, and will not only help with memory but also with spoken Chinese, too!
Although around 3000 characters seems to be how many Chinese characters you need to learn in order to read, at the end of the day, it’s all down to personal preference and why you’re learning to read. The worst thing that you can do, is to rush and try and learn to read in a hurry. Learning to read Chinese characters can be a time consuming and detail oriented task, that should be taken at whatever speed is right for you.