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JimmySeal

How many characters is enough?

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JimmySeal

Hello all,

I've been feverishly learning Chinese for the past two months in preparation for a 10-day trip to Taiwan at the end of July. By now I know the pronunciations of about 900 characters and about 100 compound words. I've seen various statistics on the number of characters necessary for literacy (3000, 6000), but how many would you estimate are necessary to read almost everything I see? That is, how many to be able to read 98-99% of the characters on any page of a book or newspaper? I'm just curious. Does anyone have any statistics relating to this?

Thanks, and pleased to meet you all.

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terran261

I don't personally know any numbers on this, but I can say that simply knowing the characters isn't enough. Even if you are able to read it aloud, it will take considerable practice to be able to actually decrypt the information as you read it. Although simply cramming characters into your brain is important, I would focus more on those compound words, as they are what really provide the substance of an article.

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DrZero

If you want to maximize your enjoyment of a 10-day trip, I don't understand your approach. You won't spend most of your time in a hotel room reading, will you? Why not focus more on speaking and listening, and use pinyin?

I agree that knowing the compounds is crucial. Maybe you should halt learning new characters for now, and focus on compounds involving those you already know.

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billiardsmike

I can't stress the compounds enough - they are words, afterall ! It's not unusual for me to be able to read entire sentences and still have virtually no idea as to the meaning because I still don't know those particular usages.

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kdavid

There was a post earlier that said with a knowledge of around 3000 characters you could read up to around 10,000 words.

As the posters above said, the character combinations is the most important. At this stage in my studies I know around 1200 characters, but can read over 2000 words and this is due largely to different character combinations.

On the other hand, you can know 3000 characters but not be able to decipher them in context and/or know what they mean in different combinations and therefore not be able to read 1000 words (as Chinese tends to be a disyllabic language).

I agree with Dr. Zero: this sounds like a short trip for you, don't spend it studying otherwise you'll miss a lot. Talk with the locals when you can and focus on your listening and speaking.

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JimmySeal

Hello, and thank you all for your advice. I know that my approach seems unorthodox, but I am fairly certain that I know what I'm doing. I know that other "quick and dirty" methods may make me more conversational in preparation for my trip, but I am more focused on my long term studies, past my trip to Taiwan. I would rather stick to what I am doing now, and be less proficient at the end of July, than take some other approach and derail my study in the long term.

Plus, being able to read signs and menus surely has its benefits. And I don't intend to spend my time abroad studying; that's why I'm doing the legwork now.

In any case, I was really only mentioning the trip as a means of introduction. I still am curious about my initial question, or if no-one has an answer to that, would anyone be willing to tell me how many characters they think they know, and how close to high reading proficiency they would say they are?

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imron
JimmySeal

Those threads are very informative. Thank you for pointing me in the right direction. :)

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djwebb2004

The answer is that with 3000 characters you cannot understand everything you see. The government has a list of 3500 frequently used characters and a larger list of 7000 commonly used characters. The latter includes characters most Chinese people do not know. So you need at least the basic 3500 and then some.

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muscle

I can tell you. I have a book with just such statistics.

For Single characters:

1400 will cover over 95%

2000 will cover 98%

2451 will cover 99%

3477 will cover 99.79%

Now if you want to know about words then

4500 words covers 88.7% to 90.7%

8000 words covers 95.1%

This book is published in Taiwan, so while you're there

you might want to pick up a copy.

It's called 6,000 Chinese Words: A Vocabulary Frequency Handbook

by James Erwin Dew

copyright 1999 by SMC Publishing Inc.

P.O. Box 13-342, Taipei 106

Tel (886-2) 2362-0190

ISBN 957-638-527-X

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JimmySeal

Thanks for that, Muscle. I think I'm at about 950 right now (working with 1262 flashcards and adding about 30 every day), but I hope to get to 1500 by the time I go on my trip. Feel the burn!

It's a bit daunting that the 600 characters between 1400 and 2000 only gets you an extra 3% but I think that's a good thing, and not surprising in any case.

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cdn_in_bj

Just curious, how much time are you spending each day learning characters? And do you find that you need to go back and review previously-learned characters before you really remember them?

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JimmySeal

I think I'm studying Chinese for about 2-3 hours a day, but I'm only actually learning new characters for a portion of that time.

Hardly any of them stick in my head after seeing them just once, but I am plugging them into an excellent SRS program (Anki), so I spend more time reviewing the ones I don't know as well, and less time on the ones I know well. I think I can say I confidently know about 650 of the characters and compounds that I have picked up so far, and that number is increasing every day.

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cdn_in_bj

I would say that you're learning at a fast pace. Keep up the good work!

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gato

Jimmy, didn't you say you already know Japanese? How many kanjis do you know?

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JimmySeal

I know about 2100 kanji. That helps a lot with deciphering the meanings, but the pronunciation is different enough that I have to learn it all from scratch. Trying to use Japanese as a guide would only cause unnecessary confusion. Here's a very illustrative example

台 - tai in Mandarin, dai in Japanese (sometimes tai)

待 - dai in Mandarin, tai in Japanese

Plus there are a ton of Chinese characters that are rare or completely nonexistent in Japanese, so I have a lot to learn.

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Quest
Now if you want to know about words then

4500 words covers 88.7% to 90.7%

8000 words covers 95.1%

covers N% of? These requirements seem too easy... I am skeptical, but what do I know...

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HashiriKata
Quote:

Now if you want to know about words then

4500 words covers 88.7% to 90.7%

8000 words covers 95.1%

covers N% of? These requirements seem too easy... I am skeptical, but what do I know...

You have to learn to work with figures, Quest. It's called "science"! :mrgreen:

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xiaocai

I just have no idea how many characters I know exactly, but definitely less than 7000, coz 新华字典 lists around 7000 characters and I can't say I recognise all of them.

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JimmySeal
covers N% of? These requirements seem too easy... I am skeptical, but what do I know...

95% sounds impressive until you realize that it means that every 20th word you encounter (approximately) is a word you don't know. With 90%, it's every 10th word. Is that a little easier to believe?

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