Jump to content
Chinese-forums.com
Learn Chinese in China

  • Why you should look around

    Since 2003, Chinese-forums.com has been helping people learn Chinese faster and get to China sooner. Our members can recommend beginner textbooks, help you out with obscure classical vocabulary, and tell you where to get the best street food in Xi'an. And we're friendly about it too. 

    Have a look at what's going on, or search for something specific. We hope you'll join us. 
sthubbar

1000 CNY Challenge: How many characters needed to read Chinese?

Recommended Posts

sthubbar

I bet 1000 CNY (~$132) that the number of characters needed to read Chinese is 4000+.

Why am I betting this? I am betting because I think it is a big disservice to beginning learners to tell them that 2000, 2500, or 3000 characters is enough to read Chinese. At the rate of 500 characters/year they might think it will only take 4 or 5 years, when at that rate it would take 8 years.

For such a simple question there has been so much debate, so let me make some clarifications.

READING versus VOCABULARY

There is a difference between reading being the limiting factor and vocabulary being the limiting factor. I can read French. If given a French paper to read, I can read it and understand 30%, if a French speaker were to read the same paper to me my understanding would still be about 30%. The limiting factor is vocabulary, not the ability to read. With Chinese, if given something to read, I might understand 15%, if the same item is read out loud by a Chinese person my understanding may be 60%. The limiting factor is the ability to read, not vocabulary.

INFORMAL CHALLENGE

Here is my informal challenge to give you an idea of what I mean. I can and do live an existence where I speak Chinese 95% of the time. I never get tired of speaking Chinese and just wish I could speak my mother tongue to relax. Being able to read for me would mean that I can read Chinese all day and then when tired I can also read it to relax. A second condition would be the above mentioned where my listening and reading abilities are about equal and they should be greater than my spoken ability.

WHAT THIS DOES NOT MEAN

This does not mean being fluent. I know many non-native English speakers that are far from fluent and they can read English and can meet the below formal challenge. I can meet the formal challenge using my spoken ability, but not my reading ability.

This does not mean reading poetry. I don't read that type of stuff in my mother tongue. This means just day to day reading.

FORMAL CHALLENGE

At what point can one sustain a long-term (6 months+) professional existence where 95% of the written material one encounters, including leisure time, is written in Hanzi.

EXAMPLES OF PEOPLE EXCLUDED FROM THIS CHALLENGE

The unemployed, or unskilled laborers. What do I mean? I have a friend that came to China and spent 10-12 hours, per day, buried in Hanzi with a book in one hand and a dictionary in the other. He could say that he was 95% exposed to Hanzi, but he was in the process of learning. He could not sustain a professional existence with that lifestyle. The unskilled could live in the middle of China and only need to recognize where to put there name and say they are exposed 95% to Hanzi. They are just avoiding their illiteracy. If you can convince me that you could sustain a professional job using 95% Hanzi and you are just temporarily unemployed then you can collect the 1000 CNY.

People with a background in Hanzi or Chinese. This would exclude native born Chinese, Korean and Japanese citizens. This would also disqualify anyone who grew up in an environment where they spoke any dialect of Chinese.

PEOPLE THAT MIGHT SAY THEY CAN READ HANZI, YET REALLY CAN'T

Professional exposure, leisure avoidance I am thinking of two specific individuals in this category. One is a professional translator that can claim to be exposed to Hanzi for 95% of their job. The other is a computer programmer where all of the coworkers only speak Chinese. The trick with the computer programmer is that every major programming language, including HTML is written in English. These two people in particular when leaving work do not spend 95% of their leisure time exposed to Hanzi, they read English or their mother tongue if different. I would include either of the above people if they can say that after work they are almost exclusively exposed to Hanzi, and that is how they obtain most of their written input, such as movie reviews, gossip, news, whatever.

Introduce me to an individual that knows less than 4000 Hanzi and can meet the above formal challenge and I will pay up. I will pay in person or via paypal in US$ using www.xe.com exchange rate.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Site Sponsors:
Pleco for iPhone / Android iPhone & Android Chinese dictionary: camera & hand- writing input, flashcards, audio.
Study Chinese in Kunming 1-1 classes, qualified teachers and unique teaching methods in the Spring City.
Learn Chinese Characters Learn 2289 Chinese Characters in 90 Days with a Unique Flash Card System.
Hacking Chinese Tips and strategies for how to learn Chinese more efficiently
Popup Chinese Translator Understand Chinese inside any Windows application, website or PDF.
Chinese Grammar Wiki All Chinese grammar, organised by level, all in one place.

gato

I don't see why you are so fixed on 4000 instead of 3000. Where did you get the 4000 number?

See this thread:

http://www.chinese-forums.com/index.php?/topic/11984-charactorusage-statistic

Based on my experience and studies I've read, 3000 characters does cover most everyday reading needs -- covering some 99% of the newspaper- level texts. But to improve you reading, you need to learn words over and above characters. About 10,000 words would allow you to read fairly comfortably.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
ChineseSpeaker

Chinese Characters At a Glance

If you think there are too many Chinese characters, it is not true at all! But I don't like to talk about it, just like we don't need to know how much oxygen exists on our planet, we breathe just as much as that is necessary to health.

How many Chinese characters do you need to know? It is far less than you may imagine. Is 1000 too few? Is 2000 enough? Or better, 3000? In any case, it depends on why you learn Chinese.

With one thousand Chinese characters one can read a short novel and write a simple letter, just like Chinese students in the second grade can do. If one knows 3000, admiration! It corresponds to the level of Chinese that students in middle school achieve. These people can read and write newspapers, novels, and essays. That is, they are free to do almost everything in Chinese.

The brutal misconstrue is that many believe that there are too many Chinese characters. Comparing with English we are sure that the total number of Chinese characters is less than the total number of English words, and the number of commonly used Chinese characters is less than the number of commonly used English words.

Here are the coverage rates of the most frequently used Chinese characters:

The most frequently used Chinese characters coverage rates %(statistics of publications)

10 12

100 40

500 80

1000 95

2500 >99

Thus China National Language Committee just announced 2500 Chinese characters as common used. Now you know how many Chinese characters you should learn as a simple outsider.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
sthubbar

There is a saying "There are three types of lies 'Lies, damned lies, and statistics." :) I am very familiar with all of the quoted statistics about character frequency.

What I'm looking for is a real-live living breathing human being. I pick 4000 because the people I know that can beat this challenge all know more than 4000 characters. I personnaly know 2000+ characters and I am no where near being able to read 99.95% of Hanzi text as the "statistics" state. BTW, the characters I know are mostly in the top 2000 most frequent characters, it is not as if I started at the bottom of the list and learned the most obscure characters first. :twisted:

From this poll, I encourage one of the less than 4000+ characters respondents to come forward.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
gougou

I chose the third option - based on number of characters, though, the description is not accurate. I should be around 3000 characters now (maybe below, will let you know when I get home). At work, as I am doing plenty of market research, most of the material I see is in Chinese. Generally speaking, the only characters I need to look up are those for metals and other very specific things. In my freetime - well, haven't really had any since I started working...

I don't quite get your challenge though. Some people will be able to work excellently in a job where they only understand 50% of what they're reading. What do you mean by sustain?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
sthubbar

Gougou, I mean, can you live your life only reading characters? If you are on the toilet with nothing to read would you read the Hanzi on the back of the shampoo bottle for a distraction? :mrgreen:

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
imron

The thing is, once you get beyond 2000 characters, it's not the number of characters you know, but rather the number of words you know that becomes important. I also chose option 3 in your poll, and if/when I look something up in the dictionary, it's usually not because I didn't recognise a character, but rather because I didn't know the meaning of a word that was made up of characters I already knew. Increasing the number of characters I know by another 1000 wouldn't have nearly as much benefit for my reading as increasing the number words I know by 1000.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
sthubbar

Imron, I agree with what you are saying. My belief is that in the process of increasing your vocabulary so that you can pass the challenge, you will, by default, also gradually be learning characters. So it is not as if just learning 4000 characters would allow someone to pass the challenge, but I contend that anyone that has put in the effort to reach 4000 characters has also put in the effort to increase their vocabulary. It is sort of a chicken and the egg problem, but I still contend that the only people that can past the test not only know lots of words, they also know 4000+ characters.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
muyongshi
Gougou, I mean, can you live your life only reading characters? If you are on the toilet with nothing to read would you read the Hanzi on the back of the shampoo bottle for a distraction?

I do and it has nothing to do with this. I know those characters and find it interesting but I do that in English too. But I first did when I was starting learning because it was a challenge and it was interesting. For me it's habit and nothing to do with living my life only reading characters.

I agree with imron...the words are more important than the characters (of course the are necessary to know the words but i think the focus is off).

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
gougou
Gougou, I mean, can you live your life only reading characters?
That makes it even more vague. I lived in Moscow for a year, the first few months of which I didn't know any Russian at all - still I was able to live my life, and quite happily so.
If you are on the toilet with nothing to read would you read the Hanzi on the back of the shampoo bottle for a distraction?
You could have enquired about something less personal than my hygiene habits :wink: , but, yes, I do that.

I'm not alone, though. :mrgreen:

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
roddy
Now you know how many Chinese characters you should learn as a simple outsider.

What about those of us who don't consider ourselves simple?

I'm sure I've said this before on here, but I'm going to say it again. Count the number of words you know, and you might have a useful figure. The number of characters you know is only useful insofar as it allegedly and indirectly measures the number of words you know.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
simonlaing

Hey Guys,

How do you know how many characters you have learned? I remember when I was studying a lot they said if you can handle this class you have about 2000 character mastery, but I haven't had a course like that for a while though I am still learning.

Is there some way of measuring your character rate? I am working in a translation company so I guess I am exempt, but my Friend James who started a dog shop speaks a lot of chinese.

The other thing is though he interacts with people about dogs and Mahjong, and stuff on TV all which can be talked about with decent but not extensive vocabulary.

He also didn't test well on the HSK and got a 5 would he be a candidate.

(Anyone read Modern Express, 现代快报 newspaper, on K7 there is an article on him.)

But it is probably a different world for us outside of BJ and Shanghai, finding a job outside of teaching where you don't have to speak chinese 95% of the time is difficult.

Have fun,

Simon:)

P.S. The was a point around 2500 probably when I was able to start guessing at the meaning of characters and their sound (though the tone was off) . You have a word that means something device and it has a huo in it you know it has something to to do with fire and from the context and guess at the meaning. Lots of radicals, roof, water, emotion and others can help you guess this way . And with redundant chinese half the time it is the exact same meaning as the second part of the word.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Lu
My belief is that in the process of increasing your vocabulary so that you can pass the challenge, you will, by default, also gradually be learning characters.
I am a professional translator. I have no idea how many characters I know, and don't really care either. I do not understand everything I read right away, but I think I look up words at least 4 times as much as characters. In other words, I know almost all the characters I see, but I see many words I don't know.

I strongly disagree with you that learning characters automatically implies learning words, and because I think, like imron and others, that the key to fluent reading is words, not characters, I think this challenge of yours is rather pointless.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
gougou
How do you know how many characters you have learned?
I learn with a little computer program I wrote, it keeps track of the number of characters I know (and yes, that function was included purely for self-gratification!)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
sthubbar

gougou - I think your time in Moscow would fall under exception #1. Were you living a professional existence? I guess maybe you had a travel book and that book was in a language other than Russian. To meet this challenge, if you had such a travel book for advise it would be in Russian. We are not asking if a person can survive in a foreign country, I am surviving in China just fine, I just can't read Chinese.

Roddy - I'm going to go even further out on the limb and say that knowing 4000 Hanzi is not only necessary to read Chinese but it guarantees one can read Chinese. What I mean is that I informally challenge anyone to find a person that knows 4000 Hanzi and does not know how to read. The sheer magnitude of achieving that level guarantees that the individual has also learned vocabulary along the way.

Lu - I understand you think this challenge is ridiculous. My purpose it to dispel the myth that lower numbers of characters will allow a person to read Chinese. I don't know your background, but you might fall under exception #2. What I mean is if you were to take a vacation would you use a travel book all in Hanzi to plan your trip?

simonlaing - I worded the "excluded" section poorly. I have reworded it so hopefully you don't think you are excluded. BTW, we are strictly taking about reading, not one's ability to speak.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
gougou
I should be around 3000 characters now (maybe below, will let you know when I get home).
OK, just checked. My database has 2749 characters for a total of 6666 words. I am certain that I know much more words than this, as by now I don't put all new words in there anymore, but the character should be pretty exact.

Again, no problems reading Chinese - on the character side, that is.

(Even though given the number of posts that I have read about "how many characters" these days, I should be below 95% Chinese by now... :wink: )

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
sthubbar

gougou, great work on all those character and words. :)

The following quote typifies what I mean by "can read Chinese."

here heifeng said:

Hmm..

Basically, (other then when I go online) almost everything that I read is in Chinese, so definitely reading in general is helpful and will help out with vocabulary quite a bit.

A couple of other things you might be able to clarify:

1) Is 95% of the written material you see on a daily basis in Characters?

2) If you were planning a trip to say Egypt, would you, or better yet have you, used only Hanzi websites to book plane tickets, hotels, tours, etc. Calling a travel agent does not count because I can do that right now, that does not require reading. When you plan your trip and go to Egypt are you able to ditch the Lonely Planet and only use Hanzi guide books?

3) If you are sick, are you confident to read medicine bottles when your life depends on it. (BTW, this test is not extreme. I have been sick a couple of time since being in China, once where I thought I might need surgery. I alway went to 100% Chinese speaking hospitals and had no problems getting by or fearing for my safety. Though, I would not trust myself to read a medicine bottle.)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
skylee
When you plan your trip and go to Egypt are you able to ditch the Lonely Planet and only use Hanzi guide books?

I am Chinese but I can't do that. Is there a Hanzi (what a way to call Chinese btw) guide book out there that is better than Lonely Planet? Would love to know about it. :)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
gato
If you were planning a trip to say Egypt

It'd be realistic to talk about a tour guide to a Chinese city, a guide to Chengdu, HK, or Taipei, for example.

If you are sick, are you confident to read medicine bottles when your life depends on it.

Your example is a little extreme. If it involves a life and death decision, I wouldn't necessarily trust my own medical judgment, whether the label's in English or Chinese. But it's for a cold medication or a headache, yes, it's simple enough to read the labels and find what's appropriate.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
gougou
1) Is 95% of the written material you see on a daily basis in Characters?

2) If you were planning a trip to say Egypt, would you, or better yet have you, used only Hanzi websites to book plane tickets, hotels, tours, etc. Calling a travel agent does not count because I can do that right now, that does not require reading. When you plan your trip and go to Egypt are you able to ditch the Lonely Planet and only use Hanzi guide books?

3) If you are sick, are you confident to read medicine bottles when your life depends on it. (BTW, this test is not extreme. I have been sick a couple of time since being in China, once where I thought I might need surgery. I alway went to 100% Chinese speaking hospitals and had no problems getting by or fearing for my safety. Though, I would not trust myself to read a medicine bottle.)

1) No. When I refused to read the English paper my boss gave me because of a challenge on the internet, she threatened to fire me, so I had to give in.

2) I book all my trips through ctrip (for which I need a little more than 20 characters, BTW). And I read up on the cities online - in Chinese.

3) I have a huge stack of semi-used up medicine in my cupboard, out of which I so far always have been able to find the appropriate one (granted, I only have to distinguish between throat and stomach, so that doesn't take too many characters either).

I think that your limit is way too high; around 2,500 characters should be enough for all but the highly specialized texts. Maybe those statistics that you are trying to disprove are not so wrong after all.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

×