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A Bump from the Past: "I Did It All Wrong!"


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Menus and newspaper headlines are both genres of their own. For menus, the 'learning x number of characters gets you to y% comprehension' might actually work: if you learn the various types of animals, some vegetables (especially the ones you like), some methods for preparing food, and the words 饭 and 面, you're set to order a meal. Then supplement that with some dishes that you stumble upon and enjoy and thus make sure to learn the name of.

 

About menus, it depends what kind of restaurant it is and how pretentious or symbolic the names of its dishes are.  My husband is a native Chinese speaker, and he was pretty hopeless at ordering from menus when we traveled together in China.  The reason: Growing up, he never cared much about food preparation and therefore was not familiar with menu vocabulary, even for fairly common dishes.  Think: General Tso's Chicken.  Well, yes, you would know there's chicken in it, but if you didn't already know the dish you wouldn't know anything else about it.  And in English he is even more hopeless ordering off a menu.  For instance: 

 

Veal scaloppine with lemon-capers sauce, served with soft polenta and asparagus purée

 

He'd be baffled.

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20,000 characters? Wow! That sounds really unlikely. I've watched native Chinese people take a "how many characters do you recognize?" test online, and they seem to get about 6,000 characters (the first 4,000 of those are commonly used, and the remaining 2,000 are pretty rare). My entire database of vocabulary words (gathered from 25+ books) has somewhere between 5,000 to 5,500 unique characters, and it isn't growing that much anymore.

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I've included a link for a book purporting to teach basic, important Chinese characters. Reading the description of the book might give some insight into the thinking of Chinese people in the business of teaching Chinese language about numbers of characters required for certain tasks. It is also important to realize the significance given to measurements of basic literacy in recent Chinese history, especially in terms of politics and ideology. Not everyone was considered to be destined to be a scholar, but everyone was considered eligible to participate in society and its benefits.

 

In Japan, where, although the underlying language is grammatically different, words and their visual expression still depend very much on characters, only 881 characters are required to graduate from elementary school. A child will have an enormous amount of input from the environment he/she grows up in, so that figure has obviously been overtaken by events (advertising, comics, TV, etc.).  But it is still the baseline determined by progessive Japanese educators and MacArthur's specialists who were determined to expand literacy by finding minimums necessary to ensure participation in society by all. General use characters required to be taught by further education were put at less than 1900. In the highly educated society that exists in Japan today, these numbers are an anachronism and probably wouldn't hold up too well, but they were still the minimums thought necessary to ensure full participation in a democratic society.

 

Also, characters are the visual representation of words and concepts that a native speaker may already know. So what separates the literate from the illiterate is the education process through which these characters are acquired. When we acquire characters, we are often also burdened with acquiring the word that those characters represent. So our experience is a poor yardstick by which to measure.

 

So numbers deserve a context.

 

Just sayin'...

 

TBZ

 

 

https://www.purpleculture.net/604-chinese-characters-p-7896/

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Also, characters are the visual representation of words and concepts that a native speaker may already know.

 

Aha.  Zaboon makes a really important point!  I don't know why this didn't occur to me before.  The number of characters needed to become literate in your native language may be quite different from the number of characters needed to be learned in a new language.

 

If you already spoke Chinese fluently but never learned to read, for whatever reason, you might more easily and much earlier understand, let's say, menus and newspaper headlines than someone learning Chinese.

 

Therefore you can't transfer the number of characters needed for Chinese native speakers to become literate to the number of characters needed for Chinese learners to become literate.

 

So the numbers 200 and 1000 might be valid for native Chinese speakers.  But that doesn't mean they apply to Chinese language learners.  Tricky, tricky.

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It's why I think there's a strong argument that an ideal way to learn Chinese would be to delay learning characters for a year or two, so you end up matching characters to sounds/meanings, rather than learning all three at the same time. Students could rely on pinyin in the meantime. And also learn the fundamentals of how characters work, perhaps slowly memorise maybe a hundred common characters/components that derive from pictures of things (without their pinyin) e.g. 木、日、月 etc. And learn how they derived from the earliest characters, plus calligraphy etc.

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This is a little off the topic, but still related the number of Chinese characters one needs to learn to be able to read and write something.

 

There is a Chinese Writing Contest that I’m organising and only 320 unique characters are allowed to use. This is the second run of this contest. Last year there were some really good submissions and they were published as a book. A free audio version of the book is available online.

 

If anyone who is interested to participate, submission starts on August 1.

 

Details about the contest are here: https://www.mslmaster.com/index.php/8-contest/196-chinese-writing-contest 

Listen to the audio book here: https://www.mslmaster.com/index.php/9-books/222-easy-to-read-chinese-short-stories-book-1 

 

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On 7/30/2022 at 12:17 AM, Woodford said:

20,000 characters? Wow! That sounds really unlikely.


If the people you watched got 6000, surely a scholar getting 20,000 sounds quite likely? Scholars tend to mean professors in language, history, literature and the like. 

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I just looked up how many words the average adult American native English speaker knows, and it's 42,000.  So it seems plausible that a scholarly vocabulary for an American native English speaker might go up to 50,000 or more. 

 

That is words.  Going back to characters, surely even if English has more words than Chinese (apparently English has a ton more words than most other languages for some reason), the scholarly vocabulary in Chinese would plausibly be at least 30,000 words, which I'm guessing could easily correspond to 20,000 Chinese characters.

 

What do you all think?

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I don't think the numbers add up. A large part of the extra words known by such a scholar would surely involve two-character words whose two characters both come from the most common 6,000 characters?

 

I can guess at potential reasons for the 20k figure:

1) Scholars who are very familiar with ancient texts will have studied those texts and remembered what they mean so that, if they see a rare character in context, they'll know what that sentence means.

2) Many of those extra characters are just variants and therefore easily guessable in isolation or understandable in context.

3) Because several online sources say a modern, typical dictionary contains 20k unique characters, someone just has copied that number without giving it any more thought.

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I certainly expect variants to be included in the number. I don’t think 和 and 龢 would be considered to be the same character.
 

Perhaps @OneEye has an estimate on how many characters a researcher of, say, Chinese linguistics or historical texts, would know. 

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On 7/30/2022 at 12:28 PM, Moshen said:

apparently English has a ton more words than most other language


Or just a larger dictionary with a long tradition. The Swedish dictionary isn’t even finished yet and they’ve been going for over a century. Different languages also have different views on what makes a word. Which is also why numbers on how many words a native vary so much. 

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Apparently English has a relatively large number of words because they borrowed large amounts from different languages several times over. First there were the Germanic tribes, then came the Vikings, then the French, some Latin was borrowed... It adds up if you have three different synonyms for every word, borrowed from the different languages. But I don't remember where I learned this.

 

For Chinese, there are probably scholars of linguistics who get to 20.000 characters, but for most disciplines, I highly doubt you need that many. It's words you need, and they are often built from the same 4000-6000 characters that newspaper readers know, just in different combinations.

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