How many Chinese characters do you know?

I still keep a running tally as to how many characters I know. I recently tested my self and know it’s over 1,000 (probably not by much though). A friend of mine who can read books and the newspaper (in Chinese) said that he has no idea and I too will one day stop doing that.

Well, that day hasn’t come yet. Do any of you guys really KNOW how many characters you know (roughly)? Here are the figures I have running through my mind right now.

That Far Eastern 3,000 most frequently used character dictionary says that by knowing those 3,000 you (and I quote from the book) “should be able to recognize 99% percent of the characters in mainstream Chinese media publications.”

Based off of [THIS GUYS SITE] there must be about 6706 characters floating around the interent somewhere (I’ve seen other sites with frequency info and there numbers are around the 6,000’s).

I know that character knowledge says nothing about the number of actual “words” you know. Will I turn into a guy that says (in an Arnold Swartzchinhiemer type voice) “Back in my beginning years of language study I too counted characters, but I’ve since lost count.” Or will it be (in a nerdy voice if you will) “I know exactly five-thousand two-hundread and eighty-six.”

You didn’t provide an option “under 50” so I voted under 500. :wink:

Miltown: 500 is still a lot.
Why don’t you just ask us how many thousands of characters we know ? It’s as if you think no-one would know less than a thousand.
When you get some sensible numbers in the poll, I might think about answering it :imp:

I can’t honestly answer that, since I lost count early on in the 0-500 range. But once again I’m gonna have to put my work aside and type in my thoughts … thanks Miltownkid, you always come thru for me :wink:

I think John DeFrancis is rolling around in his grave every time he hears the question “how many characters do you know?” … or if he’s still alive, then he’s just plain rolling around. He probably should have written another chapter in his book called the “Character Counting Myth”. Miltown, you did mention this in your post, but I think the idea deserves more attention: basically, while knowing how many characters you recognise is not an irrelevant metric, the concept of learning words is much much more important.

Focusing too much on one’s character vocabulary is another misleading notion that perpetuates the idea that Chinese is a radically different language and the mundane laws of the West don’t apply to it. The bottom line is, modern Chinese has roughly 200,000 words in it, which is more than French, less than English, but about average for the few thousand languages spoken today around the world. Ok, since ‘word’ is such a hard-to-define word, linguists prefer to use ‘lexeme’, or dictionary-entry, to clear some of the confusion when comparing languages like Chinese to those that use conjugation to ‘artifically’ inflate their word count. Either way, you need a certain number of words to function in a language, regardless of whether those words are written with two characters or 6 letters.

I HATE those online tests that measure how many Chinese characters you know. I took one a few weeks ago, which after 40 multiple choice questions, told me that I know approximately 1675 characters. :laughing: :laughing: :laughing:. The format of these tests are absolutely ridiculous, they give you one character, then ask to to pick out the pinyin from a list, and maybe the English translation from another list. If you have a basic understanding of Chinese, you know that most characters don’t have a concrete meaning, at best they convey an idea or mood, but often they are just meaningless syllables when taken out of context.

This is why a simple concept such as “let’s learn 5 new characters today” makes little sense to me. Sure it can be done, we can commit the pronounciation and stroke order of 5 new characters to memory, but what’s the gain? To really learn a character, you have to learn up to a dozen others that it can be combined with. Hopefully you already know some of them. At the end of the day, by learning 5 new characters, you have probably learned a couple more by necessity, and more imporantly your vocabulary grew by a few dozen words.

But we don’t really learn Chinese by going thru lists of chracters. Most textbooks give you word lists, which is similar to how other languages are taught, and makes more sense. What I don’t know is how local kids are taught. Do they learn characters, or words? It would make more sense to me if they learned words, for example by reading a story with phonetic marks, and then get a list of new vocabulary words encountered in the passage. (Hopefully someone who has kids here can comment on this.) But they have the added burden of having to practice writing long rows of individual characters. These practice booklets are the ones they take home with them, and so the ones that outsiders are more likely to see and associate with how Chinese is taught.

I think this image of Chinese school kids scribbling long rows of Characters contributes to our skewed notion that Chinese characters are something you learn sequentially, until you get to some magical number like 3000, at which point to pick up the morning paper, and read it start to finish before your coffee goes cold.

There you have it, character counting is interesting but misleading, it leads to the myth that recognising characters is equivalent to reading. Or maybe we should start counting how many strokes we know, and really start impressing our buddies back home. :bulb:

I don’t personally know many characters, but I enjoy reading their posts.

Ok funny guy, I changed that topic title. :wink:

I didn’t know which part to quote so I just picked this section. I’ve been studying VERY hard for quite some time now. I’ll let a secret out of my bag that you guys can think about. I’m going to atempt to memorize all 3,000 most frequently used characters in under 2 months (from where I am now).

In my memorizing process I usually work on the pronunciation first, then the tone and last the meaning and word combinations (kind of in that order). There’s a lot of characters that I can recognize and pronuonce perfectly, but really don’t know the meaning yet (all in do time).

I had a strange experience this week. It was the first time I’ve picked up a childrens book, flipped through it and understood what was going on (completely with out having studied it first). I was like "Yeah! :smiley: ".

I do think that after memorizing all these characters I’ll be able to pick up a newspaper and start reading (kids newspapers and kiddy books that is). I’ll only lack vocabulary, which I think is the easy part.

I’d like to comment on this too. I still feel that what I’m doing is learning a 3,000+ character alphabet. I started out feeling that way (when I didn’t know so many) and still do.

I know more than one thousand characters, but I feel like I am in the never-never land. I can identify almost all the characters I commonly see every day (e.g. street and shop signs, advertisements, restaurant menus, etc.), but when I attempt to read the newspaper although I can identify a large proportion of the characters I still cannot comprehend much of the text. I might be able to figure out what the article is about, identify one or two facts, but overall I don’t understand.

The question of how many characters do you know really needs to be qualified, because they are different levels of knowing. There are three main aspects to knowing a character.

(1) The correct pronunciation (and in the case of some characters there is more than one).
(2) The meaning of the character in isolation.
(3) Common words that the character is found in and being able to recognise and understand the character in context (i.e. when it is written in sentences, etc.)

Number two is probably the least important of the three. There are many characters of which I know the correct pronunciation, but not the meaning (usually because the character is in a place or person’s name). The pedagogy of teaching Chinese often fails to take these various levels of knowing into account. It often assumes that you either know a character (i.e. all three aspects) or you don’t know it. Reality is very different.

Miltownkid, I suggest that it is unnecessary to try and learn 3,000 characters before you start trying to read Chinese. Provided you know at least 1,000 characters just start working with short and relatively simple texts. You might find yourself relying on a dictionary a lot at first, but try to develop your reading skills by guessing words, looking for patterns, etc. Many Taiwanese love to study single words in English and know a lot of words, but knowing thousands of them won’t help them read anything, because reading also demands knowledge of grammar, collocations, etc. which you cannot learn by studying single words.

I don’t really know that much about how primary school children in Taiwan learn characters but it is very important to remember that a child learning to read and write in their first language is very different from an adult learning to read and write in a second language. From the three criteria above when a Taiwanese child learns a character they are usually only learning number two and how to write the character. (They might also be learning the pronunciation but that would not be difficult for them). When they learn the character they would already have at least some awareness of number three, except in the cases of some uncommon characters or characters that are mostly used in writing but not in speech.

The number of characters you know isn’t the greatest index of Chinese knowledge or ability, but what else is there that is measureable?

I planned to memorize the 3000 characters, but now I’m not sure. The closer I get, the more I realize that it’s more useful to memorize high-frequency words. And the frequency of chacters in the 2500-4000 range isn’t really much different. (But I don’t have any data to support that.) But at the very least, it makes words easier to look up in the dictionary. I will probably continue, although more slowly, not because it’s extremely useful, but to have a sense of accomplishment.

There are many lists of 1000, 3000, 7000 English words you need to know, but no Chinese equivalent. My experience with one Chinese-English picture dictionary is that you need to have someone check the Chinese definitions, otherwise the words you memorize will me a little strange or too bookish. So, I’m hesitant to go by the Chinese translations in those English handbooks.


I support your lil experiment.
Don’t worry about not knowing how characters are put up to make words. If you managed to memorize that 3000 characters. Then reading should not be a problem. If you don’t know meaning of a text you can always ask someone. But it’s easier to ask now, because you know the characters.


If you enjoy the abstract process of memorizing that many characters without a concrete goal or objective (like reading for information), then that’s great, more power to you. I don’t think I could do it.

But if you run the numbers, straight memorization of 2000 new characters in 2 months translates to 33 characters per day. Just no way Jose…

Although some of you have expressed that you don’t like (or find very accurate) online tests that measure how many characters you know, here is one that I found useful. It asks you to first answer what level of Chinese you are at, and then you begin the test. You can also choose how many questions you want to answer and whether you want the test in traditional or simplified.

I took the test three times at the advanced level in order to get a range of my knowledge and scored anywhere between 2600 and 3100. Given the relatively small range between those scores and the number of years I have studied, I would say the test is fairly accurate. I also took the test at the beginner level, and even with getting close to a perfect score, it told me I only knew 600 characters. So, the test does take into account your level in calculating your score.

Anyway, the link to the test is:

[quote=“Astro34”]Anyway, the link to the test is:[/quote]
I too found this one to be acurate, and I enjoyed taking it.

I garuntee you that greater mnemonics feats of been accomplished. I could do (a lot more then :wink: ) 33 characters a day even if each character didn’t have all of those hints (a phonetic character, meaning character, etc. inside it). And lucky for me my name isn’t Jose.

I do not want to dick around trying to learn how to read Chinese. I meet a lot of people that can speak rather well, but can’t read a menu (children’s book or newspaper). I will not believe that reading Chinese is as hard as people say it is. It just takes time and effort (like anything else).

Worst case senario is that at the end of my 2 month push I’ll have only learned 2,500 or so :cry: . I’ve already learned characters and vocabulary at a rate of 20 per day, 33 isn’t so scary. Plus, I’ve noctice that the more characters you learn the easier it is learn new ones.

Miltownkid, you’re up early. Studying characters I guess. :smiley:

Can you please shed some light on your studying techniques? I, and I’m sure others, will be very interested to know how you study 20 a day and manage to retain anything. What are your habits? Illiterate minds want to know.

Here are some quick ones:
Never write characters (unless it’s for fun).
Study a lot.
Buy supermemo for palm.
Don’t study any grammar until you know a lot of charcters, I’m still on Chapter 6 Book 1 of the Shida texts (grammar wise).
Read kids stuff and work your way up.

I will not battle characters for years on end, just to start another battle with idioms, proper nouns, etc. My plan is to get into to reading books as quickly as I can so I can put away the flash cards (reading will be my practice). And when I say books I mean those watered down kids books, then I’ll just work my way up. I see no reason why I shouldn’t be reading newspapers by the end of the year. I know some will laugh at a statement like this, but that’s ok (I’ve been laughed at my whole life, but I usual get the last one :smiley: ).

If everything goes according to plan I hope to write up my own Chinese leaning guide and sell it. See the other thread about the mobile class room. I do the bulk of my study during down time (mrt, lunch breaks, out and about, etc).

It really is shocking to me to see the time, energy and money spent (by some) trying to learn how to speak and read. I think if I can get very good at Chinese very quickly, people will be more keen on listening to what I have to tell them. I hope to convert what I’m learning about studying Chinese into teaching English.

besides, why do you study chinese, the question, how many characters do you know, is the worst questiion one could ever ask me. how the hell should i know?
Are their any statistics or something that tell you, if you can read the newspaper without any problems you know 1000, if you can read modern literature you know 2000 or if you can read classical literature you know 5000?

What you need to learn to read is precisely what does not exist (for the most part) in Chinese: level-appropriate texts that are interesting to foreigners.

Using primary school books is not appropriate, because our language background as beginners in learning Chinese is not the same as a little kid who is fluent in his own native language, but simply cannot read it. (Primary school books are usually written pretty much as the language is spoken, so there’s not so much difference between spoken/written forms; but the fact is that they use vocab that the average foreigners won’t learn up front in most cases, because little kids know those words without difficulty, in spoken language.)

Now, the question is, who is going to spend the time to write some interesting stories/novels/whatever in simple (not necessarily simplified) Chinese, using core vocabulary over and over? Comprehensible input. It works for reading, too. Or it would if appropriate materials existed.

For independent reading, you shouldn’t be facing more than 10% unknown words; for assisted reading, not more than 20-25% (and that could get frustrating). If you are, you’re reading things that are too difficult for your level. (Again, I have no advice on where to get things that ARE appropriate for your level, because no one seems to have done much about this problem.) In Spanish, French, etc. as a second/foreign language you can get such materials…

You know, people kept telling me that. But this is what I do know. Every native speaker that I show the 3000 most frequent characters to has no problem telling me any of the charcters in the book. Even the ones near the end of the frequency table aren’t a problem. You know what that tells me? A native speakers knows at least 3000 characters so I should too.

And people who think it’s a stupid metric for Chinese knowledge, poo on you. You SHOULD know how many characters you can recognize. It doesn’t have to be exact, but you should know that it’s over X thousand. With the right software it would take all of a day to find out exactly how many characters you know (not some guesstimate).

Yes, but they’re kind of loose. If you can comfortably read a newspaper I’d say you must be over 3000. I’m just now able to read and enjoy comic books (still with guessing) and I’m over 1000. When I knew about 500 I still couldn’t read childrens books :x .

This really is the/a problem. It took a lot of studying on my part just to get to a level where I could enjoy even the most basic kids book. When I got here I thought I’d be reading comic books in no time flat :laughing: . I will say that once you get over that first hill there are a lot of childrens books that are good to use (IMHO). They have books with Chinese on one page and English on the other, books with zhuyin down the side of characters, etc.

I still have this kids version of the Monkey King at my side that I bought about 4 months ago. Every now and then I’d pick it up and try to read from the first page. I’ve just now started to be able to understand what’s going on (roughly). And this is just a kids book. There’s a big gap between newspapers and kids books.

Here’s something else I noticed. It was hard for me to learn new vocabulary if I didn’t know the characters that went with it. So when someone (on the streets or whatever) told me a new word I would never remember it (unless I knew the characters for it). I know there are people who can’t read but can speak, so I must have been some how fooling myself. So instead of figuring out why I need to know the characters to learn vocabulary I just decided to learn all of the characters. Now when someone tells me new vocabulary I always ask for the character, if it’s a character I’ve never seen, I write it down and add it to my list of 3000.

For those who know some characters but not enough to read an adult newspaper, you may want to try the Mandarin Daily (

I would say that in the average sign of ten characters I can read 5-6 of them. Of course in the average subtitle of 15 characters, I could read maybe 8 characters…not sure what that means. Maybe I should go back to studying again.

Shida is offering a Chinese Proficiency Test. I think that you can sign up free of charge even if you aren’t an MTC (CCLC) student. I took a similar placement test at the beginning of the summer term, and I can recommend this to anyone looking to evaluate their language ability. There’s info at their website:

Now, the interesting thing is that they suggest that you choose an appropriate level based on how many words you know. For example, about 1000 words for the 1st level. I asked them whether they really meant 詞 (ci) words or 字 (zi) characters, fully expecting to hear “oops we meant characters”, but instead I got confirmation that they really meant words. I hope this wasn’t just some underling on email-duty who quickly fired up Dr. Eye to get the answer. If not, then it seems Shida really uses poly-syllabic words instead of characters as its metric. It would make sense.

Anyway, if anyone takes the test, let us know about it.