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
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. . 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.