How Many Characters Do I Need to Learn?

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Everybody often quite reasonably asks, to be fluent in Chinese, how many characters do I have to learn? (Some even ask “do I even need to learn characters?”, but we’ll address that in a future article). 

Its a good question, and the answers can sometimes be intimidating, but its important to recognize that Chinese, like any other language, has characters and words that are used more frequently than others, and this is where you should start.

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Consider this, the top 250 most commonly used characters make up a whopping 64% of everyday language. Now that’s a number I can live with! 250 is nothing to spit at, but it doesn’t sounds as impossible as say, 5,000. We've had students in the past get a bit confused by the idea that such a small number of characters can occupy such a high percentage of the overall language, so here is a way you could conceptualize it: Imagine you are reading a 1000 character article online. Assuming it not an article that uses loads of specialized jargon from a particular discipline, then about 644 of the 1000 characters in the article are going to be comprised of the most frequent 250 characters in Chinese. (This phenomenon occurs all over the place, it is called the Pareto Principle).

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Move to the most common 500 characters, and you’ve gotten yourself to nearly 80% of your everyday language. This suggests that if you learn these 500 characters, you will be able to recognize, and therefore reinforce your knowledge of them with quite a bit of consistency day to day.

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As you continue to increase in character count, there naturally starts to be a law of diminishing returns, 1000 (91%), 1500 (95.7%), 2000 (97.9%) and 3,000 (99.4%). Here’s the thing though, if you get yourself to say, 500 characters, you are going to start to feel that the progress is taking effect, that you have the ability to go all the way if you just keep showing up, being curious, and reminding yourself of how much it will benefit you to stick with it. That feeling is amazing, like lightning in a bottle. 

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Somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 characters, you will be at a level where you don’t necessarily need to keep learning characters individually, but instead be able to learn new characters purely through the context of your reading, because at that point you will have such a solid grasp of how characters are structured know how they commonly express meaning and pronunciation. 

Of course, a very common question is, “Sure, but how do I even learn these weird Chinese squiggles?” For that, I’d recommend that you come to one of our Webinars (always free) to see just how you can do it faster than ever has been possible before.