3 Questions About Chinese Words

In this article, we share our answers to the 3 most common questions we get about Chinese words. 

1. How many words do we need to know?

As long as you learn the highest frequency Chinese words first (preferably spoken frequency), you only need a few hundred of them before you can start communicating and understanding a surprising amount. Here’s an image based on frequency research that will give you an idea about what you can do with vocabulary at different levels.

Chinese words, 3 Questions About Chinese Words

250 – Core Essentials

Things like “here”, “that”, and “toilet”. This is what you might want to cover before going on holiday somewhere.

1000 – Conversational Fluency

If you can acquire the most common 1,000 words of any language, you have around 80% of the written language covered and 90% of the spoken language. You still have a long way to go before you can express yourself like a native speaker, but you can work your way around words you don’t know using these 1,000 words. For example, you might not know the word for “Lawn Mower”, but you will know “That machine that cuts grass” or even just “cut grass machine”.

2500 – Fluency

“Fluency” of course is a bit of a slippery definition, and sometimes the number of words for different languages can be more or less than 2500. However, this is pretty accurate for Chinese. You’ll find very few problems expressing yourself at this point.

5000 to 10000 – Active Native Level

Depending on how educated they are, native speakers will likely be able to actively use 5-10,000 words on average.

20,000 – Passive Native Level

We understand FAR more vocabulary than we can use. This is true for our native language, and even more so for 2nd languages. 

2. What does “knowing” a Chinese word mean?

The concept of “knowing” a word can be difficult to define, much like the concept of “fluency.” There are many levels of knowing a word, just like there is with knowing people. If you only know a person’s name and recognize their face, you can say you “know” them, but you don’t “KNOW” them, you know?

Chinese words, 3 Questions About Chinese Words

If you recognize a word and understand it (whether from reading or listening to it) we definitely categorize that as knowing that word. However, you still have some work ahead of you before you can start using that word freely.

The mechanics of this can be explained by looking at the difference between passive and active vocabulary. 

Passive Vs. Active Vocabulary

Chinese words, 3 Questions About Chinese Words

Ever had that “tip of the tongue” feeling when trying to speak Chinese or even your native language? This is likely because the word or phrase you are trying to use is currently passive vocabulary. This means you understand it, but can’t use it at will yet.

Lots of comprehensible input increases your passive vocabulary, and after enough repeated exposure and speaking and writing practice, these words eventually become active vocabulary (what we can use in speaking and writing). As your passive vocabulary grows, so does your potential active vocabulary. Not only that, the more words and characters you build up, the more you’ll notice and the faster your passive vocabulary will grow exponentially.

A lot of people (me included) just learn a word’s definition and then try to make up/guess how it is used before seeing it in enough context. This leads to bad output, which leads to bad habits, and bad habits are really tough to break.

3. How best to learn a word?

As per usual, the frequency of a word is the most important factor for prioritizing your time. Sometimes a word has alternate definitions, but if they are not high-frequency you’ll be able to pick it up naturally at a later time when your grasp of the language has grown stronger. In the meantime, you want to deepen your understanding of the most common usage.

Deepen Your Memories

Scientists have discovered that memory is stored throughout the brain, connected by 150,000km of nerve fibers, reaching every area. The more emotional and sensory connections you have to a piece of information, the harder it is to forget it. Therefore, the best way to learn new information (like Chinese words, characters, and grammar) is to create as many connections to that memory as possible.

You cannot connect to a word you don’t understand, so your first step is developing a solid foundation of pronunciation and Chinese characters. Being able to read and listen to the word accurately will make it far easier to remember. You can then easily create deeper connections that will create longterm memories of the word much quicker.

Here are some great ways of connecting to words:

Images

We are incredible at remembering images, and it helps to piggy-back on this innate ability to boost your memory of a word. It’s even better if you can find an image that is a bit unusual, or represents what this word brings to mind for you personally.

Memories

When, where and from whose mouth have you heard this word? Can’t think of anything from your real life? Then how about movies? TV show? Music? Perhaps you could even go a step further and find an image that represents this memory?

Mnemonics

Due to the logic of Chinese words, simply learning characters will often give you a built-in mnemonic to memorize the word quicker.

Chinese words, 3 Questions About Chinese Words

However, you can also play on the meaning or sound of the word to link to your longterm memory and “jump the queue” of memorization. For example, for the word “但是” dànshì (“but” in English), I imagine Sean Connery butting in while I’m dancing with my girlfriend. Why? Well, this is because “dànshì” sounds like “Dance” in his accent. It’s weird but it works for me!

Combine these together when you encounter a tougher word to really reinforce your memory of it. 

Reviewing is Paramount

No matter how incredible your connection to a new Chinese word or character may be, you are still destined to forget it. Even top memory athletes attest to regular reviewing of information at longer and longer intervals as a crucial part of their memorization process.

The easiest way to do this is with digital flashcards powered by Spaced Repetition Software. Our favorite one is Anki.

Take all of your connections and put them onto a flashcard for regular reviewing. This can be surprisingly fun. 

Do you have any other questions about Chinese words? Let us know in the comments.