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500 Chinese Hanzi Characters Are Enough To Speak Like Natives?

In recent years, as China’s international influence continues to increase, the Chinese language is getting more and more popular around the world. Dignitaries around the world love to speak Chinese, business elites are keen to learn Chinese, and more schools include Chinese as the language test subject for graduation exams. Times magazine said: “If you want to be one step ahead of others, learn Chinese!”. However, for those whose mother tongue is Latin, learning English might be a piece of cake while learning Chinese is another story.

The important questions to ask about learning Chinese characters

So, the questions are: 

  1. How many Chinese hanzi characters do you need to know to achieve fluency in the language? 
  2. Will you be able to have a fluent conversation with the vocabulary of 500 Chinese characters?

In fact, this is a very interesting topic. Because, while there are so many topics about how many English words to learn to have fluent English communication, there is little discussion on the general guideline to learn Chinese. Let’s find out how many Chinese characters do you have to learn to be able to communicate with a native Chinese person and in Chinese naturally. 

Chinese learners’ experiences 

First, let’s take a look at some learners’ experiences

Once an American computer engineer was sent to China as a technical consultant. He was very interested in Chinese on the first day he arrived in China. Although he could not understand a word, he was very eager to learn. In his spare time, he learned it with his friends. Starting from the simplest pronunciation and handwriting. In three months, he studied about 500 Chinese characters, all of which were daily expressions. According to him, it was enough to greet people in Chinese, but if he started to have a small chat, he found out that he would not be able to understand even a joke.

A British girl also shared her experience. She said that Chinese was just too difficult to learn. She really admired the Chinese people who can learn such a complicated language. Someone told her that after learning words, Chinese people also have to learn classical Chinese or 文言文(wényánwén). She experienced so many difficulties in learning Chinese, such as the same characters having different pronunciations; the meanings expressed in different occasions are different. She has lived in China for 3 years and learned about 1,000 Chinese characters. Now she can only have a small chat in Chinese. But she can’t understand Chinese idioms and proverbs at all. So, it is hard to have a meaningful and smooth conversation. It is still difficult for her to pronounce and write Chinese characters. From her experience, it seems difficult to learn Chinese without systematic learning.

Another Korean said that although South Korea and China are neighbors, the cultural gap is quite large. The profoundness of Chinese hanzi characters cannot be learned in a short time. He said that he has lived in China for 20 years and has known more than 5,000 Chinese characters. Now he can communicate with Chinese people normally, as well as making jokes and even quoting famous sayings and so on. He confidently said that even the Chinese can’t tell that he is a Korean, unless he speaks Korean.

The answer seems clear that if you only learn 500 hanzi characters, it is obviously impossible to have a normal conversation in Chinese. Additionally, since the majority of Chinese will have an accent when they speak, it is even harder for you to understand fully. , Chinese primary school students generally need to learn 2000-2500 Chinese characters and adults’ basic vocabulary is about 3000-5000 Chinese characters.

Therefore, 500 Chinese characters that we can learn is considered a small amount. Also, based on the data above, it just seems like a “mission impossible” to learn Chinese since you have to study all of the characters.

However, let’s get real!

Whether you’re studying Chinese by yourself or in a classroom environment, you’re bound to encounter written Chinese as part of your curriculum. “How Many Chinese Characters Do I Need to Know?” is an important question to consider as a smart learner, no matter what your goals are!

So, in this post, you get to know how learning Chinese characters helps improve your language skill as a whole rather than just word recognition. Then, I will show you how many characters (as well as words) you should aim for to achieve basic, proficient, or fluent knowledge of Chinese.

It is important to remember that learning Chinese characters is not just about writing and reading. It can actually help you memorize new words and understand the language as a whole in a more meaningful way. Here are two big reasons why.

Characters help you identify the meanings of words

I discovered that this is especially useful when you’re still sharpening your tone-hearing skills.

I once bought a fridge for my apartment from a local seller. After buying it, the seller insisted (so I thought) that we needed to catch a train to get it to our apartment. As you can imagine, I respectfully disagree.

It turns out she said 货车 (huò chē) meaning flatbed or delivery truck, and not 火车 (huǒ chē) meaning train. The character 货 (huò) refers to deliveries. If I’d known the characters, I’d have had a better chance of distinguishing between those words.

Characters can also help avoid tone errors that often cause confusion and embarrassment

When I bragged about my first visit to Sichuan, the hometown of Panda, I talked about my experience with my friend whose nickname is Panda. I told him that I was so lucky to have the chance to touch the pandas and brush them. However, the whole time  I was saying xiōngmáo (胸毛, “chest hair”) instead of xióngmāo (熊猫, “panda”) which made my friend laughed so hard. Because to her, it seemed like the whole time, I was saying I was so happy with touching the panda’s chest hair and brushing it. I was so embarrassed and wished I knew the characters better so that I would avoid such funny moments.

Characters also help you remember words based on their components

You can make stories or jokes from them to create mnemonic devices.

For example, a classmate of mine once had a discussion about how 家 (jiā), a character meaning “home,” since the character is made up of a pig or 豕 (shǐ) under a roof or 宀 (mián). It shows that in ancient times, productivity was low, people normally raise pigs at home. So, a room with a pig became the symbol of home. That little insight made the word and its characters much more memorable.

Speaking of making them more memorable, calligraphy also happens to be an excellent study method for remembering characters. It’s especially helpful for visual learners and anyone who remembers better by doing.

By learning how to write characters artistically, you’ll gain a better sense of structure and stroke order. Once you get a feel of that flow, writing characters will become second nature to you. You’ll be improving your writing skills and memory retention for characters.

Plus, writing and reading this style of Chinese cursive writing will also help you later down the line when you’re trying to decipher any handwritten text.

Let’s not forget that practicing calligraphy is also an opportunity to connect with Chinese culture. Chinese calligraphy is a highly esteemed form of art in China, therefore a great way to show some cultural appreciation.

Chinese characters and Chinese words 

Before asking “How many Chinese characters do I need to know?” You might want to know the answer to “How many Chinese characters are there?”. The honest answer is a lot. There are roughly 50,000 characters in the standard national Chinese dictionary. Plus, new ones are still being created—you may find them online rather than in the dictionary.

Is there a Chinese alphabet?

Now that you know how many characters are out there, you might be wondering if there’s an alphabet system in place, and how many letters there are. The truth is that there is no Chinese alphabet.

There are some who refer to the pinyin system as the Chinese alphabet, but that’s inaccurate. Yes, pinyin uses the Latin alphabet to show how you’d pronounce Chinese characters, but that is the only use of pinyin letters and it cannot be used for creating words. It sounds confusing, just know that unlike the letters of Western alphabets, Chinese languages don’t rely on pinyin letters to formulate characters and words.

Chinese characters vs. Chinese words

To complicate things, Chinese characters can represent standalone words. They can also represent components for creating other words, ideas and concepts. 女() or female and 马() or horse are perfect examples of characters that are standalone words, as well as components for building other characters. When putting them together, they generate a new word mother or 妈()。

That means the combinations of characters like those from all kinds of words, which is great news for Chinese learners. Basically, a handful of Chinese characters can be combined and reorganized to express a wide variety of ideas—you don’t need to learn a new Chinese character for every new object or action that you encounter. Chinese is in a way very similar to English, simply combining verb and noun characters, you will have an action word. If you combine two noun characters, you will make a word.

For example, I list 8 characters that are each equivalent to a single English word:

  • (chī) — eat
  • (shān) — mountain
  • (hǎo) — good, well
  • (huǒ) — fire
  • (shàng) — up, on and good
  • (xià) — down, under and bad
  • (tóu) — head
  • (chē) — car

Now let’s do a quick exercise. By combining these characters, how would you say the following words?

  • Volcano
  • Wildfire
  • Mountain top
  • Go up the mountain
  • On the mountain
  • Come down the mountain
  • Under the mountain
  • Delicious
  • Good appetite
  • Train
  • The front of a car
  • The first car
  • Get on (as in getting on a bus)
  • In the car
  • Get off (as in getting off of a bus)
  • Under a car

Here are the answers:

  • 火山 (huǒ shān) — literally “fire mountain”
  • 山火 (shān huǒ) — literally “mountain fire”
  • 山头 (shān tóu) — literally “mountain head”
  • 上山 (shàng shān) — literally “up mountain”
  • 山上 (shān shàng) — literally “on mountain”
  • 下山 (xià shān) — literally “down mountain”
  • 山下 (shān xià) — literally “under mountain”
  • 好吃 (hǎo chī) — literally “good eat”
  • 吃好 (chī hǎo) — literally “eat well”
  • 火车 (huǒ chē) — literally “fire car,” referring to the wood and carbon fires that would power old-style trains
  • 车头 (chē tóu) — literally “car head”
  • 头车 (tóu chē) — literally “head car”
  • 上车 (shàng chē) — literally “up car,” describing your action getting onto or into a vehicle
  • 车上 (chē shàng) — literally “on car,” describing a position is on or in a vehicle
  • 下车 (xià chē) — literally “down car,” describing your action when getting out of a vehicle
  • 车下 (chē xià) — literally “down car,” describing a position is under a vehicle

Answers to the main questions

You can be fluent in English even if you don’t come close to knowing all of the 171,476 words in the Oxford Dictionary. Chinese isn’t any different in this respect. As you just learned, characters are both standalone words or components of other words and ideas. So, there are actually two questions that need an answer here:

  • How many characters do I need to know to have a fluent conversation?
  • How many words do I need to know to have a natural conversation?

As mentioned at the beginning, the average Chinese person needs to know around 3,000-5000 characters. Those characters represent a basic education level that can help you communicate in day-to-day life.

The word count is where your Chinese fluency goals come into play. Because Chinese fluency is generally measured by character count, it’s assumed that you’d be able to put those characters into words the way we did with the exercise above.

Conclusion

If you really want a character count, shoot for around 2,000 characters.

Base your character studies off of what you actually read, whether online, in a newspaper or whatever other media outside of a textbook is available to you. In other words, make sure you’re learning relevant Chinese characters.

With those 2,000 characters, you should be able to learn around 3,500 to 4,000 words. Just remember that fluently speaking those characters and words doesn’t completely depend on knowing how to read or write them.

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