In recent years, as China’s international influence continues to increase, the Chinese language is getting more and more popular around the world. Dignitaries worldwide love to speak Chinese, business elites are keen to learn Chinese, and more schools include Chinese as the language test subject for graduation exams. Learning Chinese can be beneficial in many aspects, whether for your future career, a chance to study abroad, or broadening your network with the Chinese communities.
However, learning Chinese can be a daunting task to a beginner since there are a lot of Chinese characters and grammar rules that you don’t know where to start. How many Chinese characters do I need to have a fluent conversation with native Chinese? Are 500 characters enough?
Read on to discover!
Common questions when learning Hanzi – Chinese characters
1. What is Hanzi?
Chinese characters, also called Hanzi, are logograms developed for the writing of Chinese. They have been adapted to write other East Asian languages and remain a key component of the Japanese writing system known as kanji.
An example of Chinese characters – Hanzi
2. What is the role of learning Hanzi?
It is important to remember that learning Chinese characters is not just about writing and reading. It can help you memorize new words and understand the language as a whole in a more meaningful way. Here are the primary reasons:
- Learning Hanzi helps 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.
- Learning Hanzi can help avoid tone errors that often cause confusion and embarrassment.
When I bragged about my first visit to Sichuan, the panda’s hometown, 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 laugh 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 to avoid such funny moments.
- Learning Hanzi helps 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 discussed 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 raised 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.
Besides 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.
3. 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.
Now you know how many characters are out there, you might be wondering if there’s a Chinese alphabet system and how many letters there are. The truth is that there is no Chinese alphabet.
Some consider 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 may sound confusing, just know that Chinese languages don’t rely on pinyin letters to formulate characters and words, unlike Western alphabets.
To complicate things, Chinese characters can represent standalone words. They can also represent components for creating other words, ideas, and concepts. 女(nǚ) or female and 马(mǎ) 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（mā).
That means the combinations of characters like those from all kinds of words are 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 you encounter. Chinese is 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, here are eight characters that are each equivalent to a single English word:
吃 (chī) — eat
山 (shān) — mountain
好 (hǎo) — good, well
火 (huǒ) — fire
上 (shàng) — up, on and good
下 (xià) — down, under and bad
头 (tóu) — head
车 (chē) — car
Now let’s do a quick exercise. By combining these characters, how would you say the following words?
Go up the mountain
On the mountain
Come down the mountain
Under the mountain
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
4. How many Chinese characters should you remember?
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 most 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. An average educated Chinese person knows around 8.000, and you only need to know around 2.000 – 3.000 to read a newspaper. With those 2,000 characters, you should be able to learn around 3,500 to 4,000 words. Therefore, though 500 Chinese characters is considerably a big amount, you need to keep expanding your vocabulary with relevant Chinese characters.
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. He started with the simplest pronunciation and handwriting. In three months, he learned 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 admired the Chinese people who could 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 many difficulties in learning Chinese, such as the same characters having different pronunciations; the meanings expressed on different occasions are different. She has lived in China for three 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 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, make jokes and even quote famous sayings and so on. He confidently said that even the Chinese couldn’t tell that he was Korean unless he spoke Korean.
The Bottom Line
Learning thousands of Chinese characters might be challenging. However, you can always use some tricks to make it easier. For example, you can use Mandarin flashcards, learn Chinese with books, movies, or TV shows, or get yourself a Chinese partner to practice. With a clear study goal and frequent practice, you will be able to reach it in no time.
See more: Top 10 Methods To Learn Chinese Online.
Don’t forget that you can also count on Pandanese. Pandanese is an SRS (Spaced Repetition System) learning platform that helps learners learn more than 6,000 Hanzi characters and vocabulary in a single year. Pandanese offers users well-designed lessons based on particular learning purposes. Whether you are learning Chinese for school, business, or travel, Pandanese helps you remember hundreds of Chinese characters in no time!