The simple, unabridged answer:
Even if you couldn’t read or write a single Chinese character but could still have a full conversation with a native Chinese speaker, wouldn’t you be fluent?
But let’s get real.
And if you up and moved to China to learn in a total immersion environment, how would you expect to read a menu or navigate street signs with zero Chinese character knowledge?
So even if you could get by with zero Chinese characters, how many do you need to be considered fluent in Chinese? Or to pass the different HSK test levels?
In this post, we’ll walk you through the importance of Chinese characters and how learning them can actually improve your language skills beyond just word recognition. Then we’ll show you how many characters (as well as words) you should aim for to achieve basic, proficient or fluent knowledge of Chinese.
How Many Chinese Characters Do I Need to Know for Fluency?
Why Focus on Learning Chinese Characters?
It’s not just about writing and reading.
Studying Chinese characters can actually help you memorize new words and understand the language as a whole in a more meaningful way.
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 disagreed.
Turns out she said 货车 (huò chē — flatbed, delivery truck) and not 火车 (huǒ chē — train). The character 货 (huǒ) refers to deliveries. If I’d known the characters, I’d have had a better chance of distinguishing between those words.
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 a character meaning “peace” could be viewed as sexist, since the character is made up of a woman (女 — nǚ) under a roof (宀 — mián). That little insight made the word and its characters much more memorable.
How Many Chinese Characters Are There?
There are roughly 50,000 characters in the standard national Chinese dictionary. Plus, new ones are still getting created—you may find them online rather than in the dictionary.
To complicate things, Chinese characters can represent both standalone word or components for creating other words, ideas and concepts. That means the combinations of those characters form all kinds of words, which is great news for Chinese learners. It means that 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.
For example, check out these characters that are each equivalent to a single English word:
- 吃 (chī) — eat
- 山 (shān) — mountain
- 好 (hǎo) — good
- 火 (huǒ) — fire
- 上 (shàng) — up
- 下 (xià) — down
- 头 (tóu) — head
- 车 (chē) — car
- 人 (rén) — person
Now let’s do a quick exercise. Using the nine characters above, how would you say the following words?
- Mountain top
- Go up the mountain
- Come down the mountain
- Good guy
- Per capita
- The front of a car
- Get on (as in getting on a bus)
- Get off (as in getting off of a bus)
Here are the answers:
- 火山 (huǒ shān — literally “fire mountain”)
- 山头 (shān tóu — literally “mountain head”)
- 上山 (shàng shān — literally “up mountain”)
- 下山 (xià shān — literally “down mountain”)
- 好人 (hǎo rén — literally “good person”)
- 吃人 (chī rén — literally “eat people,” describing someone who takes advantage of other people)
- 人头 (rén tóu — literally “people heads,” kind of like how we say “head count”)
- 好吃 (hǎo chī — literally “good eat”)
- 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”)
- 上车 (shàng chē — literally “up car,” describing your action getting onto or into a vehicle)
- 下车 (xià chē — literally “down car,” describing your action when getting out of a vehicle)
Just Tell Me How Many I Need to Know!
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 for fluency?
- How many words do I need for fluency?
The average Chinese person only needs to know 1,500 to 2,000 characters to be legally recognized as fluent. Those 1,500 to 2,000 characters represent a basic education level that can help you make it in day-to-day life.
The word count is where your Chinese fluency goals come into play. Because Chinese fluency is legally 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.
To understand how your vocabulary knowledge impacts your fluency level, follow the standards set by the HSK test.
Each level of the HSK test increases your number of words, from Level 1 (150 words) to Level 6 (5,000 words).
Here’s a great explanation of how each level of vocabulary knowledge translates to Chinese ability, found on the official website of the Confucius Institute:
|If you can pass...||...you can:|
|HSK Level 1||use very simple words and phrases|
|HSK Level 2||exchange simple information|
|HSK Level 3||communicate at a basic level|
|HSK Level 4||fluently converse in Chinese|
|HSK Level 5||read Chinese newspapers|
|HSK Level 6||effectively express yourself|
Fluently speaking Chinese (or any language for that matter) also depends a lot on context. You might be fluent in English, but that doesn’t mean you can necessarily understand the legalese in a contract or can sit in on a random business meeting and grasp all the jargon.
The Bottom Line
If you really want a character count, shoot for around 2,000.
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.
For a word count, the HSK tests put basic fluency around Level 4, but Level 6 is when you can effectively express yourself in spoken or written Chinese. Just remember that fluently speaking those characters and words doesn’t completely depend on knowing how to read or write them.
3 Techniques to Hit Your 2,000 Characters
Watch Subtitled Chinese Videos on FluentU
The best way to learn new Chinese words and characters is through authentic, immersive material. FluentU provides real-world Chinese videos that’ve been transformed into personalized language lessons.
- Click through the interactive subtitles to explore written Chinese. Hover over any word for an instant definition and native pronunciation, as well as a memorable picture. You’ll also get the pinyin underneath and can toggle English translations on or off as needed.
- Reinforce what you’ve learned with FluentU’s flashcards and exercises. Each video gets a tailor-made practice set to make sure you don’t forget new words when you’re done watching.
You can also explore key vocabulary from the video in interactive vocabulary lists and dialogue transcripts.
- Squeeze in quick character practice no matter where you are. FluentU is available both on your web browser or as a mobile app, so you can practice anytime, anywhere.
Check out the full video library and learning features for free with a FluentU trial.
Read Real Chinese Schoolbooks
In school, you learn a subject, and according to the subject, you learn new words that contain related ideas. Basically, you passively learn the language you’re speaking in class.
- Grab some Chinese elementary school classroom textbooks on topics that interest you and dig in. You might already know what you’re being taught in those math, science or other books, but you don’t know those concepts in Chinese.
Don’t limit your learning to simply memorizing a character and its meaning. Give the character practical context. If there’s a workbook that goes with the textbook, use it. Include those new words in conversation.
Follow the HSK Levels
The HSK test is based on how you use those characters to form words. This language test can lead you to practical success.
- HSK Mock tests can help you study, even if you don’t plan on taking the test. They’ll get you reading and writing with important Chinese characters.
- Use apps with sections like the “words” section of Pleco to see how characters are used. Pleco has a built-in HSK vocabulary study list. The more thoroughly you know a character, the more useful it’ll become.
Make those Chinese characters work for you. Each character conquered is another step towards Chinese fluency!
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