Why claims that you can read 90% of texts with only a 1,000 character vocabulary are grossly misleading

I remember, when I first started learning Chinese, I’d hear claims that, by only learning 1,000 characters, you can read 90% of things or something similar.  Great, I thought. If I learn 10-15 characters a day, in 3 months I’ll be able to read most things! Nine months later, I knew about 2500+ different characters (according to this nciku test), and I still find it impossible to read a Chinese book or article without consulting a dictionary at length.

First of all, the thing with Chinese is that characters and words are different.  So just because I know the character 格 (, meaning a square grid, among other things) , and the character 外 (wài, meaning outside), does not mean that I’ll know that 格外 (gé wài) means “especially”.  I can read it, in that I can pronounce it, but until I’ve learned the word 格外 in itself, I can’t understand it.  Admittedly, there are lots of words where, if you’ve learned the individual characters, you can guess the meaning of the word (e.g. if I know 火 means fire, and 灾 means disaster, it’s not hard to guess that 火灾 means a fire disaster), but 格外 is far from an anomalous, standalone case.

So even if  you can read 90% (or even 100%!) of a sentence, doesn’t mean you can understand it.  I know every character in the following sentence (taken from a random article in the Chinese version of the NY Times), but I have bolded the words I don’t know:

经济增长正在放缓,不平等现象加剧,省市地方政府债务一路攀升.

Growth is slowing, inequality has widened, provincial and local government debts have climbed.

When the 10-20% you don’t understand is a critical part of the sentence, then it’s not much help if you understand the other 80-90%.  It’s not really helpful to know that growth is currently doing something, and there’s something about inequality, and something to do with provincial and local government debts. (To be fair, I probably could have guessed “climbed”, but you see my point).

Lastly, Chinese is a language where many, many words have more than one meaning and may serve as either a noun, adjective, verb, adverb, or whatever depending on the context!  And Chinese grammar can often be such a mess (i.e. their rules can be so brief) that in many cases, it’s not easy to guess whether the word you don’t know is a verb, conjunction, adjective or something else altogether.  This makes it very hard to read Chinese even when your vocabulary is at an intermediate level.

So in conclusion, if you’re frustrated that you have learned 1,000 characters but still can’t read nearly as much as you’d been earlier led to believe – don’t worry, you’re not alone.

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