How many Chinese words or characters should I learn per day?

When I first started learning Chinese by self-study in China, I wasn’t sure how many new words I should aim to learn each day.  Before coming to China, I hadn’t been very serious about it, so only did the standard 15 new cards per day from a deck on Anki.  At that time, I had a full-time job and many other commitments, and didn’t have that much time to dedicate to Chinese learning.  I figured that the people who designed Anki probably knew what they were doing, and had a reason for setting 15 as the default number, and 15 seemed manageable without being underachieving.

In China though, I had no job and all the time in the world to learn Chinese.  Still, I worried that cramming too much would be counterproductive because if I tried to learn too many new words a day, my brain wouldn’t be able to handle it and the words wouldn’t sink into my long-term memory.  I settled for about 20-30 new words a day.  This also seemed in line with (and even more ambitious than) the results that turned up when I Googled “how many new Chinese words to learn per day”. Turns out, I greatly underestimated my brain.

Eventually I got frustrated at how slow my progress seemed to be, in the face of a Chinese language that seemed to have millions of words, and decided to intensify my study.  I have been able to learn 50-80 new Chinese words per day.  I could probably manage even more, but 50-80 seems like enough for now.  When going through my flashcards using Pleco, I manage to score around 95% quite consistently, which suggests the words have been learnt successfully.

A few disclaimers to be made:

  • not all the new words contain characters new to me; in most cases they don’t, but I try to make sure there are at least a few new characters every day.
  • this pace is difficult to keep up for long periods of time.  It’s okay to slip down to 20-30 words sometimes, or even 0 – when I was travelling, I added 0-5 new cards per day, though I made sure to keep reviewing every day.
  • this pace is time-consuming, and not everyone will be able to manage this, depending on their schedules, commitments, etc.  You probably would not be able to manage this pace with a full-time job and other commitments.
  • everyone learns at different paces – some will undoubtedly learn faster than me, others will learn slower.  You have to find a pace that works for you.
  • beginners would likely find it harder to learn at this pace.  This is a case where the Chinese language itself contains synergies (I hate that word, but it seems apt here) and economies of scale that you can “unlock” at a higher level (more on this here).

I’ll write about my learning strategies (particularly my flashcards strategy) which have helped me learn at this pace in later posts, but the purpose of this post is to say: don’t underestimate your brain.  It can probably handle more than you’re throwing at it.  Test its limits by upping the number of new words you learn until you reach one of two situations:

  • the amount of time you are spending on boosting and reviewing vocabulary is at the upper limit of what you can or wish to dedicate to vocabulary; or
  • your scores regularly slip below 85-90%.  This is probably the stage at which too many new words become counterproductive and you’re not really learning them properly (this is just my guess, I don’t have any scientific evidence to back this up).
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