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.

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Studying towards the HSK test

The thing about the HSK tests is, they’re kinda easy.  Or, at least, your level does not need to be anywhere near as good as the test descriptions would lead you to believe.  For example, the official website says:

Test takers who are able to pass the HSK (Level V) can read Chinese newspapers and magazines, enjoy Chinese films and plays and give a full-length speech in Chinese.

I’ve passed this level, and cannot read Chinese newspapers and magazines, and struggle to enjoy Chinese films and plays (I’m guessing it doesn’t count if you do these things extremely slowly and have to consult your dictionary every few seconds).

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Where to find new Chinese words

A common question people have when learning Chinese is, what words should I learn?  In this post I’ll canvass some of the places where you might pick up new words:

  • Pre-made lists – often these lists will contain, for example, the 500 most common Chinese characters, or the HSK Vocabulary List for your desired level, or a well-known textbook’s vocabulary list.  An advantage is that these lists are pre-made and can easily be downloaded into your flashcard program, and you’re unlikely to learn “useless” uncommon words.  Claims that you can read 90% of a text by knowing only 1,000 characters are often thrown around, but I find those claims to be wildly misleading.  It’s also a decent approach if you’re studying towards the HSK.  But the major drawback to this approach is that you don’t learn words in context: the words are harder to learn because you’re mostly relying on rote memorisation, and it is all too often the case that you might be able to regurgitate the English definition for the word without actually knowing how to use it in a sentence!

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Learning Chinese vs learning English

So while I’m learning Chinese, my Chinese friend Julie’s learning English, and we frequently complain about how difficult and frustrating each others’ languages are.  Her English is much better than mine (she’s studied for longer and is more hardworking than I am), at least in that her vocabulary is quite good.  On the other hand, I think my Chinese grammar is better than her English grammar.

Of course, one of the most difficult things about Chinese is the characters.  When I learn a new word, I have to learn three items: what the characters look like, how the word should be pronounced, and what the word means.  Different characters may have different meanings and even pronunciation sometimes, depending on the context (for example, the “着” in “着急” is pronounced differently compared to when it just follows a verb).

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Self-study Chinese – what’s worked and what hasn’t

In this post, I’m going to give a broad overview of what resources and learning techniques have worked for me while trying to learn Chinese by self-study (and will provide links where applicable).

I understand now why people say that learning more languages is easier after you’ve become fluent in two.  Part of it is because you have two possible languages to which you can make connections (e.g. for mnemonic devices, etc – this strength is far more applicable when your second language is something like French and your third target language is something like Spanish, because there are so many similarities between those languages), and part of it is because you’ll understand your native language better (not only things like nouns, adverbs, auxiliary words, sentence structures, etc. but also how one word like “efficiency” might actually be so flexibly applied in your native language that it does not have an equivalent in another language).

But also, part of it is because you spend an awful lot of time learning how to learn in the process – you learn which techniques and resources work for you, and which ones don’t.  This is especially the case when you’re learning a language through self-study (and unless you’re taking intensive and comprehensive language courses, you probably will be – or should be – doing some degree of self-study).

Here’s a summary of what I’ve found has worked well and what hasn’t:

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