The Numbers About Learning Chinese

By Dr. Haiyan Fan

In an economy of attention, let’s run some quick math of the cognitive cost of learning Chinese. (I will leave out the financial cost due to its huge variations)            

Although there are a grand total of 91,251 Chinese characters officially archived in the dictionary, according to leading scholars and authorities in Hsinghua University, for everyday use (i.e. for daily communication and reading): 

500 characters will help you cover 80% of your daily usage.

1000 characters will cover 92%.

2000 characters will bring your proficiency level to 98%.

3000 characters 99%.

3500 characters 99.5%. 

You see the pattern here? It is the classic trajectory of diminishing return! 

For a Chinese graduate from elementary school, the requirement is to be able to recognize 3000 characters, of which 2000 characters are required to be actively recalled and written out. From 91,251 down to 2,000 - isn’t this wonderful news for the cognitive load on the part of learners? 

Another piece of good news is that, although there are 2000+ words out there for you to conquer, each with a unique face for you to recognize, the building blocks used to construct these characters are only a few hundreds of them. 

These building blocks fall into two main categories: singles and radicals

Singles, short for single characters, are those that were created by only one visual or semantic component. It could not be further decomposed or analyzed into smaller meaningful units. 

For example:

日 (ri, the sun) resembles the pictorial image of the sun.

This character cannot be further divided into smaller sense-making component.

上  (shàng,  above). 

This pointer character uses three simple strokes to abstractly represent the concept of something is positioned above something else by pointing to the short horizontal bar being above the long horizontal bar. 

Single characters are the very earliest Chinese characters ever to be created in history. The majority of these Chinese characters are pictographically formed, and are the etymological origins of Chinese writing system. There are total of 280 of single characters. 

So we’ve gone from 2,000 characters down to 280. What a reduction! 

The second category of building blocks is called radicals

I love the word “radical” here for it indeed captures the essence of this type of language component -- full of power and being radical. Think about multiplication. Think of “to the power of hundreds.”

Although radicals are not strictly characters per se, and cannot be used independently, their transformational power lies in their generative power to create new characters with new meanings. Chinese radicals to Chinese character formation can be likened to Latin or Greek word roots to the English word formation.

For example, the Latin word lingua, or the Greek word-root aero-, aesthe-. 

In the new version of Xin Hua Dictionary, a total of 201 radicals were archived, of which some are frequent singles.  So now we’ve gone from 2,000 characters down to 200. What efficiency! 

Furthermore, from the writing perspective, all singles can be further decomposed into only seven basic strokes.

From 91,251 Chinese Characters to 7.

Isn’t this a dramatic reduction of cognitive resources, a dramatic increase on ROI (return on investment)?

Dr. Haiyan FanComment