Learning 2000 Chinese characters is not enough for reading newspapers, and the number of characters is not the problem

The statistic is that, in modern standard Chinese, such as articles in newspapers, the most frequently used 2000 characters account for roughly 95-98% of the total character occurring. A conclusion is that, if students learn these 2000 most frequently used Chinese characters, they could read Chinese newspapers. 

Well, that really depends on how we interpret the word “read”. If we mean students are able to go through newspapers and recognise almost all of the Chinese characters there, then “yes”, they can read newspapers. If we mean students are able to comprehend what the articles are saying, then “no”, they still can’t read Chinese newspapers. 

What the statistic says and what it doesn’t say

What the statistic tells us is normally like this:

Researchers typically identify 4000 - 5000 Chinese characters in prints or online. The breakdown of Chinese character frequency is normally like the following:

  • Top 250 characters 57.1% - 64.4%
  • Top 500 characters 72.1% - 79.2%
  • Top 1000 characters 86.2% - 91.1%
  • Top 1500 characters 92.4% - 95.7%
  • Top 2000 characters 95.6% - 97.9%
  • Top 3000 characters 98.3% - 99.4%
  • The rest of characters  0.6% - 1.7% 

It seems that 2000 Chinese characters are quite sufficient. 

What the statistic doesn’t say is how many words/combinations these Chinese characters can create. The reason that I am pointing this out is that words/combinations are the building blocks of Chinese texts. I don’t have the numbers either. But I have something in a much smaller scale. I have counted all the Chinese characters and words/combinations in my Chinese Reading & Writing series. The breakdown is following: 

  • Chinese Reading and Writing 1, there are 70 characters, 150 words/combinations
  • Chinese Reading and Writing 2, there are 50 new characters, 166 new words/combinations
  • Chinese Reading and Writing 3, there are 50 new characters, 180 new words/combinations
  • Chinese Reading and Writing 4, there are 50 new characters, 219 new words/combinations
  • Chinese Reading and Writing 5, there are 50 new characters, 249 new words/combinations
  • Chinese Reading and Writing 6, there are 50 new characters, 328 new words/combinations

From one book to the next, when the increase of Chinese characters stays the same, the increase of words/combinations is huge. 320 Chinese characters have created 1,292 words/combinations, which are used to write all the sentences, conversations, and narratives in the series. There are also a lot words/combinations which these 320 characters can make up but I did not include in the series for the reason that I wanted the books to be more level appropriate for beginner students who just start learning how to read and write Chinese. 

Let’s get back to the 2000 Chinese character statistic, from the trend of the exponential increase of words/combinations for a modest increase of Chinese characters, we can deduce that the 2000 frequently used characters could possibly make up for tens of thousands words/combinations. And people who write for Chinese newspapers are free to use all of them. No wonder students still can not read Chinese newspaper even when they can recognise almost all of the characters. 

Learn more words, not just characters

Chinese texts are written with words/combinations, not individual characters. Therefore, accumulating 2000 individual characters won’t lead to comprehending Chinese newspapers. 

Also when accumulating individual characters becomes the only goal of learning Chinese, students are likely to spend huge amount of hours and energy for tiny progress. They’ll probably spend too much time to study radicals. Read why learning radicals can be a waste of time here. Or they will resort to flash cards and hope to learn Chinese characters quickly. Read the problems of using flash cards here.

Therefore, if your goal is to be able to read Chinese newspapers or novels, you need to focus on words and combinations, as the key to read any Chinese text is the ability to deconstruct the text into words.

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