Question for Chinese!!

superdavid   Tue Jul 03, 2007 3:09 am GMT
From what I've heard, Chinese characters(漢字) are almost infinite.
(Maybe more than 30,000 characters?)

If so, how many characters does an average Chinese man know?
Note: an average Chinese man means a high school graduate- normal guy.
furrykef   Tue Jul 03, 2007 4:00 am GMT
I've heard that the largest dictionaries have around 80,000 characters. But you only need to know a tiny fraction of that. My rough estimate (based on various sources, not personal experience) for how many characters you need to understand most Japanese is 3000 characters. When you reach that point, any other characters you don't know will probably be easily dealt with either from context or with the help of a dictionary. You'll understand a lot of Chinese with that many characters as well, although you might need to know more characters, perhaps 4000, to have the same level of fluency.

Although learning that many characters will take a long time, it's not all that bad... for Japanese, there's this really great book called Remembering the Kanji by James Heisig, and hopefully there will be a version of it tailored for Chinese soon. It basically teaches you how to write each character given its English meaning, and it doesn't teach you the pronunciation -- that comes later. It's actually a surprisingly useful technique if you do it right. It could even be possible that you could use Remembering the Kanji for learning characters for Chinese... you'll have to adjust your knowledge a bit once you finish the book, but if you can get through the whole thing, it shouldn't be too hard to do so. (It should certainly be easier than adapting the method to Chinese from scratch.) However, that's only a guess... it might be more inconvenient than it appears to do it that way.

Using a program like SuperMemo or Mnemosyne will also be a great help in learning characters. I wouldn't dream of trying to learn kanji without one.

- Kef
Mitch   Tue Jul 03, 2007 5:43 pm GMT
According to statistics cited on the following website, 3000 Chinese characters will give you 99.2% understanding:

Even 2000 will give you 97% understanding, and you can get a high percentage even with less. So the task is not impossible (or endless).

For the full list containing the first 2400, with most others up to 3000, see the following page from the same site, which has the characters (simple, traditional, and alternate), pinyin pronunciation(s), meaning(s), and combinations:
furrykef   Tue Jul 03, 2007 9:01 pm GMT
How are these percentages quantified? If the least common characters in a text are the most important ones for understanding, then knowing 2000 characters might not be enough despite the "97% understanding". The remaining 3% may well keep you going back to the dictionary because you can't understand anything without them.

There is a tendency for big, fancy, uncommon words to be the content words, and small, simple, common words to be the less important words. For example, an English speaker with no knowledge of Spanish or any other Romance language can pick up a newspaper in Spanish and, if they make an effort, they will often be able to figure out what an article is about. How? Because they recognize the Latin words. They're often spelled (and pronounced) differently, but they're recognizable and often mean the same thing as the English cognate. These Latin words generally aren't the most common words in English, but they're often the most important words in a given sentence.

- Kef
superdavid   Thu Jul 05, 2007 5:40 am GMT
Then, does an average Chinese man can read about 3,000 characters?

Are there any Native Chinese here?
furrykef   Thu Jul 05, 2007 6:16 am GMT
I think an average Chinese person could *read* over 3000 characters, but they might not use more than that themselves. Active vocabulary is always smaller than passive, and that goes for characters, too. Even if you know 3000 characters, you will certainly encounter unfamiliar characters now and then, but if you know that many, you will be well-equipped to deal with those unfamiliar characters.

- Kef
Franco   Thu Jul 05, 2007 6:55 am GMT
Does Chinese have something equivalent to FURIGANA or something? For helping people treat with difficult characters?
furrykef   Thu Jul 05, 2007 7:15 am GMT
Such a thing exists, but I think it's used much less often than in Japanese. They're called "Ruby characters" (the same term can be applied to furigana). With Chinese, there are two options: using pinyin or, more often, using "bopomofo" (also called "zhuyin"), which is a kana-like writing system. The name "bopomofo" comes from the first four letters of the system (b, p, m, f), much like "alphabet" comes from "alpha beta". You can read more about it here:

- Kef
Mitch   Thu Jul 05, 2007 6:06 pm GMT
"Bopomofo" is used mainly in Taiwan. They are printed next to the characters, like furigana with Japanese. China, and most other places, use pinyin, under the characters.


You're right: the unknown words are often the content words. On the other hand, with 2000 characters (97%) you are only missing three characters per 100. And with 3000 characters (99.2%) you are missing less then a character per 100--meaning that you are getting most of the content words, too. Again, learning 3000 is a challenge, but not an "infinite" one.
Franco   Thu Jul 05, 2007 11:24 pm GMT
But if your reading advanced material, obviously MORE complex characters will be present 'compression, diagonalisation, intimidation, abomination' , and LESS simple one 'dog, window, car, paper'

Unless you want to read child books forever, you must learn many more. Lucky, that romance languages the harder ones are easier to recognise than the easy ones. It's no such in Chinese, though.
Native Korean   Fri Jul 06, 2007 5:49 am GMT
Still, it's not easy to learn(memorize) Chinese characters because they are so complicated and many of them look too similar to each other.

I sometimes think they look beautiful but their countless number is absolutely ridiculous.

How do Chinese people type their characters?
I bet it takes really really long time to type a sentence.
furrykef   Fri Jul 06, 2007 6:03 am GMT
<< How do Chinese people type their characters?
I bet it takes really really long time to type a sentence. >>

It's actually not that difficult if you know how to pronounce the characters. You use a program or a plugin called an "input method editor" (IME) and simply write the pronunciation in Pinyin and you choose the characters from a list. I do the same thing with Japanese. I can type something like "Wagahai ha neko de aru", and it will get converted to "吾輩は猫である", the correct kanji, pretty easily. Usually the IME can use the context to figure out which characters are the correct ones, but you must always make sure that the kanji are correct. It can be a bit slower than typing in a language like English, but not that much.

There are IMEs based on the shapes of the kanji instead of the pronunciations, which might be handy if you write in Chinese but don't know Mandarin, for example. Each character only takes a few keystrokes, but it can be difficult to know which keystrokes are the right ones.

And if you get *really* stuck, you can pull up the drawing pad and write the character on the screen.

- Kef
mike   Fri Jul 06, 2007 6:58 am GMT
<< How do Chinese people type their characters?
I bet it takes really really long time to type a sentence. >>

It is easy actually. You use the Romanized alphabet, pinyin, for that. You type a word just like in English, then the software will display all the corresponding characters to the pinyin word you typed to choose from. It is always that the most frequently used characters are stacked at the top of the list, if not the first one, which makes the process much faster than you imagine.

Bye the way, I can type Chinese characters, but I can't hand write them!
furrykef   Fri Jul 06, 2007 8:43 am GMT
Writing them is easy enough with a little practice... I rarely encounter a character whose stroke order I don't know. And on the off occasions that I'm wrong, the error usually isn't that bad.

I've only learned Japanese stroke order, though... the Chinese stroke order for some characters is different sometimes. For instance, in the character 王, the Japanese draw the vertical line before the middle horizontal line, and the Chinese draw the middle horizontal line before the vertical line. The Chinese way seems more consistent to me (horizontal strokes usually precede intersecting vertical strokes), but I figure since I'm learning Japanese, I may as well do it the Japanese way...

- Kef
Mitch   Fri Jul 06, 2007 5:45 pm GMT
I concur with Kef: Once you learn the basic stroke order, you should be able to write almost any character with correct stroke order.

Kef: I studied both Chinese and Japanese. I tend to write both with the Chinese stroke order.