What to learn first when learning Chinese?

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What to learn first when learning Chinese? When learning any language, you’re confronted with a choice. What to learn first? Where to focus my attention? This is particularly true of Chinese where, due to the fact that many native speakers of western languages are so unfamiliar with the character-based system of Chinese, many beginners opt, from day one, to focus purely on oral Chinese, confident that competency in speaking and listening alone will suffice.  

It’s easy to see why people get so scared of characters. Depending on your sources, the raw figures will tell you that there are anywhere from between 50,000-80,000 Chinese characters, a figure so high it seems almost deliberately chosen to scare off anybody from even contemplating learning Chinese. A bit more digging, however, and the numbers start to become more palatable. The largest Chinese dictionaries contain ‘only’ around 20,000 characters. Alright, 20,000 is only a marginally more inviting figure, but who said you’ve got to know every single character in the dictionary?  

A look at some words in our own (English) dictionary, for instance ‘astrobleme’ (the eroded remnants of a large crater made by the impact of a meteorite or comet) and ‘deglutition’ (the action or process of swallowing) remind us that the utilitarian value of words in everyday life isn’t always equal. So how many characters do you really need to know? Just give me a figure! And preferably one that’s a few orders of magnitude below 80,000. Well, the average educated Chinese person (defined as someone who’s completed higher education or beyond) is able to recognise roughly 8,000-10,000 characters. For non-university educated people, that number slips to around 5,000 characters.  

The good news for Chinese learners is that the number of characters you really need to know to be able to navigate life in China is not as high as you might think. Just knowing the most frequently used 1,000 characters will give 90% ‘coverage’ – meaning that you’ll able to read 90% of the content you’ll encounter just by knowing those most frequently used 1,000. Add another 1,500 to that figure, and by being able to recognise the first 2,500 characters, you’ll have 98% coverage. Add another 1,000 to that, and with the most frequently used 3,500 characters you’ll have 99.5% coverage. The generally recognised theory is that by knowing 3,000 characters you’ll be able to read a newspaper fluently. Easier said than done, I hear you say. And yes, just like the acquisition of any other skill, the process requires a fair degree of work, persistence and – perhaps most importantly – an understanding that, while the process of becoming literate in Chinese takes a little more time than when learning European languages (think back to learning whatever language you learned in school where you could at least – regardless of whether or not you understood it – make a staggered attempt to read it), the results are ultimately worthwhile.  

So, what to learn first when learning Chinese? At the beginning, it’s all about input. A good amount of listening will help you become more comfortable with the tonal nature of Chinese language, and of course mastering pinyin (a more-than-achievable goal) is necessary to sound like a native. Beyond getting that foundation, however, we encourage a balanced approach to your Chinese language learning. Think of it…it’s difficult to truly learn a language if you’re illiterate. Learning Chinese characters will – in the long run – help you develop a more intuitive feel for the language, re-enforce key sentence structures, and help build your vocabulary. So, what to learn first when learning Chinese? Well, when you first start it’s necessary to take a baby-like approach to absorbing new information. But, once you’ve got that foundation, remember that if you really want to improve your Chinese, you’ve gotta take the next step and learn those Hanzi. We’ll break down just how to do that in future posts. 

Are you looking to improve your Chinese? Whether you want to come to China or want to study online from wherever you are, we’ve got you covered.

Connect & Share Mandarintern Language School