There are many things that make learning Chinese difficult for people who grew up speaking English. Besides the different sound system, different writing system and different grammar, Chinese also has a nearly completely dissimilar vocabulary. Unlike most learners of European languages, Chinese learners find that the two languages have no cognates and relatively few loanwords. This raises a question: how many words does Chinese have? And how many do I need to learn in order to achieve my language goals?
Words and characters
Most Chinese learners have heard some variation of this claim: “In Chinese, every written character is one word.” It’s easy enough to debunk, as many Chinese words contain more than one character. Just a few examples in case you’re not convinced:
- 学生 – xuésheng, student
- 照片 – zhàopian, photograph
- 登机牌 – dēngjīpái, boarding pass
These examples illustrate cases where multiple characters constitute one word. This can get a little uncertain sometimes. Consider the case of 中国人 (zhōngguórén, Chinese person). Is it a single word, or is it two? It’s hard to say. This means that when someone sets out to count the number of Chinese words, there are some decisions that need to be made about what counts and what doesn’t.
In any event, it’s useful to make this distinction clear before talking about the estimates of how many words and characters there are in the Chinese language.
So how many words/characters are there?
Most estimates say that modern Chinese has about 100,000 words which are made from various combinations of around 7,000 characters. For comparison, the Oxford English Dictionary has about 170,000 words and English has 26 standard letters.
Now, you may hear people say that these numbers are far too low, and that in fact it’s more like 350,000 words and 50,000 characters. Don’t worry though, because all of those extra words and characters are not something you are ever going to have to worry about. They are mostly historical characters or words that are not used or even recognized by modern day Chinese speakers. (Imagine if we included all words ever used in an English document in all of history. The resulting number of words is somewhere near a million.)
Now the good news
If you’re learning Chinese, you absolutely do not need to learn all of those words and all of those characters! Consider that you don’t know all of the words in English; you also don’t need to know all of the words in Chinese, no matter how lofty your language goals are. And of course, how much you need to know depends on the objective of your Chinese studying. (More on that in a minute.)
As mentioned already, Chinese characters and Chinese words are not the same thing, you don’t necessarily need to learn a new character every time you learn a new word. Once you’ve got 法国 (fǎguó, France) and 律师 (lǜshī, lawyer) under your belt, 法律 (fǎlǜ, law) is no problem! So vocabulary acquisition can accelerate as you learn more characters.
On the other hand, the flip side of characters-are-not-words is that knowing the characters on their own isn’t enough. You might know 知道 (zhīdao, know) and 地方 (dìfang, place) without understanding what 地道 (dìdao, authentic) means. So, you still need to learn each word, even if you know the characters.
How many words/characters do I need to learn?
Of course, how far you go with Chinese depends on you and your own goals.
For this, let’s turn to the HSK levels. The makers of the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, or HSK, have expectations for how many words and characters a test-taker will know in order to pass the test. They also tell us what they expect a certain level test-taker will be able to do using their Chinese. Let’s look at HSK level 3 and level 6 as examples.
The HSK 3 test is designed for learners who have mastered about 600 words and about the same number of characters. These learners can use Chinese to deal with very common situations in everyday life or travel.
HSK 6 is geared towards learners who have mastered about 5,000 words and about 2,600 characters. These learners can have in-depth conversations about a variety of topics and can read any normal publication (news articles, social media posts, novels; maybe not a graduate thesis) without difficulty.
You can find more information about other HSK levels here.
How many words/characters do I already know?
There are some online evaluations that estimate how many Chinese characters/words you know.
For a Chinese character test, go to this link. When you get there, choose Simplified or Traditional and then select all of the characters that you know. Don’t cheat!
This website has a test for the number of Chinese words you know. You’ll need to have already reached a certain Chinese level to understand what the questions are asking, though.
And for the curious, you can check and see how many English words you know with this website.
How do I build vocabulary?
Feeling fired up to learn some more words? You can check out some of the pages below to get started.