How Many Words do you Really Need to Speak Fluent Chinese?

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One of the most frequently asked questions from new Chinese learners is: “how many words will I need to learn before I’m fluent?” In this guest post Mandarin learner and language app developer Karl Baker offers his comprehensive breakdown of this complex issue.

It’s no secret that Mandarin Chinese is a challenging language to learn and new starters often feel frustrated about how slow progress seems. Many want to know how many words they need to learn before they can fluently understand TV shows or easily read novels. Estimates as to how many words are required to reach fluency vary from as few as 400 to as many as 20,000. There is no simple answer, primarily because each person has their own definition of ‘fluency’.

It doesn’t help that the six levels of the standard Chinese proficiency exam, the HSK, paint a misleading picture. The exam’s six levels were originally intended to be pinned to the six levels of the European Framework for language learning proficiency, where A1 is pure beginner and C2 is close to native. However, most Mandarin learners who have passed HSK6 are nowhere close to native proficiency. Although the HSK is in the process of being reformed, many learners remain uncertain about what they can expect to be able to do at each level of known words.

The guide below is designed to give you a more realistic idea of what to expect. By ‘known words‘ it is assumed that in addition to memorising vocabulary using flashcards and other tools, the learner has spent time immersing in reading and listening content and is therefore able to recognise vocabulary instantly when it appears in a sentence spoken at natural speed.

What Is a Word?

In order to measure vocabulary size, we first need to define what a word is. This may sound easy but in fact the problem is a little challenging. In English we modify words for all kinds of reasons, including tense, conjugation, pluralisation, prefixes and suffixes and many more.

In the phrases “I always walk the dog”, “She always walks the dog”, the verb walk changes it’s ending based on the subject. Similarly in “I drive my car”, compared to “I drove my car”, the verb drive changes based on the tense. For the purposes of measuring your vocabulary size, most people agree it doesn’t make sense to count “drive” and “drove” as separate words. In linguistics we call the most reduced form of the word: root words.

In Chinese the problem of identifying root words is in some respects simpler than English due to the fact that there is no conjugation. However, other aspects of the Chinese language make it harder. Some words are combinations of two or more characters, each of which constitutes a word in itself when taken in isolation. For example the word for “adult” is 大人, which when broken down into it’s constituent characters literally translates as “big person”. Is this one word or two? Other words like 怎么样 (how, how is it?), are hard to break down because the characters 怎 and 么 aren’t considered words in their own right.

Luckily this problem has been partially solved for us. When the Confucius institute created the HSK, they formed a list of 5000 words based on research and general consensus about which Chinese words can definitely be considered words in their own right. Beyond this list of 5000 words the task of discerning words from non-words is made easier by the fact that much of the new vocabulary learners encounter is technical and converys specific meaning. The word 海马体, for example, is comprised of the individual characters for sea, horse and body. When placed together the meaning becomes hippocampus, which is clearly a word in its own right.

So What Can You Expect?

The levels below give a general guide for what you can expect to be able to achieve in Mandarin at each milestone. I’ve included all of these levels in my free Android flashcard app Mandarin Vocabulary Builder, and by downloading the app you can track your progress towards each milestone easily.

0 – 500 Known Words (400 Characters)
Beginner (A1), HSK3
At this level your understanding will be very limited, but using flashcards is a great way to help you get those first few hundred words memorised quickly. I recommend using Mandarin Vocabulary Builder and Hack Chinese. As you get closer to 500 words you should be able to understand everyday expressions and very basic phrases. You should be able to introduce yourself and interact, speaking about common objects, locations and people you know, provided that the other person is patient, speaks slowly and in simple language. I recommend starting with the HSK 1, 2 and 3.

1,000 Words (700 Characters)
Upper beginner (A2, HSK4)
At 1,000 words you should be able to communicate in simple everyday areas and understand basic sentences and frequently used expressions. This is a great time to start using graded readers. These might be difficult at first, but definitely shouldn’t be left too late, as they’re a great way to get a feeling for how words are used correctly in a sentence, and will help you to learn an enourmous amount of context for each word very quickly. I recommend using LingQ where you’ll find many fun stories to suit your current learning level. Watching Chinese Netflix or listening to native speakers talk to each other may feel difficult and frustrating at this stage.

2,500 Words (1,300 Characters)
Lower intermediate (B1, HSK5)
At 2,500 words you should be able to enjoy using graded readers to read stories with ease, as long as you pick intermediate level texts which aren’t too far above your level. You should be able to converse with native speakers on simple, familiar topics, describe events and ideas, and give brief reasons for your opinions. You may also be able to begin tackling simple texts intended for natives with the help of a browser plugin dictionary, although you will frequently encounter unkown words and characters. You should be able to handle the majority of situations that arise while travelling as a tourist or when speaking about work, school or social areas. If you watch Chinese tv programmes, you may be able to understand the general subject area they are talking about but not the finer detail.

5,000 Words (2,000 Characters)
Upper Intermediate (B2, HSK6)
At 5,000 words, you should now be able to converse on a broader range of topics with native speakers in a way that is not cumbersome for either party. You should be able to explain issues in a range of areas that you specialise in and give the advantages and disadvantages of various options. You may sometimes strain to express exactly what you mean in more complicated areas, but you can generally get your message across by using simpler terms. You should be able to read slightly more advanced texts such as modern novels. If you come across words that you’ve not seen before, you may be able to infer what they mean from the surrounding context and their characters. You may still become lost if you are reading or watching material that is in a technical area that you are not familiar with.

10,000 Words (3,000 Characters)
Advanced (C1, New HSK9)
At 10,000 words you should be able to converse with native speakers easily without straining to find expressions or words. You should be able to use your language skills effectively for professional and academic purposes. You can understand a wide range of technical and advanced material, and recognise implicit meaning. You can write clear and detailed material on complex subjects. You should be able to understand the majority of what’s said on Chinese TV programmes and in dialogue between natives, but you may still struggle if people speak with a strong accent.

20,000 Words (3,500+ Characters)
Upper advanced (C2)
At 20,000 words you should be able to understand almost any information you come across in written or spoken Chinese. You can express yourself fluently and accurately even in complex situations or technical areas. People may struggle to distinguish your written material from that of a native speaker. You should no longer have to rely on learning material to further your understanding of Chinese. Instead, you can simply read or watch any content that other natives would use, such as Chinese newspapers, blogs, social media, technical texts and TV programmes.

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