How many characters do you need to read a Chinese newspaper

When I first started learning Chinese then every new character learnt was a success. When I reached the 100 characters benchmark, I was really pleased, but I knew I had a long way to go because I had heard before that you needed 2000 characters to read a newspaper.

Well we have been studying for over a year now and we are probably able to recognise well over 1000 distinct characters with a good idea of both their meaning and their pronunciation. So, to have an idea of my progress, I thought I would have a go at seeing how much that allowed me to understand of a news article.

To do this I went to baidu news (baidu is the Chinese equivalent of google), and went to their international news section, and picked out the first two paragraphs from their leading article. Those two paragraphs are reproduced below. Characters highlighted in red are those that I definitely don’t recognise.

有关“中国要返数十名北者”的消息近日被 韩国体热炒。据韩国《东亚日报》2月24日报道,韩国 政府和在野党目前正考虑给在中国被并 面临被强制返的“脱北者”发行“韩国民证明书”,支持他们的韩国行。

根据韩国政策员长李英的介绍,韩国新世界党23日在国会了有外交通商部长官金成一部次官金天植参加的党政议会,讨论了上对策。韩国党政还决定,将向 中国派朝野都参加的 国会代表团,也决定向中国的“红十字会”发出请求,要 求对“脱北者”的人道性待遇 给予支持。

Initially the result might look quite encouraging. Only 14 characters out of 197 suggests that we can understand a remarkable 93% of the content!?

However, although each Chinese characters has a specific meaning, the majority of Chinese words in use today are not expressed by a single character but by characters in combination of two or three together.

For instance, the very first word in the article is “有关”. Most students studying chinese will be very familiar with both these characters “有” meaning to have, 关 meaning any of: to close, to shut off, concerning, or a mountain pass. But 有关 to me is a new word meaning “concerning”. Simple enough, but until you have learnt it, then it is as easy to wrongly read that as “have closed”, “have shut of”, or even “I have a mountain pass”.

If we look at the text again, but now taking into account which words rather than characters are new to me then a much more realistic picture emerges: characters which I don’t know are highlighted in red, words I don’t know in purple.

有关“中国要返数十名北者”的消息近日被 韩国热炒。据韩国《东亚日报》2月24日报道,韩国 政府和在野党目前正考虑给在中国被并面被强制返的“脱北者”发行“韩国民证明书”,支持他们的韩国行。

根据韩国政策员长李的介绍,韩国新世界党23日在国会了有外交通商部长官金成一部次官金天植参加的党政议会,讨论了上对策。韩国党政还决定,将向 中国派朝野都参加的 国会代表团,也决定向中国的“红十字会”发出请求,要 求对“脱北者”的人道性待遇 给予支持

It is now clear that there isn’t a single sentence that I can completely understand. Of course, there are mitigating factors here. This article contains words relating to international politics that are not included in Chinese 101, and it also contains people’s names, which also aren’t of a first priority for a language student.

Overall though, I am encouraged. I could understand enough of the article to have an idea what it was talking about, even if I wasn’t picking up the details. It is also clear to me that whilst it is important to continue building up your knowledge of distinct characters, the language learner needs to also be building a much wider vocabulary using compound characters. Jia you.


  • Grace

    Very interesting post! As an owner of a learn Chinese blog, I’ve been always searching for learner’s own perspective and feedback on their learning experience.

    I agree 2000 characters alone won’t do any justice to your comprehension on Chinese unless you have build a decent vocab on top of that. That being said, characters as the building blocks have to be learned before you go down the compound words path.

    Thanks for sharing your insight on your learning progress! You’ve done a good job on your study! Meeting 1000 character benchmark is good enough to help you climb faster on your learning curve.

    Jia You!


  • Anonymous

    Grace,thanks for the encouragement. it’s real experience shared by one of students here at our language school.


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