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How many Chinese characters do you need to know?

A lot of people are put off learning Chinese because there are a large number of individual characters you have to get familiar with. The largest dictionaries in Chinese history contained almost 50,000 different single characters.

The good news though, is that most of these characters are very rare, historical characters that are almost never used. Some of them may only have ever appeared a few times, so there is no need to be put off by this huge number. The number of characters in common use is much much smaller.

According to research, if you are familiar with the 500 most common characters in Chinese then you can read 75% of modern Chinese. If you know 1000 characters, you can read 89%. 2000 characters gives you 97% coverage. When you are reading Chinese you will find that the same characters appear again and again and gradually become more familiar.

Knowing 3000 characters gives you almost complete coverage of modern Chinese (99.2%). Even though Chinese people with a higher education will generally have a passive knowledge of a lot more, 3000 characters should be more than sufficient for most learners.

That may seem like a big challenge, but believe me, by learning the characters steadily over a long period, you will get there. It is definitely manageable for any learner. And don’t worry if you forget how to write them, it happens to Chinese people all the time!