How important is vocabulary when learning Chinese?

One of the most common ways to estimate Chinese proficiency is by the size of your vocabulary.

The Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) exam, the standard certification exam for Chinese, differentiates between its six levels of proficiency primarily based on (1) your vocabulary and (2) the number of Chinese characters you know (see the HSK level criteria below). Each level also provides a description of your expected fluency.

The implication is that your vocabulary count directly correlates with your Chinese abilities. Is that true?

In my experience, yes, it is. I will explain why below.

HSK level criteria*

HSK 1, 150 words, 174 characters: Test takers can understand and use very simple Chinese phrases, meet basic needs for communication, and possess the ability to further their Chinese language studies.

HSK 2, 300 words, 347 characters: Test takers have an excellent grasp of basic Chinese and can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters.

HSK 3, 600 words, 617 characters: Test takers can communicate in Chinese at a basic level in their daily, academic, and professional lives. They can manage most communication in Chinese when travelling in China.

HSK 4, 1,200 words, 1,064 characters: Test takers can converse in Chinese on a wide range of topics and are able to communicate fluently with native Chinese speakers.

HSK 5, 2,500 words, 1,685 characters: Test takers can read Chinese newspapers and magazines, enjoy Chinese films and plays, and give a full-length speech in Chinese.

HSK 6, 5,000 words, 2,663 characters: Test takers can easily comprehend written and spoken information in Chinese and can effectively express themselves in Chinese, both orally and on paper.

*Source: chinaeducationcenter.com, wikipedia.org

There are two important takeaways from the descriptions above.

First, the HSK dramatically overestimates a student’s abilities at each level. For example, I would not expect an HSK 4 student to be able to “communicate fluently with native Chinese speakers,” nor would I expect an HSK 5 student to be able to read a Chinese newspaper.

More important, though, is the second point. It may seem obvious, but wasn’t apparent to me when I started learning:

Proficiency is limited by vocabulary.

Your vocabulary represents a hard ceiling on your Chinese ability. You will not be able to exceed this ceiling no matter how much you read, write, speak, or listen unless your raise the ceiling.

Let me illustrate this with a personal example.

When I was around HSK 3 or 4 level, I spent hundreds of hours listening to Chinese radio. At that time, I could understand only snippets of the conversation, which encouraged me to continue. Reflecting back, I probably never understood more than 20% or 30% of the content, but I assumed that more practice listening to Chinese radio would improve my comprehension.

That turned out to be incorrect. In fact, my listening skills were always appropriate for my level. However, I was never able to realize that because my vocabulary was so deficient. I kept assuming I had mis-heard words when I had actually heard them correctly—I just didn’t know them.

Across hundreds of hours of listening, my comprehension never did improve because my vocabulary was too far below the level of the material. I would have been infinitely better off spending 100 hours learning new vocabulary vs 100 hours listening to the radio. I only understood this in retrospect, however.

To avoid repeating my mistake, I recommend that you:

  1. Always maintain a focus on vocabulary. It is the raw material you need to practice the other skills.
  2. Scale up the difficulty of your learning materials only in coordination with improvements to your vocabulary.
  3. Practice reading, writing, listening, and speaking as needed to ensure that no individual skill falls behind the others, but try to make sure that none of these skills “outrun” your vocabulary.

Below are a few estimates of the vocabulary you need to productively study (not fluently understand) some common materials. I started using most of these materials before they were truly useful to my learning. I wish I had waited a bit longer to start using them:

  • 1,200 words (HSK 4): Peppa Pig.
  • 2,500 words (HSK 5): Xiyangyang.
  • 2,500+ words (HSK 5+): Chinese novels.
  • 5,000+ words (HSK 5+): Chinese TV dramas.

Please feel free to help me add to/modify this list in the comments below. Thanks!

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