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I've read in various places on the internet that the average vocabulary of a Chinese person is around 5,000 words.

How about highly educated Chinese people? E.g. those with PhD's or holding top positions in the government or corporations.

Estimating vocabulary size accurately is really difficult as far as I know. The average English speaker's vocabulary is estimated to be in the range of 10,000 to 30,000 words, but highly educated English speaker may possess a vocabulary of twice that. Of course estimates are highly variable depending on where you look and depending on what you count as a word.

So does a highly educated Chinese person know around 10,000 words?

Any references are appreciated.

Note that I don't mean to compare vocabulary size between English and Chinese here. Personally I think Chinese is likely a more efficient language on one hand as it may be that more information can often be compressed into fewer words. That would explain why an English speaker needs to know more words.

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  • I think estimating vocabulary sizes for speakers of any language is fundamentally hard, and minor methodological differences could easily result in very large differences (e.g., by 5x). Given that I think it's probably a bit hopeless unless someone does the same study to two different groups. Commented Sep 28, 2023 at 18:57
  • "PhD's or holding top positions in the government or corporations." A PhD in Math or Secretary Xi may know less Chinese characters than you do. But, I think a PhD in Chinese Literature knows more Chinese than I do although I am a native speaker.
    – Nobody
    Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 12:21

4 Answers 4

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What differentiates Chinese characters from English words is that most Chinese characters are not only words but also morphemes.

e.g.

In the English word unlikely, there are three morphemes, un, like and ly, but only like is a word.

In this Chinese compound word 不可能, there are also three morphemes, , but each of them constitutes a word.

The estimated 5000-word vocabulary is not an indicator of the number of words like 不可能 one masters, but of morphemes like 不、可、能.

A senior high school student is requested to master at least 6600 common characters. A Ph.D. is likely to have a similar, if not higher, vocabulary, as however difficult the jargons he possesses are, these jargons can be translated into Chinese with common characters, for example, polychlorinated biphenyl is translated as 多氯联苯, which every junior high student should be able to recognize but perhaps not fully understand.

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    and many characters are only morphemes 语素 and not words 词,anyhow OP did not even mention characters, only vocabulary (Merriam-Webster: a list or collection of words or of words and phrases usually alphabetically arranged and explained or defined : lexicon, etc.) vocabulary can be found in 词典, the usual place for explaining words, the question therefore could extend to illiterate(文盲) individuals, the elementary school curriculum (cf. 教学汉字规范手册)requires 2500常用and an additional 1000次常用汉字,
    – user6065
    Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 7:16
  • considering the number of words which can be formed from these, the number of words known as a result of elementary schooling will certainly surpass 10,000.
    – user6065
    Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 7:16
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    As a native Chinese speaker and a English learner, I always "hate" there are so many words in English. Words are coined in the two languages differently. For example, 地震=earthquake. This looks logical to me, since 地=earth and 震=quake. Then why is there a SEISMOMETER, 地震仪? In a Chinese opinion, is EARTHQUAKE DEVICE better? A pupil would read these characters and think it's a device related to earthquake, though they may not know what it is exactly. Can you say whether they know that word or not?
    – Huang
    Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 11:54
  • "Words are coined in the two languages differently", yes, and for vastly different reasons. It is a historical legacy of the English language to coin new words, especially for technical / scientific purposes to borrow words from Latin & Hellenic words which because of their ancient history and high civilizations seem to have a certain mystical quality to them, thus imbuing borrowed / coined words with the same intangible mystic or even "visual beauty". So, which sounds better / more technical, "aeroplane", or 飞机, "fly machine"? or, "Parliament", or 国会, "Country Conference"? Commented Sep 26, 2023 at 2:27
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It is unlikely you can find any satisfactory statistics. What you get is most likely the vocabulary list for learning Chinese languages (or with other subjects) by the education department of government.

There are three kinds of vocabulary in Chinese languages, namely character, word and proverb.

Character and proverb are more or less a closed set. It is possible to conduct extensive test on these two.

But, when it comes to word, it is very hard to write a list of word. Chinese is more freely to create new words by combining characters as long as it makes sense. In English it considers "wild flower" as two words but in Chinese 野花 is a word. One that knows 喜歡 could probably get the meaning of 歡喜. It is not necessary to know the word before. When 模型車 is a word, 模型船 is a word too, So as 模型飛機, 模型大炮, 模型戰船, 模型油并 and so on. Most people can immediate get the meaning right. But the set is open. It is no easy task to define words in consistent way.

If you want a list of Chinese word learning in school, there are a website "Lexical items with English Explanations for Fundamental Chinese Learning in Hong Kong Schools". It contains 3171 characters and 9706 words (including proverb). This is fundamental and in real life the set is much larger.

Reference : http://www.edbchinese.hk/lexlist_en/

When one goes to work and goes into higher education, each will learn a set of words specially for daily work. It is unlikely to get an estimation.

And finally, the Chinese writing system is efficient because it is designed to record in a concise way. Its vast base of characters allows one to write in shorter word and construct word easier. But, its efficiency do not decrease the number of vocabularies needed in daily life. If one need to distinguish 5000 ideas, one requires at least 5000 vocabularies, regardless of languages. Otherwise it would be a mess or describe idea in clumsy phrases.

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  • Good answer! Just a slight nit-pick with the example you cited. Wildflower is in fact an accepted spelling. Commented Jul 27, 2022 at 11:18
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Chinese characters are different from words in phonographic languages.

A Chinese character is equivalent to a word in, say, English in the sense that it is the smallest unit with a meaning.

However, Chinese characters can also be combined to form new blocs with entirely different meanings. For example, 天下、江湖

Chinese also have unique constructs such as 成語 (4 character constructs with historical references) and 歇後語 (with the actual meaning that's totally different from what's said). An example of the former is 葉公好龍 and the latter is 高山滾鼓.

As a result, a person does not need to know large number of Chinese characters to be articulate. Consider the Tang poems. How many characters in them you don't actually know?

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You may want to check this answer, I analyzed some novels, and according to the results, 5,000 characters is a reasonable number, some people think a student majoring in Chinese Language Literature masters 5,000 Chinese Characters.

The total number of common characters is 10,000, mastering 10,000 means you know all the English words in the daily dictionary. Is that possible?

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