'Characters frequency lists' and 'words frequency lists' are not mutually inclusive.

Most words are composed of two characters. For instance, 我們, 可以, 自己, etc.

Is learning characters individually first the most common way to go about it?

  • General language-learning questions are better at the Language Learning site, but I don't think they would accept this question "as is". Perhaps it would be acceptable at Language Learning if it asked about the advantages/disadvantages of the Heisig method.
    – Becky 李蓓
    Commented Jul 28, 2020 at 0:45
  • 1
    Kudos for editing your question. I removed my downvote. However I think it's still opinion-based, because it's still hard to reply to "Is learning characters individually first the most common way to go about it?" in an objective way, as there are no hard-and-fast guidelines about that. Language courses and individual learners might choose different strategies based on what works best for them. Back when I was a student, there was no distinction btw characters and words. We used to learn grammar first and words/chars came with it naturally.
    – blackgreen
    Commented Jul 28, 2020 at 9:34
  • Beside, I don't recommend looking at Chinese in terms of characters vs. words. It might be misleading, because the language is isolating
    – blackgreen
    Commented Jul 28, 2020 at 9:38
  • @blackgreen Thank you. I just changed the title as well. Neither am I looking for guidelines nor am I asking what is more suitable (anymore). I ask about common usages. Commented Jul 28, 2020 at 9:45
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    I do not think this question should be closed, nor do I think it is opinion-based. Chinese teachers would have the answer as they know what are the most effective methods. My personal answer is that lots of common characters are best taught/introduced/learnt as being an integral part of a two-character word. Eg 1) 以 makes sense to beginners only as a part of words like 可以,以前,以后; 2) 识 isn't used by itself much in 普通话, but is very common in 认识,知识…; 3) 然 is a suffix marker for stative verbs/adjectives like 当然; is used for right/correct in 不以为然… clearly it's best to see the simple usages first. Commented Jul 28, 2020 at 10:49

4 Answers 4


I can tell you about my experience, I typically follow a mixed approach learning at the same time multiple characters words and its individual components. I learn Chinese doing lessons following the HSK exam levels (currently I am doing the HSK level 3). In every lesson, they introduce new words given by the HSK level. The order in which the words are introduced correspond approximately to their usage frequency; I believe learning the most used words and grammar structures is the optimal way for learning to communicate in Chinese (note, for example, the top 500 characters are used the 79.2% / 72.1% of times).

So my main goal is learning the words in this order. However, I find very useful for multiple character words to look for the meaning of their individual characters. Some of them are very general and abstract and they are not helpful, but in other cases they have clear meanings and help you understand and remember the multiple character word, such as 飞机 (flying machine: plane), 照相机 (machine for taking pictures: camera), 头疼 (head hurts: headache), etc.

In conclusion, if your aim is to communicate in Chinese, I would suggest to focus on learning the most frequent words. However, to understand multiple character words, it can be useful to look for the meaning of each character and on the way, sometimes learn these.


individual character will make the sense to a beginner. For example, sun "日“ lead to a variety of words, e.g. 旺,晚,晴, etc.

it is recommended to start with simple word and build up your vocabulary gradually. Take your time and take it easy.


I am a Taiwanese, I think it would be much more difficult to learn the characters individually. Because when you break those common words and phrases apart, the meaning of each single character become more ambiguous. The meaning of each character will be so many more and it will be very confusing.



Yes, it is useful and necessary to learn characters.

Yes, it is meant to be the first step.

If you want to learn, you have to follow the steps.

And most Chinese single characters could be used, has its meaning, such as 省,市,区,跑,吃,笑,云,雨,红,绿,黄,。。。

Only few words are combined by 2 or more characters, e.g. 玻璃,坦克,沙发,逻辑(seems most of them are translated from other languages )

Anyway, try your best to remember the single characters, they are about 3000 in total, quite simpler than GER, TOEFL (8000+ or 12000+ word in English )

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    @Betty I downvoted this due to "it is meant to be the first step" (opinion with no justification, which is debatable) and, especially, "Only few words are combined by 2 or more characters ... most of them are translated from other languages", which is plain incorrect. Most Chinese words are ≥ 2 characters, and it has nothing to do with being loanwords. For example, CC-CEDICT contains ~57k two-character words compared to ~13k one-character words. Results may be a bit different if you count word frequency rather than unique words, but multi-character words still predominate in modern Chinese. Commented Jul 28, 2020 at 17:41
  • Maybe I didn't explain my answer correctly. For most of the multiple-character-words, you can easily understand their meanings according to its single character, such as: 汽车,火车, 东风,纸张. only few multiple-character-words, if they are separated, the single character is no meaning, such as: 坦-克, 沙-发. whatever, you have the right to downvote. It's OK.
    – Siwei
    Commented Jul 29, 2020 at 9:58
  • I found multiple-character-words I can indeed understand on the basis of only one character (for instance 飞翔, 看见, 可以). But in your answer, you say "Only few words are combined by 2 or more characters." I have the impression it's incorrect. Or I don't understand what you meant. Commented Jul 30, 2020 at 11:18

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