The Missing Link

Before I took Chinese 101 at the U of T way back when, I has tried to learn Chinese by myself. This unique experience helped me to put learning Chinese in an academic environment in perspective. Since that time, I’ve also had the pleasure of being able to speak, read and write more than 500 Chinese words but being unable to communicate in Chinese.

Where did it all go wrong? What did I do to deserve this?

Well, here I am now in China teaching English. And I’ve learned something new. There is a missing link. First, let me give you my version of the process people go through when they try to learn Chinese.

1. Memorize as many characters as possible
3. Profit

Yes folks – it really is that simple. No matter if you’re learning on your own or as part of a degree program, private lessons, etc – this is the real deal. First, memorize as many Chinese characters as you can and then – profit.

So like I said I’ve been teaching English in China for a couple of years now, and let me tell you – the resources that Chinese people have to learn English runs circles around what we have to learn Chinese in every conceivable way. The reason for this is of course there is far more demand to learn English in China than there is to learn Chinese in America. And this has led to us having to put up with some pretty outdated teaching methods, simply because there isn’t any money in designing a proper Chinese curriculum.

As a result of my observations on how English is being taught in China right now, and how Chinese is being taught in Universities and in textbooks across America, I’d like to make a few suggestions for anyone who wants to learn Chinese. People who are responsible for designing a curriculum would also do well to pay heed.

1. You need a copy of the Far East 3000 Chinese Character Dictionary.
2. You need to drill flashcards.
3. You need massive comprehensible input.

Suprise! #3 is the missing link. In fact, it is so vital and important that arguably it is the final step. You see, in all the Chinese Textbooks i’ve seen, invariably every lesson has a structure somewhat like this:

a) Present 10-20 characters
b) Present one or two (usually one) example dialog featuring all of those characters.
c) Miscellaneous notes. Like “Culture Notes” or “Interesting Facts” or whatever.

Friends, let me tell you that this approach is totally bogus. It’s nothing but memorization. And there are two important problems with this. Number one, once you get around 300 or 400 characters stuck in that brain, it’s going to be awfully hard to memorize new ones. That is to say, as you learn new characters you’re going to start to forget old ones. The second problem is that the dialogues are usually fake. Which means no one would speak like that, or that it’s a farfetched scenario. How useful is it, really, to spend your time memorizing endless situations that you will probably never run into? How wise is it to decide on a textbook based on the content of the dialogues alone? It isn’t. Yet Universities use textbooks like Interactions for no other reason than all of the dialogues are about University students trying to learn Chinese. And don’t get me wrong, Interations is one of the better academic-quality textbooks out there.

Wanna know the best one though? Far East Everyday Chinese. It presents several hundred characters per volume (not too many) and it provides several dialogues per lesson. That’s very good. Yet it still does not follow the principles of MCI.

The truth is that I feel most Chinese students set their standards too high (i.e. trying to read newspapers) because they don’t know any other way. For example in America there isn’t a lot of access to very easy Chinese children’s books. Yet such books can be an invaluable tool for the aspiring Chinese student. Even though I only know 500 or so characters, I have several Children’s books I can read right now. That allows me to read and practice my Chinese – actually using it – which is how people really learn.

So I think that the best way to learn Chinese would be to go through a memorization period of no more than 100 to 200 carefully selected characters. These characters would be selected to comprise the entirety of the first “children’s book” or “short story” that the students would need to read through/memorize. These should be introduced in the form of question and answer. So that the students can instantly practice using the chinese by asking each other questions from day one. This also reinforces grammar.

Once the (say) 200 character limit has been reached, the student must transition over to a MCI approach. This approach presents short stories, conversations, etc. on a related theme (similar to “Let’s Talk in English”, the best language learning tool I have ever seen). There should be hundreds if not thousands of such stories and articles. They should be graded in perhaps three or four levels:

Low: For people with a 200-400 word vocabulary.
Medium: For people with a 400-800 word vocabulary.
High: for people with a 800-1500 word vocabulary.
Advanced: for people with 1500-3000 words.

How this is done is simple; the concept of the key word. Every (say) 50 or so words of “low” level story, for example, will introduce a “key word”. This key word will be from a carefully selected pool of characters designed to allow more variety at the medium level; and so on. The key word will have a definition and pronunciation and one or two example sentances. The examples will of course represent grammar as well as vocabulary.

One can see that the difficulty of this approach is in it’s design. The approach I have arrived at is to do a frequency analysis of children’s books. This approach seems to work extremely well; I currently have about 700 characters from a series of children’s books that I would classify as “medium level” in the above scheme. The key is to work out what characters would be required in the low level.

One problem with the “old” (common) method of teaching Chinese in America is that characters that you might think are relatively common and should be introduced early, really aren’t. For example, the number seven is the 920th most common character. Most books will teach you to count first. But based on a frequency analysis this is a mistake, since you will rarely encounter the number seven (for instance).

Of course, a purely frequency based approach is tedious as there will be no meaningful dialogue for quite some time.

And this is why the targeted frequency analysis I’ve come up with works so well. In the series I’ve analyzed, the frequency analysis becomes meaningful because it allows you to quickly arrive at a level which will allow you to read meaningful and interesting Chinese. Once you have achieved this goal, you can then switch to a frequency analysis like the one which rates number seven at 920 – and you will be able to rapidly transition from children’s books to more advanced material such as daily newspapers.

The hard data can be summed up in the following table. Only the first six books of more than thirty are shown, but as you can see, by the 6th book less than 10% of the characters encountered are new, but complete and wildly different stories can easily be written with only 200 characters. This is the basis for the low level being 200 to 400 characters as presented above.

Name of Book


New:Unique (New to Pool)




137:137 (100%)




66:104 (64%)




52:108 (26%)




42:94 (16%)




50:140 (17%)




35:137 (7%)


To conclude, the missing link is ensuring that you have enough reading material which is linked to a targeted frequency analysis. Creating such a massive structure is a daunting task. It is far more difficult than it sounds. However, I am almost done that MCI Chinese textbook I mentioned in a previous post. It’s called “Da Jia Shuo Zhong Wen”. I think it’s going to be good 🙂


One Response

  1. There are other problems, as well. As you get more and more into the characters, the frequency that you see them diminishes. Take Far East’s excellent 3000 character dictionary. How often are you going to see character 2,999 compared to character 30? Chances are you will never see it enough to recognize it without pure memorization.

    That’s what happened to me at the advanced level. The higher your Chinese gets, the more it depends on memorization.

    I agree to a large extent about reading material. That is sorely missing. We didn’t even have that much at TaiDa, and that was the most intense Chinese program out there.

    However, there is a series called “easy Chinese readings in 500 characters.” the first one is called “Life in Beijing.” The idea was to stick to 500 characters and just use the words you could make from those to write the story. They had excellent repitition of vocab, as well.

    So in my experience, it never really gets any easier.

    Renli Responds: Thanks, i’ll look into that book, it seems like what I am trying to do. I’ve been grappling with how to build the initial vocabulary in a MCI style textbook, and it is NOT easy. I have a few native speakers helping me out constructing lessons. What I’ve discovered is that the results from the study correspond very accurately with the practical observations writing the book. For example at about 250 characters it is possible to begin introducing characters in a nearly pure frequency order.

    I’m working on getting a core 200 word vocabulary ATM, but it requires that we re-write all of the lesson plans from scratch!

    And you are very right about character 2,999 – the fact is, you will simply see characters at the lower end of the spectrum more. Which implies that a frequency order should be employed at the earliest possible opportunity. I feel if I can create a program that transitions to a frequency order approach while at the same time providing massive comprehensible input, it would be a success.

    What bothers me is that I have never ever seen a textbook which attempts to teach in this manner. Like I said tho I’ll have a look at that 500 words book, thanks again!

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