Things Just Got a Whole Lot Easier: Pareto’s Principle

Okay, so we’ve learned about Chinese characters. Now let me ask, does the idea of learning all those characters still scare you a bit? It definitely scared me! That is, until I found out about this magical statistical principal. It’s a complete game-changer and it’s the secret will put you miles ahead of countless of other Chinese learners.

What is it? It’s called “Pareto’s Principle.” Perhaps you might have heard of it before by the name, “The 80/20 Rule.” This statistical law shows that in many naturally occurring circumstances, 80% of the results will come from only 20% of the efforts. You can take advantage of this statistical fact by focusing your time first solely on the 20% of the content which will result in 80% of the results. But to give us a further introduction to this principle, take a look at the short video below:

Before we go further, we should be clear that language learning is a long-term process and you should not expect fluency in some unreasonably short period of time. The learning curve for learning any language is much like climbing a steep cliff up to a plateau and then setting out on a journey up a long, gradually sloped road. Once you have a grasp of enough words and characters to read and be understood (ie, you’ve reached the plateau), you can learn more and more vocabulary to improve your skills as you continue studying (the long road). This long road is a topic for another time – today, we want to talk about climbing up to the plateau as quickly as you possibly can.

In my experience, the Pareto’s Principle will not be applicable for your entire language learning experience. This is because being a fluent speaker (and, more importantly, understanding spoken language) will absolutely require that you know a lotof words, some of which are used relatively rarely. However, as I will discuss further in future posts, leveraging this principle can be incredibly useful when it comes to getting familiarized with Chinese characters quickly so you can reach a level of high confidence in your reading skills as efficiently as possible. With this confidence, you will feel ready to tackle challenging content that interests you surprisingly quickly.

Applying Pareto’s Principle to Chinese characters suggests that roughly 20% of all existing Chinese characters will account for around 80% of the text that you will encounter by frequency in almost any source of the Chinese language. Pretty cool, right? By focusing on the most frequently-used Chinese characters, you can rapidly make substantial progress in your ability to read characters. After learning just 100 characters, you should start recognizing about 40% of characters by frequency. At that point, you should have a level of knowledge high enough to identify and sound out about 40% of the characters on any page you read, as well as identify the subjects, parts of speech, and structure of sentences.

Now jump ahead to a knowledge of 600 characters and this equates to roughly 80% of written Chinese by frequency. When you think about it, that’s pretty amazing. Compare 600 to the 50,000 total characters we discussed earlier. That’s just over 1%! We discussed in the last post that you could read a typical newspaper with a knowledge of 3,000 characters. Compare 600 characters with these 3,000 and you get exactly 20%! That’s the 80/20 Rule in action!

People typically first cite the difficulty of learning Chinese by the need to know so many characters. But we just took that vague “so many” and narrowed it down to the list of 600 characters you see below.

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Source: http://lingua.mtsu.edu/chinese-computing/

Not so daunting anymore, right? I found that it was incredibly motivating to know that I could start chipping away at this block of characters with totally feasible goal of 80% character recognition. Again, I want to reiterate that what we are talking about here is reaching the plateau as quickly as possible, not fluency.

Once you reach this plateau, learning the characters should actually seem like it was pretty easy, it just takes some time. Knowing these common characters will make the process of learning other characters easier and easier because you should now be quite familiar with the radicals you recognize from the characters you know. Additionally, you’ll be able to notice the components of phono-semantic compounds to make a good guess at the pronunciation of unfamiliar characters. At that point, you can then focus your efforts on what I think is actually the hidden difficulty of the Chinese learning curve: learning words.

My hope is that now you see learning Chinese characters as a much less difficult task than you initially thought. I know you’re probably excited to start learning characters right away, but first let’s continue on our journey through the guide and discuss how character pronunciation is expressed through pinyin.

Next up: Learn About Pinyin

How to get started learning Chinese Series

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