I'm not sure how to ask this question since English words and Chinese characters are different, but hopefully someone will understand what I'm saying: basically, I'm wondering how many different words/characters I'd need to know before I could chat comfortably with Chinese people / watch a Chinese sitcom.

The HSK says you can can converse in Chinese on a wide range of topics and are able to communicate fluently with native Chinese speakers with 1,200 characters. And UNESCO says an educated person would know 2,000 characters. Do either of those seem right to you? I think you'd need more for European languages.

But then again, characters and words are different. Chinese makes news words by combining smaller words much more often than European languages. Like, when I first heard the word 好玩, I understood it because I'd already knew 好 and 玩. So perhaps fewer words/characters are necessary. Still, just knowing its characters isn't always enough to understand a new word. Knowing 参 and 加 doesn't mean I'll understand 参加. So I'd need to know more than just all the single characters.

I'm not exactly looking for the number of words, and I'm not necessarily looking for the number of characters, but more a combination. Unique pieces?

(I know that there is much more to language learning than vocabulary. To actually understand TV or talk to people, I'd also need lots of time listening, learning sentence structure, speaking, etc. I'm just wondering about vocabulary for this question.)

  • 1
    The Hanban comparison with European standards is exaggerated: see Wikipedia. HSK4 is more realistically A2 level (not B2 level). There's supposedly reform in the works, but we haven't heard much more after its initial announcement. Commented Jul 14, 2020 at 8:38
  • What you should understand is that learning Chinese is not (just) about learning characters. The number of characters you know is in itself meaningless. What matters is the size of your vocabulary and your knowledge of grammar, especially syntax.
    – imrek
    Commented Jul 14, 2020 at 16:57
  • 3
    There's a website called Graded Watching which ranks Chinese movies and TV series in terms of difficulty. Commented Jul 15, 2020 at 2:07

2 Answers 2


My experience is that even after passing HSK4 (1200 words, 1064 characters) with ~90% in the listening and reading part, and now closing in HSK5, I am still not fully comfortable to sitcoms without pausing once in a while (都挺好, 他来了 请闭眼, etc). So most answers relying on HSK word count have to be taken with a grain of salt.

HSK will definitely help you, but you should also just get used to regularly watching with Chinese and English subtitles (pause, come back, note stuff you already know and its context) would help much more. HSK is different from real life, and met people with HSK4 or less - level that could understand fully sitcoms, since the vocabulary is different and a lot more redundant that some HSK obscure characters.

Basically you'd need to chose if you want to do the exams to put on your CV, brag to friends, study Uni in China OR you actually want to be able to understand and converse if everyday language. Although not mutually exclusive, those 2 things are far from a perfect overlap. You seem to be more interested in the latter, which in my opinion 2000 sounds enough assuming there's no quantum physics discussions, but unfortunately, there is no list of which characters those would be.

  • That is very useful! If I could watch TV and just have to pause for a new word every once in a while, that's totally fine — I think once I'm at that point, filling in gaps shouldn't be so difficult.
    – codi6
    Commented Jul 15, 2020 at 0:41

With sitcoms, the difficult with understanding the content has more to do with familiarity of expressions rather than specific characters (it helps but only to an certain extent).

Based on my experience with translating and subtitling things like movies and tv series, most of the time it is impossible to translate 'word-for-word' what is being said (for various reasons), so it means that you need to become familiar with certain expressions (this depends on when the sitcom was made, and the particular types of characters being portrayed) as well as certain contexts within the sitcom that builds up over time (e.g. in-jokes).

My advice is usually to watch these programs with the translated subtitles first and listen to the original audio first, then switch to original audio with Chinese subtitles when you are more confident with the language.

  • Yes, I point this out at the end of my post — but here I'm asking about vocab specifically
    – codi6
    Commented Jul 15, 2020 at 1:25

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