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If you've used Reddit's r/ChineseLanguage or r/languagelearning, you may have encountered people propose studying Chinese characters one by one in order frequency based on lists such as Jun Da's.

This strikes me as a poor method, for two main reasons: (1) Because what it means to "learn" a character changes over time: a HSK1 student cannot learn characters to the depth required of a HSK6 student. So they'll have to go back and do it all again anyway. (2) Because knowing a Chinese character requires knowing the words containing it.

But let's see...

Question: What are the (dis)advantages of learning thousands of Chinese characters one by one via a frequency list?

I'm hoping to get "experience reports" from people who have actually tried this, or the opinions of Chinese educators (or papers on the topic).

Just to make sure we're on the same page here:

  • I'm asking about Chinese characters, not words (I'm just using the closest existing tag).
  • I'm not talking about "Remember the Hanzi", whose order is not frequency-based, but more related to character structure.

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I've thought about this question at length in the process of designing language-learning software that makes extensive use of word frequency lists.

Advantages

  • Frequent words are generally more useful to know that infrequent words, so learning in frequency order will give you better return on your time investment than most other word list orders.

Disadvantages

  • Language learning works best when consuming content within one's zone of proximal development. The order of words in a frequency list is often poorly correlated to what words are easiest to pick up based on what you already know. Some specific examples:
    • is by far the most common Chinese character, but it does not make sense for it to be the first character that you learn, since it is a grammatical function word that does not make sense on its own. When I teach beginners from scratch, I prefer to start with relatively common nouns like 人、书、车 (person, book, car) or action verbs like 看、去 (see, go) that are easy to convey with gestures or images and can easily plug into many different contexts.
    • is very high in the frequency list, but as a word with a function fairly unique to Chinese, it is a difficult word for learners to grasp. Before teaching this word, the learner should have sufficient vocabulary to be able to see how this word can fit in context.
    • Many characters that make sense to learn together are spread far apart through the frequency list, such as the numbers 1-10 (一二三四五六七八九十). is the second most common character, but is not in the top 500.
      Similarly, the characters in many bigrams are separated in frequency lists. For example, the character 道 will first be useful to a learner in the word 知道, but 道 appears far before 知 in the frequency list.
  • No matter what character order you choose, learning characters "one-by-one" will likely feel monotonous and inorganic. When you are consuming real language, encountering vocabulary that is far down in your list of characters is quite common. Instead of trying to learn one character completely before continuing onto another one, it's probably better to accept that you will have partial knowledge of many characters, and that your familiarity with characters will naturally improve over time with more exposure to them.

In the past, I've used the following techniques to try to address the shortcomings of a purely frequency-based approach:

  • When the learner knows n characters and I'm trying to find the character n + 1 that is most useful for them to learn, rather than choosing the most frequent character that they don't know, I try to choose the character that will unlock the most sentences. That is, in a corpus with millions of sentences, filter down the sentences to those that only contain the n characters they know plus one unknown character, and then choose the unknown character that appears in the most sentences.
  • Instead of searching for a single character to introduce next, I've found that it generally works better to look for a pair of characters to introduce next, which helps address the separated bigram issue mentioned above.
  • Don't be strict about learning characters one-by-one according to a list. When searching for content to learn from, it's fine for about 5% of the characters in the text to be unfamiliar. Content with about 95% words known is still largely comprehensible from context. Allowing a small threshold of unfamiliar vocabulary allows a wider selection of content.
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    Hey, welcome to the site! For those who don't know, Peter Olson is the developer of Dong Chinese which keeps track of how many Chinese characters users know (among other features), so this is quite some relevant expertise. Jul 22, 2023 at 12:26

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