What is Chinese frequency and why should I care?

If you counted up all the Chinese words and characters being used in newspaper, in books, and online, you'd end up with a list with the number of times each character and word appeared. The list you'd end up with is called a frequency list.

Using Chinese frequency data can be useful for studying Chinese characters. And it can be used in online Chinese dictionaries to make searching better or enhance character information (like 3000 Hanzi's Chinese Dictionary does).

This page provides links to a useful collection of tools, lists, and articles on common Chinese characters and on using frequency to learn Chinese.

The Most Common Radicals, Characters and Words

While there are lots of resources for the most common Chinese radicals and Chinese characters, most tend to be simple lists of words the author thinks are important. For common Chinese words, the situation is worse: there aren't any great pages about common Chinese words. The closest thing might be the HSK Vocabulary Lists (which is pretty far). So here's a selection of pages for common radicals and common characters.

Common Radicals

Common Characters

Frequency Lists

Here are some of the better (and lesser) known frequency lists for Mandarin Chinese on the web.

Studying Chinese using frequency lists

These days, it's popular to use frequency lists to study Chinese. Like most study methods, it has advantages and downsides. Studying Chinese from character (or word) frequency lists can be an ok goal to set for oneself, and you'll definitely learn a lot. But slavishly sticking to frequency lists means you'll also be studying words without regard to how and when you should be studying them.

Big long lists of words with no context or usage can't provide much value. If the lists aren't relevant to the goals you're trying to achieve, then it won't be an effective use of your time. I'd recommend studying from a frequency list if you're feeling stuck or want a challenge. But make sure to put limits. There's no need to study 5,000 characters or words from a list. Study a few hundred first and then go re-evaluate the list against your goals. After a month or two of study, you may realize the list you're studying has giving you what you needed.


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