Maria Holland

The Law of Diminishing Returns

In Uncategorized on April 25, 2010 at 10:28 pm

Ah summer – please don’t ever leave us again.  You and Xiamen belong together, like kungpao belongs with chicken. 

Today we officially inaugurated the beach as prime hang-out spot for the rest of the year.  Jimmy brought most of the food, which really means I don’t have to say anything else because you should know we ate well.  Toasted bread, fruit, salads, corn-on-the-cob, and oh the meat

It was also a farewell party for Virginie, who returns to France tomorrow evening.  It will be a few months still before the next farewell, but in a tiny tiny way it feels like the beginning of the end.

Besides the barbecue beach party, catching up on The Office, and the international movie night, I spent some time finally catching up on my flashcard reviews.  This upcoming week is midterms but because I spend time studying every day, I’m not really planning on increasing that time.  According to the statistics provided by my flashcard program:

  • I have 7,527 flashcards
  • I know 6,000 of them (taking away new and suspended cards)
  • I review an average of 150 cards each day, which takes me about 45 minutes
  • Last week, because was a little behind and added a lot of new cards, I reviewed over 400 each day
  • On average, I’ve added 25 new cards each day

Last week I added a plugin to the program that gives even more facts, including counting the number of individual characters that I know.  (This is helpful because many of my 7,000+ cards are words that contain more than one character; while I don’t repeat words, there are lots of duplicate characters.)

  • I know 1650 characters. 
  • Of the 803 甲 (most basic) characters, I know 95%
  • Of the 798 乙 (elementary) characters, I know 70%
  • Of the 589 丙 (intermediate) characters, I know 33%
  • Of the 670 丁 (advanced) characters, I know 13%

As you can see, there is still much left to learn.  I don’t despair over these numbers; instead I’m kind of tickled over the 87 ‘advanced’ characters that I somehow managed to learn.  At any rate, I also found it interesting to see a breakdown of the frequency of use of the most common characters. 

  • The 500 most commonly-used characters (of which I know nearly 98%) make up 75% of Chinese usage
  • The top 1000 commonly-used characters make up 89%
  • By the time you know the top 1500 characters, you are theoretically* able to read 95% of Chinese
  • To get above 99%, you have to learn the top 3,000 characters
  • If you learn another 500 after that, you only increase your comprehension level to 99.5% (from 99.2%).

*Caveat: these counts concern only characters; while knowing a character theoretically means you can read it out loud and have a general understanding of its meaning, you may still not know how it works when paired with other characters in a word. 

Basically what you see is a real-life example of the law of diminishing returns – at the beginning, each character you learn is immensely useful; but by the time you’re learning character #3,438 you’re really not getting much use out of your new knowledge. 

This is why learning Chinese is really fun at the beginning, and why I’m pretty happy to be stopping after this year :)

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  1. Ah – the law of diminishing returns. It describes so many situations we encounter in life: product design, eating, econimcs, advertising, etc. It is both a good thing and a bad thing. You just have to use common sense and intuition to know when you should go beyond the knee-in-the-curve. Good blog!

  2. Just learning 500 of the most commonly used characters will take you a long way – absolutely amazing! Even with my mom who has been schooled in Hong Kong until secondary graduation, she admits there are many words she does not know, especially ones that probably fall under the “advanced” or more traditional/ancient characters. However, given regular communication and even reading books/scripts, it is not a problem. I probably know a hundred characters if I’m lucky enough, so diminishing returns or not, truly your efforts and intellect is unsurpassed.

    Just don’t forget the hard part about Chinese though is if you don’t use it often enough, you tend to forget it very quickly :P

  3. What, no graph??

  4. good one Cissy!!

  5. Be careful what you ask for, mother!

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