Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Learning Chinese

I love my dad.  Sometimes I forget how cool he can be.  Like all parents, there are times he embarrasses his kids, but every once in awhile he does something amazing.

About 12 years ago, my dad came up to visit me in college.  Like many college age students, I didn't always enjoy introducing my parents to friends because of the fear they might reveal some embarrassing childhood story or shame me in some other way.  For this reason, I told my dad to meet me downstairs in the dorm lobby, thinking this would minimize the potential for an embarrassing moment.  Imagine my horror, when, after arriving and meeting the cute Asian student sitting behind the front desk, my dad started speaking what appeared to be mock-Chinese gibberish at her.  The feeling was something akin to what I imagine ESPN's editors experienced after reading the racist Jeremy Lin headline earlier this month.  Much to my surprise, the student in question was not at all offended and instead returned the remark with a laugh and a response in Mandarin.  My dad, perhaps seeing the look of shock and unease on my face, smiled, put his hand on my shoulder, and continued conversing with her.  It was only then that I remembered my dad used to be a Chinese translator in the United States Air Force.

To this day, I don't know exactly what my dad said, but he seemed to make a good impression.  Now every time I get a fortune cookie at a restaurant, I look at the Chinese word on the back and wonder if I'll ever be able to speak with him in Chinese.  How much would I have to spend on Chinese food to learn every word?

Like any language, specifying the exact number of words is tricky.  Words are constantly being invented (and sometimes removed) from usage.  However, judging by the size of the Chinese-to-English dictionaries I've seen in book stores, I would assume the number of Chinese words is roughly equivalent to the number of English words, which would put the exact number somewhere in the vicinity of 100,000 words.  Assuming Chinese words are uniformly represented in fortune cookies, I would need to buy at least 100,000 meals.  At about $10 per meal, this would mean spending at least $1 million on Chinese food, and that's assuming I never got the same word twice (a very unlikely proposition.)  If I ate Chinese food every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, this would still take 91 years.  Needless to say, it may take awhile before I can speak to my dad in any language but English.


  1. Leaving aside that you would never learn the grammar or other non-vocabulary aspects of the language, I would guess that you could be reasonably fluent with only 10,000 words or less, so you could probably cut it down to under ten years. Of course, fortune cookies will only ever have the common words, so most likely a fortune-cookie vocabulary would be between three and five thousand words.

  2. All good points...looks like I'll have to invest in Rosetta Stone.

  3. An American 10 year old has a vocabulary of 10,000 words, but also knows 10,000 rules of grammar.

    The claim is that the average American Adult has a 40,000 word vocabulary. This is much larger than many other languages. I met a guy from the Netherlands, whose English was excellent, despite his claim that he started learning it only three years earlier. He asked me, "Do you really have a 40,000 word vocabulary?" I said, "No. I'm highly educated. My vocabulary is more like 450,000 words."

    How would one test their vocabulary? Try this. Get a dictionary that has a known number of words. Pick words at random. For example, open the book to a random page, jam your finger to a random spot, and always move up to the nearest word. Make a check mark in one column if you really know the word, what it means and how to use it. Make a check mark in another column if you don't. Repeat. It's been suggested that 30 repetitions should be OK. Multiply the number of words in the dictionary by the number you got right, and divide by the total number of trials. This is an estimate.

    You get three words per cookie? Or are you eating out three times per day?

    1. I'd think that one could fairly easily program such a test in Mathematica, at least in v8.0.