How is fluency in Chinese measured? Some people would answer that you need to be able to speak, read and write the language like a native. However, there are some key benchmarks that can gauge your Chinese language fluency. These benchmarks may hold the secret to becoming fluent in Mandarin Chinese.

Literacy Benchmark: Number of Characters You Need to Know

Chinese characters are logograms, meaning a character generally represents one syllable of spoken Chinese and may be a word on its own or a part of a polysyllabic word. According to Zhonghua Zihaii (中华字海), the largest Chinese character dictionary, there are more than 85,000 Chinese characters. However, the average Chinese person knows at least 3000 Chinese characters. The general consensus is that 3000 to 4000 characters is enough for daily use. The Chinese government puts literacy at 2000 characters.

Cumulative Character Frequency for the Most Common Characters based on two studies (Huang 1994 and Da 2004):

Top 250 characters: 64.4% / 57.1%
Top 500 characters: 79.2% / 72.1%
Top 1000 characters: 91.1% / 86.2%
Top 1500 characters: 95.7% / 92.4%
Top 2000 characters: 97.9% / 95.6%
Top 3000 characters: 99.4% / 98.3%

And statistical material for general text from Tsinghua University:

Char---Cumulative Frequency
------------------------
500----78.53202%
1000---91.91527%
1500---96.47563%
2000---98.38765%
2500---99.24388%
3000---99.63322%
3500---99.82015%
4000---99.91645%
4500---99.96471%
5000---99.98633%
5500---99.99553%
6000---99.99901%
6479---100.00000%

As you can see, the maximum number of characters you actually need to know to be able to read everything in Chinese is around 6500. It may seem like a lot but it is much easier than having to learn all 85,000 characters that exist in the Chinese language. If you start learning 20 Chinese characters a day, then by the end of a year, you would have studied over 7000 characters (20 characters x 365 days = 7300). Even if you forget some of them, say you forget about 50% of the characters that you learned, you would still have a knowledge of over 3000 characters, the minimum that is necessary for daily life in China. If you ever need or want to work in China one day, your Chinese language skills could possibly give you an edge when applying for a job position. Think of all the opportunities that will be open to you by just spending an hour or so studying 20 Chinese characters a day!

HSK Exams (汉语水平考试)

Another way of measuring your fluency is by taking exams. One of the most well-known exams for testing Chinese fluency is called the HSK Exam. Below is a table showing what each exam (levels 1-6) measure:

Words
(cumulative / new)
Characters
(cumulative / new)
Listening Reading Writing
1 150 150 174 174 20 questions, 15 min 20 questions, 17 min Not tested Designed for learners who can understand and use some simple Chinese characters and sentences to communicate, and prepares them for continuing their Chinese studies. In HSK 1 all characters are provided along with Pinyin.
2 300 150 347 173 35 questions, 25 min 25 questions, 22 min Designed for learners who can use Chinese in a simple and direct manner, applying it in a basic fashion to their daily lives. In HSK 2 all characters are provided along with Pinyin.
3 600 300 617 270 40 questions 30 questions 10 items Designed for learners who can use Chinese to serve the demands of their personal lives, studies and work, and are capable of completing most of the communicative tasks they experience during their Chinese tour.
4 1200 600 1064 447 45 questions 40 questions 15 items Designed for learners who can discuss a relatively wide range of topics in Chinese and are capable of communicating with Chinese speakers at a high standard.
5 2500 1300 1685 621 45 questions 45 questions 10 items Designed for learners who can read Chinese newspapers and magazines, watch Chinese films and are capable of writing and delivering a lengthy speech in Chinese.
6 5000 2500 2663 978 50 questions 50 questions 1 composition Designed for learners who can easily understand any information communicated in Chinese and are capable of smoothly expressing themselves in written or oral form.