So, I decided to challenge myself to see what it takes to learn the 625-word ‘essential’ base vocabulary list in Chinese.

Hold on, I learned Chinese for two years. How do I not know such basics?

Well, the truth is I learned Chinese at university. As is often the case with formal language education, they forgot to brush over most of the main tools we need for everyday conversation. They skipped straight to grammar and interpreting classic formal texts in Chinese.

While studying, we were given plenty of useless information, and not so much practical information. During that time, I thought I would have been better off teaching myself Chinese.

As is often the case with these kind of thoughts, unfortunately, it never materialised. Even though I said that at the time, after I stopped studying at university, I never spent any of my own time on learning Chinese.

Now, two and a half years after the last semester of Chinese that I completed, my Chinese is down to an embarrassingly elementary level.

I have always been meaning to pick it up again and teach myself, but I wasn’t really sure where to start. Now that I might be going back into stage 3 university Chinese next year, I need to do something to prepare or face being completely lost.

So, when I saw Fluent Forever*’s recommended base vocabulary list for the first 625 words to learn in any language, it inspired me to kickstart my Chinese learning again. I’m challenging myself, and I’m challenging you, too.

Mastering the base vocabulary list in Chinese

My method of organising the base vocabulary list in Chinese

This is how I sorted out the vocabulary methodically and figured out which words I already know.

I took a sheet of paper and folded it into three even columns. In the first column, I wrote the words in English. In the second column, I wrote the Chinese pinyin of the word (if I knew it). And in the third column, I wrote the characters of the words I knew. I used Fluent Forever’s thematic order to categorise the words (they recommend learning them in alphabetical order, but personally I find it easier learning by topic).

By knowing a word, I mean that I could recollect it without assistance. If I was pretty sure I knew a word, I would write it down on a separate piece of paper, and then look it up. When what I’d written was correct, I’d add it to the list.

If you decide to make your own vocabulary lists this way, decide how strict you want to be on yourself. You might decide, for example, that if you don’t know a word with 100% certainty, you don’t really know it.

Changes I made to the original base vocabulary list

If you are looking for a more basic phrase sheet in Chinese to start with, click here.

Fluent Forever’s list is very comprehensive and there’s not much to fault about it. However, there were a few things I changed to make it better suit Chinese.

Adding words

I do believe the base vocabulary list should be altered according to the language you are learning. This is because each language has words which are more commonly used than in others, and vice versa.

Cultural and language differences

To take into account the unique words that are common in Chinese, to my base vocabulary list in Chinese, I added in the words chopstick, dumpling, character, traditional, simplified, and tone.


To my family list, I made sure to include the distinct words for little brother, big brother, little sister, big sister, paternal grandmother and grandfather, and maternal grandmother and grandfather.


Each Chinese noun has at least one assigned ‘classifier’, or counting word which appears between a number and a noun.

For example,

One =  (yī)

Person = (rén)

One person = 一个人 (yī ge rén) -> ‘ (ge)’ is the classifier for (rén).

The classifiers ‘classify’ objects in a number of different ways, one being by type. So, to make things easier for myself in future, I decided to include the classifiers in my vocabulary list. This way, I can learn them at the same time as I learn their associated noun.

Removing words

Thankfully, I have managed to retain at least some information from learning Chinese in the past. The one area that I can say I have mastered is counting numbers up to 99 (no huge feat, I know). For this reason, I didn’t bother writing all of these down and including them in my list.

I also took out words I don’t use in my variety of English, like ‘yard’.

With the alterations to the list, I ended up with 581 words instead of 625.

The Results

base vocabulary list in Chinese - maths
Maths isn’t my strong suit, even in English. Let’s just leave it at that.
base vocabulary list in Chinese - months and numbers
I just wrote down the numbers I don’t know off by heart to make things quicker. Months are thankfully simple in Chinese!
base vocabulary list in Chinese - art and transport
I knew exactly zero of the ‘essential’ art terms.
base vocabulary list in Chinese - verbs
The verb category was one of my best – for this sheet, I could remember 18 out of 39 words, and could write about 5 of them.

As I said above, embarrassing. There were many words I almost knew, and many which I remembered one half of. But when it came down to it, the worlds I could fully recall were few.

I could say 204 out of the 581 base vocabulary items in Chinese.

I could write 71 out of the 581 base vocabulary items in Chinese.

That means I can say 35% of and write 12% of 581 foundation words in Chinese.

My goal: Completely learn the base vocabulary list in Chinese by the 19th of August 2018.

That means learning:

  • to say 377 words in Chinese
  • to write 510 words in Chinese characters

…in 3 and a half months!

Next steps:

My base vocabulary list in Chinese has 581 words altogether. I have 7 double sided sheets of vocabulary, which is 14 pages in total. I aim to learn one page per week while retaining the words from previous weeks.

  • Each week, I will focus on one page, which means 1, 2 or 3 topics a week.
  • Each page has between 35 to 39 words, which means I will learn around 5 words a day

I will:

  • spend at least one hour a day learning the 5 words, which means at least 12 minutes a day on each word
  • start with the pages where I knew the most words, and end with the pages where I knew the least
  • use Fluent Forever’s full Chinese vocabulary list translation for the correct translations of all the base list words.
  • use Anki flashcards to test my knowledge of a word and memorise writing the character on paper
  • record my progress and share it on The Wandering Linguist Facebook page each week. (Make sure you like the page so you can stay updated). I will also update this post each week.
  • post a new article on Sunday, 19th of August 2018 to describe my progress and determine if I have met my goal

If you don’t want to miss the update and my insights that come after it or along the way about learning Chinese, and about learning vocabulary this way, make sure you subscribe to my blog:

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Limitations to the base vocabulary list

Obviously, the base vocabulary list is not a comprehensive list. Even after learning all 625 base vocabulary words, no one is saying you will be fluent. More than likely, in fact, you will find that you are still lacking many everyday words.

For example, I noticed that many very common verbs such as ‘know’, ‘make’, ‘do’, ‘want’, ‘like’, ‘take’, and ‘give’ weren’t included in the list. This might be due to their grammatical complexity in some languages. Another example is that almost none of the English phrasal verbs have been included, which are usually necessary in daily speech (for example put on, turn off, put down).

Your conversations in any language will naturally lean more towards certain topics of interest depending on what you like. This list might not include those things. In my case, I like languages and travel, and none of these topics were included in the list.

In this case, I would recommend making lists of additional words you know you want to learn. Learn the first 625 words first, and then move on to more specialised areas once you have mastered your basic vocabulary.

My challenge for you to master the base vocabulary list in your target language:

Is there a language you have been wanting to learn but not sure how to start? Or a language you know some basics of but you want to keep it up?

Take the base vocabulary list challenge with me! It’s more fun if we’re in this together.

  1. See the base vocabulary list here
  2. Make lists of words with their translations, or purchase them from Fluent Forever
  3. Make flashcards of the words
  4. Set a goal for yourself and set measurable steps to achieve it
  5. Come back and let me know how you get on in the comments!

If you want to make yourself accountable, leave a comment here now with the language you’re learning and when you want to master the base vocabulary list by. I will follow up to check if you’ve achieved your goal (believe me, I will!).~

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Mastering the base vocabulary list in Chinese

*This post was not associated with or endorsed by Fluent Forever in any way.


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