Wanted: Chinese Sign Frequency List

[Update: Bizarrely, comments weren’t allowed on this post at first (they are now). I don’t know why.] 

Someone want to make some money? Well you’re welcome to this idea if you can figure out how to do it and monetize it. (Maybe it’s already been done, although I doubt it.)

For years we’ve had lists of Chinese characters sorted by frequency. They are all fine and good if you want to learn something about those 3-4000 characters you’ll need to be able to read a Chinese newspaper.

But seriously folks. Who comes to China for their newspapers?

Much more useful (at least to me personally) would be a list of characters found on signs, storefronts, and billboards. Let’s call this genre “outdoor characters.” Even those who are not really interested in learning how to speak Chinese arrive in China and wonder about all the weird symbols they’re seeing. And that’s the point: we’re all seeing these characters all the time. They could be learned and reinforced much easier than the ones needed to read a newspaper or even a weibo.

I’ve wanted this list for a long time, and when a friend said the other day that he too would like it, I got to thinking: “Hey! Since that Pleco thing knows how to convert the real world into characters, why couldn’t we start to put something like this together?” (I have a dumb phone and have never had the honor of trying out the Pleco thing. But I would get a smart phone just for this project if it ever comes into existence).

We could submit photos of outside hanzi characters through a special app on our phone ($$$ people, here’s one way to get some) that would go into a big database and then somehow start putting together character frequency data. Seriously, I would go around taking pictures like these on my phone if it would be for the greater good:

I just went around and took random pictures for 5 minutes. But still, as you can see, already frequency patterns start to emerge:

  • Red (3) = 超市 chāo shì = supermarket
  • Green (2) =  jìn = forbidden / prohibited
  • Pink (2) =  tíng = to stop / to park
  • Yellow (2) =  lù = road
  • Black (2) =  diàn = shop

Isn’t that fun? And that’s just a lame little impromptu frequency list I’ve thrown together. What we really need is a whole bunch of people working on this together. Maybe even Pleco would like to have an opt in (that’s important) program where you can let them catalog the characters you’re seeing outside.

I already put together my own little list of top 10 characters for travelers to learn, but that’s based on usefulness rather than frequency.

Hanzi literacy doesn’t just have to be about newspapers and standardized tests. If someone wouldn’t mind just whipping up this little Chinese signs project for us, that would be great. Just leave the link in the comments section. Thanks so much. Hello? Anyone?

4 Replies to “Wanted: Chinese Sign Frequency List”

  1. Sounds like a good idea, if I was in China I would be on it like a car bonnet. Why don’t you get in touch with the pleco guy directly?

  2. why don’t you try out an iphone app called sunrise method.

    it combines frequency of characters with frequency of character components and radicals, and spatially breaks it down.

    I might improve your character retention and ability to write it in the future.

    Camera is great for instant gratification, but in the end, you want to know the character by heart.

    • @WPH,

      Interesting. But that book doesn’t say anything about frequency. That’s what I’m most interested in these days. The book info says:

      “The signs and posters in this book have been selected from a collection of over two thousand photographs and are commonly seen in Chinese society. Readers may see these signs in mainland China, Taiwan and Chinatowns worldwide.”

      So I wonder are the traditional or simplified characters? Probably a combination of both, which would make it kind of hard to use I would image. Still, it might be interesting, especially if you’re outside of China teaching Chinese and you want to bring realia into the class.

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