How the Top 2000 words were ordered

Pinhok started out with the goal to provide picture-based language learning material. Today, however, the top 2000 vocabulary books are the most popular product. This quick article explains how and why things changed and what made me switch to this top 2000 format.

How I got there

There wasn’t one single event that made me realize how valuable a list of 2000 words and phrases ordered by frequency of use could be. I started thinking about a vague idea like that when I was learning Mandarin and studying for HSK 5. HSK is a standardized Mandarin test with a total of 6 levels. What I realized, however, was that HSK 4 with only 1200 words was enough to get through most of your daily live without any major problems. Any of the 3800 other vocabularies were useful for reading newspapers, discussing political topics or writing essays, but they didn’t add much to convenience in conversations you would have on a day-to-day basis.

After 2 years or so, this basic idea became a lot more concrete when I read the 4-hour workweek by Tim Ferriss and as a result started listening to his podcast. On the one hand, he often points out the 80/20 rule which states that 80% of the result can often be achieved by 20% of the effort. This was fitting perfectly with what I had observed during my days preparing for HSK.

The second thing that brought me on the right track were a couple of tricks and shortcuts Tim presented to his readers and listeners. One of them is his approach to learning a new language with simply having a couple of phrases translated to the new language from English to grasp basic sentence and grammar patterns and as a result not lose any time on learning grammar at all. This would later lead to the introduction of the sentences chapter in the vocabulary book as well as phrases in the top 2000 books.

First 500 words

Having put together the basic concept of what the top 2000 books should be, the questions was, how to get to a list with the most common words and phrases.

The first 1000 words thereby mainly follow the Frequency List for English on Wikipedia put together based on almost 30 million words in TV and movie scripts. This was by no means perfect and led to some words being ranked a lot higher than they should, but it was a decent approach and made sure I didn’t miss out on any words in the process.

Towards the end of the first 500 words, a bigger emphasis was put on some basic phrases that are used often in daily life and contain some basic grammar. This makes sure that learners should be able to have some very basic conversations after studying only 500 vocabularies.

Words 500-1000

The subsequent 500 words very much followed the frequency list as much as possible with grouping together some words by topics wherever necessary. As with the first 500 words, towards the end of the second 500 word-group emphasis was put on providing helpful and often used sentence patterns without using too difficult vocabularies in the presented sentences.

Final 1000 words

The second part of the book was more of a subjective evaluation of all of the more than 3500 vocabularies that were already prepared for the full vocabulary book as to which ones would be used on a daily basis and which wouldn’t. As such, the second 1000 words very much complement the words learned in the first part of the book, but won’t have the same effect on the progress of language acquisition anymore. Having said that, learning all 2000 words is nevertheless necessary to get to a decent level.


After using the Cantonese version of the top 2000 vocabulary book myself I was quite amazed as to how well this approach is actually working in real live. After only a bit over 400 words I started being able to follow some basic conversations and express whatever I wanted to express in some form or another. All in all I think the books that came out of this process are good learning resources for people like me that are willing to sit down and learn vocabularies on a regular basis. If you have any questions to the above, please feel free to get in touch with me via the contact form of the website!