Reuters has an article that fewer characters being used in written Chinese than 'before' (not sure when before was). For example, you typically need to know 900 characters to read 90% of current publications. People usually gawk at the number of characters they say that Chinese writers/readers must learn, of the 50,000 individual characters that exist.
However, as Slate points out, there are currently almost 1,000,000 (million) English words, 50,000 of which are headwords - or the primary, bold-faced, word. I also had a statistic around somewhere about how many English words make up 90% of a typical daily newspaper, but cannot find it (silly data...)
And Chinese characters are commonly built up of radicals which indicate what the word can mean or deals with. Being an engineer, chinese script feels very "algebraic" to me. I learn what x and 2^y and Ï€ mean. However, when you see "angry" and "hungry" do they give you any idea what they mean?
Other interesting facts: there are fewer than 100,000 words in French, and 24,000 different words in the complete works of Shakespeare (1,700 were invented by him). About 80% of the information stored in the world's computers (such as this text) are also in English. And as Joi Ito quandries: If news is not in English, did it happen?"