first, kinship terms out of the way: N. is my mom's half-brother's wife's adoptive father -- let's just call him "a family elder", eh?
N. cornered me at the Hanukkah gathering last night, and --on finding out what I work on-- started trying to get his mind around Chinese, asking the usual questions about "is Chinese just one language?" and some more finance- and business-oriented questions where I floundered a bit ("what's the language for computer business in China?" -- I guessed Mandarin, but then again, Cantonese? because I don't really know). I tried to dig myself out by sharing that I found the writing system in Chinese to be the biggest challenge but great chunks of it are shared among the various Chinese languages, and then he wanted to know "but how many letters are there in Chinese?"
This is actually an excellent question, and there's not really an absolute, sociologically valid answer in the same way that "how many words are there in English?" doesn't have an absolute answer. I hedged, and said "three or four thousand to read a newspaper well, but there are thousands more, and scholars get into an argument about which ones deserve their own number in this big common book of Unicode."
"Sounds like Talmudic scholarship," he said. Indeed: like Talmudic scholarship, it only matters if you think the particular shared-intellectual apparatus that the Book describes matters.