What does your HSK level really tell about your Mandarin skills?

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Many people taking the HSK exams share the same experience. When they’ve reached HSK 4 level, they think they’ve arrived. But once they turn on the Chinese news, they still don’t understand what’s being said. So what do HSK exams really tell about your proficiency in Mandarin?

The HSK merry-go-round

The HSK merry-go-round or why you shouldn't be focused on HSK results only.

The story doesn’t stop with HSK 4. Because as soon as people realize they’re not as proficient as they thought, they more often than not sign up for the next level. HSK 5 is supposed to get you to “professional proficiency”:

Test takers who are able to pass the HSK (Level V) can read Chinese newspapers and magazines, enjoy Chinese films and plays, and give a full-length speech in Chinese.

(HSK 5 language skills description)

But can they really? I passed HSK 5 in 2017 with 208 points (out of 300) and even though my score could have been worse, I didn’t doubt one second that I had passed the test only by the skin of my teeth. I could hardly read a Chinese newspaper, let alone “give a full-length speech”.

HSK 5 is supposed to equal C1 language proficiency which is almost native-like fluency. It’s surprising how many people who come this “far” actually feel their grasp of the language is insufficient.

So what else to do than prepare for the “final stage”? HSK 6 is officially the highest language level you can achieve in Mandarin, so formally speaking it’s the end of the line. There’s nothing beyond that.

How come then that many people who passed HSK 6 come to feel that the highest HSK level still isn’t that “special” and isn’t actually “enough”?

Beating HSK vs real life Mandarin skills

Then I spent this year reaching HSK 6 level which is pretty much where I am now. And to be honest I still feel like my Chinese is not good enough.

Experienced learner after passing the HSK 6 exam

The funny thing with HSK is that you can completely crush the higher level exams and still do relatively poor at real life communication. For example, you might be a master at the HSK listening part, but you still don’t get a single word of the taxi driver talking to you, because he speaks relatively fast and with a slight accent.

It reminds me of Chinese students who got the highest grades on their English tests, but can’t use the language at all in the real world. They for example can’t keep up with a real conversation and answer “yes” to open questions – BUT they’re very successful at passing the exams.

HSK prepares you for HSK

Writing HSK is a skill on its own I’ve written before. One thing is essential to understand: The HSK is tailored to the classical classroom style of teaching still very common in China. In a typical HSK preparation class the teacher will focus on vocabulary and grammar points and use 95% of the speaking time hammering in vital HSK stuff. The rest of the class is usually dedicated to making as many mock exams as possible – to get you fit for the exam. NOT FOR REAL LIFE.

What does your HSK level tell about your Mandarin proficiency?

On the other hand, I don’t want to trivialize HSK. Most people who pass the national standardized test – especially the higher levels – have come a long way, others never make it. In my eyes, HSK 6 is impressive. It means you can read complex Chinese texts and write a great number of characters to compose an essay.

But there’s a problem with being HSK-focused only. The reason is this: studying (solely) for HSK will only make you a star at taking the HSK exams, while in fact you could be spending your time far more effectively.

Developing real life Mandarin skills involves a lot more. Like learning to cope with regional accents, slang, formal and informal language. Or learning to deal with different “genres” of Chinese – comedies, modern and classic literature, poetry, newspaper articles, scientific articles, emails and bureaucratic documents. HSK only provides a basic framework which proves insufficient once outside the classroom more often than not.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try…

So if you don’t need the certificate, should you still take the exam? It all depends on your situation. You should probably spare yourself the trouble, but then again, why not give it a try to see where you’re at. Especially when your self-studying and you don’t have any other points of reference. Maybe you do better than you guess!

Although by now it’s obvious I’m not a big HSK-fan and try to see HSK for what is, I gotta admit I’ve been tempted to take the HSK 6 exam myself. Mainly to have a goal to focus on and test my progress since I took HSK 5, three years ago. Back then my biggest problem was reading speed. My reading was so slow that I couldn’t finish the questions in time. I’ve been working on that by reading more often and more extensively, but will it be enough to survive the HSK 6 reading part?

My HSK score, HSK 4 and 5 (2016-2017)
My HSK score (4 and 5): writing HSK 4 I didn’t have any problems with reading. Taking HSK 5 though, I struggled against time. Clearly the processing power of my Hanzi brain was lacking.

You only know if you try.

What are your thoughts on taking HSK exams? How does your HSK level relate to your actual Mandarin skills? Feel free to leave a comment below.

人生第一次 – The Firsts in Life

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Recently I started watching a fairly new documentary series called “人生第一次” or “The Firsts in Life” which is very popular in China. Here’s why I think it’s a good resource for learning Mandarin – even though it has one problem.

人生第一次 – The Firsts in Life” is a highly rated 12-episode documentary series planned and released by CCTV. It captures 12 “first time ever” moments that are of great significance to Chinese society, running through different stages of life such as birth, school, family, career, and old-age care. At the beginning of each episode, a “storyteller” will lead the narration.

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - Score on Douban
“人生第一次 – The Firsts in Life” was well received on the Chinese movie database Douban.

5 Reasons to use “人生第一次” to improve your Mandarin

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The firsts in life - 5 reasons to watch the documentary series
  • Year: 2020
  • Duration: 12 episodes X 30 min.
  • Subtitles: Mandarin / English
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

For our purposes here, let me just give a few points why The Firsts in Life is suitable learning material:

  • Popular series with short yet moving episodes
  • Potential conversation starter
  • Mandarin and English subtitles
  • Universal topics everyone can relate to
  • Study vocabulary by topic (birth, school, army, office etc.)
  • Revealing glimpses of Chinese society and ideals presented by Chinese state television

And here comes the problem: although the main language is Standard Chinese, on several occasions people speak the local dialect. That makes it hard to follow every now and then, especially in the final episodes that focus on the elderly, but the subtitles help a lot.

人生第一次 – The Firsts in Life – the 12 episodes

  1. 第一集: 出生 – birth
  2. 第二集: 上学 – go to school
  3. 第三集: 长大 – growing up
  4. 第四集: 当兵 – join the army
  5. 第五集: 上班 – go to work
  6. 第六集: 结婚 – to marry
  7. 第七集: 进城 – move to the city
  8. 第八集: 买房 – buy a house
  9. 第九集: 相守 – take care of each other
  10. 第十集: 退休 – to retire
  11. 第十一集: 养老 – enjoy life in retirement
  12. 第十二集: 告别 – farewell

Episode One: “Birth”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 1

The first episode offers a glimpse of what it means to give birth in present-day China or rather – important detail – in the Red House Hospital in Shanghai, which is affiliated to the Fudan University and one of the highest rated hospitals in China. If you’ve never witnessed a birth before, this might prove an “in your face” viewing experience.

Episode 2: “Going to School”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 2

This episode focuses on the first school day ever for group of children in one of China’s first tier cities. Choosing the right school is a major decision for Chinese parents as they don’t want their kids “to lose at the starting line”.

Episode 3: “Growing Up”

人生第一次 -ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 3

In a mountain village somewhere in Yunnan Province kids receive unusual lessons: they are taught to write poetry. Life in the mountains is hard, with parents often working far away from home to support the family. One 12-year-old girl even lives on her own, video-calling her mom late at night when she is done working. These kids suffer many hardships, but they never lack inspiration to write poetry, resulting in a kind of primitive and pure art created by children.

Episode 4: “Being a Soldier”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci -The Firsts in Life - episode 4

Have you ever wondered what’s it like to join the Chinese army? These young recruits join a special unit of Chinese paratroopers and receive their first training. In a matter of weeks they will be ready to make their first jump from a real airplane. The viewer witnesses this highly interesting transformation from school boys who just said goodbye to mama to hard-boiled soldiers serving in the Chinese army.

Episode 5: “Go to Work”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 5

I thought this was going to be an episode about people entering the labor market and starting some kind of office or factory job. And actually I wasn’t completely off the mark, except the people in question have an extremely hard time getting any job at all, because they are physically disabled. If it wasn’t for Wang Shaojun who – sitting in a wheelchair himself – started an employment training center for disabled people, they’ll probably still at home suffering, invisible for society. Wang Shaojun’s training enables them to work as customer service agents and earn their own money. But it’s more than a training center: this is a place where people become friends for life.

Episode 6: “Marriage”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci -The Firsts in Life - episode 6

Marriage is a huge thing in China and weddings are still amazingly traditional – even in futuristic Shanghai. We witness some young couples marrying in the Pudong marriage registration office in Shanghai. They are all eager to receive their marriage certificate which bears similarity to a passport. How do modern, hardworking Shanghainese see marriage?

Episode 7: “Entering the City”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 7

The migrant worker. China’s economy couldn’t run without millions of migrant workers. To get rid of poverty, the government established a labor service station that recruits workers from poor villages in Yunnan. The tragedy of almost every migrant worker is the same: they leave their family and loved ones behind to make money in the big city.

Episode 8: “Buying a House”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 8

In China renting is for losers. In the long run every family is supposed to buy its own apartment, even when this means becoming a mortgage slave. Finding and financing their own apartment is one of the biggest challenges young Chinese face today. This episode focuses on a real estate agent in Beijing who tries to close a deal between two families, all the while hoping that one day he’ll be able to afford his own house.

Episode 9: “Look after each other”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci -  The Firsts in Life - episode 9

Next to Jiangxi Nanchang Cancer Hospital, Aunt Xiong and her husband run a shared kitchen. Aunt Xiong’s small kitchen is the source of many heart-warming stories. Family members of patients come here every day to cook a simple meal, because even in difficult times, says Aunt Xiong, a person has to eat. It takes only 1 yuan to fry a vegetarian dish. These low prices are more than welcome, since cancer treatment is extremely expensive.

Episode 10: “Retirement”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 10

It always struck me that whereas working people in China usually slug their guts out to make a living and hardly have any spare time, retired people have plenty of time to dedicate to all kind of leisure activities like dancing, singing and calligraphy. Many seniors retire early – the standard retirement age in Germany for example is currently 67 – and have a rich social life. This episode focuses on the Sichuan University for the Elderly in Chengdu. Many enrolled students are in their sixties and go to university for the first time. The goal is not so much to leave the university with a degree, but rather to enjoy and cultivate arts with their peers.

Episode 11: “Elderly Care”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 11

Elderly care in China: in this episode an old lady from Shanghai decides to leave her home behind to live in a retirement community. Another older gentleman doesn’t want to make the same move, even if that will lead to someday becoming “a burden” to his family.

Episode 12: “Farewell”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 12

In China, nearly 70 percent of wills are invalid each year. Why does a seemingly simple piece of paper fail to play its due role? How can conflicts and disputes arising from wills be avoided and resolved to the greatest extent? Is it necessary to make a will? Shooting at the Chinese Wills Library in Beijing, CCTV recorded the story of people coming to make a will for the first time. Like Chao Wenzhen, 73 years old, who comes to make a will in name of his wife.

Closing remarks…

“人生第一次” has a touch of social realism to it: sending out the “artists” to capture the life of ordinary people – not raw, but in a stylized way, with a narrator giving his or her interpretation. I don’t mean that in a negative way: most of the stories are genuinely touching. “人生第一次” has been conceived for a Mainland Chinese audience, so it gives an inside perspective on the topics at hand and doesn’t at any occasion call China’s “normality” into question. That makes it extra interesting when you put your anthropology glasses on.

For study purposes or just as Mandarin input I recommend the series, although I have to admit that the regional varieties (mostly Shanghai dialect) are a complication.