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

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 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 it 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 (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.

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