Preparing for HSK 6 with flashcards: 2500 words in 500 days?

How long does it take to learn all HSK 6 vocabulary by purely relying on a spaced repetition flashcard app? And can it work?

Preparing for HSK 6

At some point in my life, I’ll be ready for HSK 6 and take the exam, but presently I’m not in a hurry and using the flashcard app Daily Chinese to familiarize myself with the 2500 HSK 6 vocabulary items.

Below you can see what the app looks like and see how I’ve been getting on so far, tackling different topics like economics, science and tech, language teaching and Chinese idioms.

And most importantly of all: HSK 6. After several months I succeeded in covering almost 10 percent of the vocabulary needed to pass the test:

Others might advise to use Skritter instead, since it does a better job at introducing new vocabulary, where as Daily Chinese only provides a dictionary definition combined with automatic audio. I like the simplicity of the Daily Chinese app though, so I’ll stick with it for my present HSK adventure.

2500 flashcards: will this take forever?

How long will it take to memorize all HSK 6 vocab using this method? I’m not complaining but it already feels like a long climb up the mountain and I haven’t even walked more than a tenth of the total distance to the top. What’s more, I know of people who started studying Chinese from scratch and managed to pass HSK 6 within one or two years. How come they’re so fast?

Assuming I continue to do my reviews on a daily basis, I’ll memorize 5 new words every day, 25 a week, 100 a month, 1200 in a year… It will more or less take 500 days to learn all 2500 words, that’s roughly one year, four months and two or three weeks to get from HSK 5 to HSK 6. According to Google Maps you’d be able to walk from Berlin to Beijing and back twice in that time (that’s nonsense of course).

Can it work?

500 Days to learn the entire set of HSK 6 vocab – 5 new words a day and reviewing known words – actually doesn’t sound that bad to me. Much water from the Yellow River will have flowed into the Chinese sea by then, but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. Daily reviewing doesn’t take me more than 15 minutes, moreover I can skip familiar words and gain some extra terrain. In that sense, it could work. As long as my phone and the app keep working, I’ll be right on track.

Is this the best method?

If it’s simply a question of 500 days of flashcard learning, why isn’t everybody running around & waving an HSK 6 certificate? If I had the patience and somebody would want to read it, I could write an entire essay about this issue, going “it depends on x, y, z” and “consider this and that”, because no learning situation is the same. Let’s just sum up the biggest problems as I see them:

  • Lack of context: if you use Daily Chinese to learn new vocabulary, you lack “real language context”, i.e. examples to understand how a word is used.
  • Lack of cohesion: Daily Chinese doesn’t put the HSK words in any conceivable order or chapters, so you not only lack context (that HSK textbooks can provide), but it’s also difficult to connect related words like synonyms, antonyms, homonyms, words that belong to the same semantic field or share the same main characters etc.
  • No reading: to beat the HSK exam you need reading speed. Vocabulary learning has to go along side with reading.
  • No listening: the app can’t train your listening comprehension beyond providing the audio for each word.
  • No writing: the app can’t help to train your writing skills.
  • No speaking: the app can’t help to develop your speaking skills.

5 flashcard views = known?

Another thing that I have to question is related to the algorithm itself. Using the standard settings, each item will be shown 5 times (and more often, in case you keep forgetting). But the more fundamental question is what “knowing” even means. At which point have you truly mastered the character? Is recognizing the character, knowing the definition and pronunciation sufficient? Shouldn’t you at least be able to connect it to other words and build sentences with it as well?

Conclusion

In other words, relying solely on a flashcard app like Daily Chinese to study and master the HSK6 vocabulary isn’t going to cut it. At best, it will help to get exposure to the words and familiarize yourself with them, but I doubt this shallow and passive memorizing will be sufficient to pass the exam. That doesn’t mean it’s completely useless. It’s still a highly efficient reviewing method and probably the best way to keep track of what you’re learning. However, it shouldn’t be your main mode of studying, since it can’t replace the real learning which involves all 4 language skills: listening, reading, writing and speaking.

Thanks for visiting Kaohongshu! I hope you enjoyed this article. How are you preparing for HSK? Feel free to leave a comment down below.

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