Lingosteve's wisdom on learning Mandarin

Steve Kaufmann is one of the world’s most experienced language learners and a well-known polyglot. What is his best advise on learning Mandarin?

Polyglot Steve Kaufmann

Steve Kaufmann alias Lingosteve grew up in the English-speaking area of Montreal, Canada. He was a graduate of L’Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris, France (1966), and a Canadian Diplomat. Until the age of seventeen he spoke only English. Today he knows 16 languages and speaks at least half a dozen of them quite fluently, and he is determined to add more. He wrote a book called The Way of the Linguist, A Language Learning Odyssey and has his own channel on YouTube.

What I like the most about Steve Kaufmann is this:

  • Motivation: Watching his videos is inspiring as he’s probably one of the most experienced language learners currently alive and he tells you about what methods actually work.
  • Realistic: Steve doesn’t tell you nonsense like how to speak language X fluently in 12 weeks. Language learning is a long-term endeavor and hard work about which he doesn’t lie.
  • Old vs new school: Kaufmann didn’t grow up with the internet like my generation, but he appreciates and makes use of the tools and options from the digital age.
  • Excitement for new languages: For him learning foreign languages is a lifelong intellectual journey. The scope of his interest goes way beyond the language itself (history, culture, philosophy, literature etc.)
  • Polyglot experience: He is one of the few people who is able to compare the difficulties of learning – for example – Mandarin to other languages. His experience shows that the more languages you master, the more language learning itself becomes a skill and a “reproducible process”.

Can you learn Mandarin in six months?

  • 1:49 Language is a lifelong journey.
  • 3:37 The goal is to get comfortable.
  • 4:56 Listen to dialogues and lay off the characters.
  • 7:49 Listening and reading is the most effective method.
  • 9:18 The biggest waste of time.
  • 9:47 What books and materials should be used.
  • 10:26 I would start to write as soon as I can.
  • 12:38 Don’t worry and just speak.
  • 13:23 6 months are over. What’s next?
  • 14:03 Your languages are always with you.

We discussed this question before, but I think Steve gives a more honest answer. You can achieve a lot in 6 months, but you won’t be “done”…

To initially focus on listening and reading and to get as much (suitable) input as you can makes sense. Two things Steve Kaufmann mentions in this video strike me as interesting:

  • Start speaking when you feel ready. Get comfortable first. This is interesting, since most teachers will challenge you into speaking, right from the first lesson. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so, but I agree with Kaufmann that it’s more fun to engage in intelligent conversation instead of drilling sentence patterns and silly dialogues. But that doesn’t mean the latter can’t be useful or necessary. It’s just not very enjoyable and may turn some people off.
  • Don’t waste your time in the class room listening to the mistakes of others. This is another point many people will recognize. I always preferred to share the class room with people “better” and more fluent than myself just for this reason. But it’s not that you can’t learn from others. You’re likely to struggle with the same things (although with different nationalities that’s not always the case). Maybe it’s also Steve’s way of saying you should find your own approach and focus on those things that interest and motivate you rather than passively follow the teacher and other classmates.

Six hacks for learning Mandarin

  1. Listening and Pinyin
  2. Start with characters
  3. Look for patterns
  4. Read a lot
  5. Focus on listening to things you like
  6. Shadowing

Kaufmann’s main point again and again is that language learning should be interesting and meaningful. That’s why you see him throwing the 口语-book away (3:44), cause it contains so much boring and irrelevant stuff. I completely relate to that. At the end of the day, this means YOU are responsible for making your learning meaningful and fun. Read things you find genuinely interesting. This gets easier, the more advanced you get.

He also emphasizes the importance of patterns rather than learning grammar for the sake of learning grammar. Patterns that you can actually use in daily conversation, reading or writing. I agree with this. My experience is grammar patterns only stick with you when you actively use them or – in case of reading – when you meet them frequently in a sentence. Therefore, you’re well advised to look out for those elements you are really going to need and pay less attention to more secondary things like the difference between 记录 and 纪录 which get a lot of attention in the typical Chinese textbooks.

A more obvious but still very crucial point he makes is to be persistent and spend some time learning Chinese everyday. In other words, to cultivate good learning habits which automatically leads back to the first point: keeping it interesting as you’re gonna need that long-term motivation.

How Steve learned Mandarin

If you want to hear the full story of how Steve Kaufmann learned Chinese I recommend listening to this interview. Steve also speaks in more detail about his philosophy on language learning and discusses various strategies for becoming a polyglot.

Find your own way

All these tips are extremely useful, but we shouldn’t forget that each person is different and Kaufmann’s approach with its focus on characters and reading doesn’t necessarily work for everybody. Nor does every person has Steve’s intellectual curiosity and that accompanying sense of excitement. Like so many things in the world you have to make up your own mind about it.

What’s your approach to tackling Chinese? What do you think about Steve Kaufmann’s way of learning? Please leave a comment below.

Learning Mandarin the low budget way

What can you do if you want to learn Mandarin but don’t want to spend loads of money to attend Chinese courses or visit China for an extensive period? Learn Chinese low budget style. Here’s how!

Video and online lessons

You need a teacher to study a new language. There are many teachers out there online posting video lessons for foreigners. Mandarin Corner, Yoyo Chinese and ChinesePod for example, to name three popular channels. Search a little longer and you’ll find plenty of other Chinese teachers and language schools operating from China who create authentic content free of charge. And not just classic teaching, but also specially edited street interviews and real life communication which are extremely useful.

There’s no shortage of beginner lessons too. Yoyo Chinese created a series that starts with the basics where each video builds on the next one.

You’ll also find an increasing number of Mandarin speaking laowai vloggers like Thomas阿福, 口语老炮儿马思瑞Chris, Fulinfang拂菻坊 or 莫彩曦Hailey on YouTube. Although it can be intimidating to see a fellow foreigner speaking Mandarin so fluently, it has the power to inspire as well. The CCTV show 外国人在中国 introduces many longtime laowai from different cultures and backgrounds and is worth checking out. It’s not a must, but it’s also no shame to have a role model. If someone from your own cultural background has mastered Mandarin, there’s no reason why you can’t, right?

Looking for a real teacher for online lessons? Then Italki is the place to start, but you will have to spend some money.

Online communities

Quora question about how hard it is to learn Mandarin.

Learning a new language like Chinese is no good on your own. You can find several Mandarin learning groups on Facebook and corporate sites that share content for learners. Members of learning groups do not always post the most relevant content, but in general you will find like-minded people and more experienced learners to ask for advice. Advice is much needed when you’re doing low budget learning, since most of the time you’ll have to sort out what’s best for you(r learning) on your own. Instagram can be fun place to check for Chinese content as well.

Quora answers many questions about learning Chinese and keeps you updated on new learning tools and tips and ideas how to study effectively. You do see some double content and not all answers are as relevant and correct as you would want them to be.

Chinese forums is a forum dedicated to all questions related to learning Mandarin. Many forum members are longtime learners and China nerds (in a positive way!). Over the years, lots of topics have been covered. If you have a specific question, you might get or find an expert answer here.

Apps

There are plenty of good apps available for learning Mandarin and it’s impossible to cover them all. The English-Chinese dictionary app Pleco (or alternatively Hanping) is arguably the most essential learning tool – with lots of add-ons. Anki and Memrise are popular apps for flashcard learning. DuoLingo, LingoDeer and HelloChinese help you learn new vocabulary. That’s just to name a few. If you want to get more detailed information, this website provides an up-to-date list of apps. I noted elsewhere that language apps won’t solve all your problems, but they sure can be entertaining and support your learning in a meaningful way.

Make friends online and offline

Learning a new language like Mandarin is a lot more fun and worthwhile with native speakers to practice and communicate with. WeChat is the most popular social app in Mainland China with over 1 billion monthly active users. It is the preferred tool for communication – even in many professional settings. The app does come with some privacy issues (as does Facebook) not unlike Douyin – the “Chinese TikTok” – which is something you have to consider. When it comes to making Chinese friends though, WeChat can be a big help to connect to Chinese speakers and immerse yourself online. You can switch the interface to English and the inbuilt translation tool will translate Chinese accordingly.

More directly focused on language learning is the app HelloTalk. It’s a platform and online community which allows you to socialize online – by texting, speaking, camera sharing and drawing – with native speakers. You can actually save your chats and interactions to study them later. Quite useful.

The same approach can be used offline – more locally. Check your local university, Confucius institute and other language schools for language exchange programs for example. Get to know one member of your local Chinese community and your likely to be introduced to more Chinese expats. With some luck you’ll find a tandem partner to buddy up with.

Chinese music, movies and series

If you like music, you should try listening some songs in your target language. Find out what Chinese music you like and create your own playlist for your way to work or before you go to sleep. It’s not always easy to find “appropriate input” that you enjoy and understand to some degree, but any daily input is better than none. Unlike it’s often said, listening to Chinese music doesn’t improve the pronunciation of the tones so much, but it does help to get a better feeling for the language and acquire new vocabulary.

I’m still working on a list of movies and series that are fun to watch. For now:

  • ifun.tv (lots of choice, mostly no English subtitles for Chinese though)
  • tv.cctv.com/live (watch live Mainland Chinese television, all CCTV channels)
  • imdb.com (the movie database)
  • Wikipedia (an extensive list)
  • Netflix (I don’t use it myself, too afraid to get addicted)
  • YouTube (Some older movies can be found here, like “To live” and other classics)

Popup dictionary for your web browser

Install this add-on for when you’re surfing the Chinese web. It’s an extremely useful translation tool – even for those who aren’t actually studying Mandarin.

Blogs

Apart from all other channels, the blogosphere is a great space for tips, inspiration and experience sharing when it comes to language learning.

Share your goals

What are your reasons to learn Chinese? Which level do you want to achieve? Which language skills are most important to you? Let others know about your Mandarin learning goals. I see some fellow bloggers preparing for HSK tests and sharing their progress on a regular basis. That’s a great way to stay focused, reflect on what you’re doing and let your readers and friends support you. This seems like a lot of extra effort, but to be open about your learning routines and keeping track of your progress are actually rewarding and can get the best out of other people too. There’s no perfect approach, what counts is your daily effort and support from whoever is willing to offer it.


The “pitfalls” of low budget learning

As we’ve seen you can find plenty of free and instantly accessible resources online – almost to the point that you get swamped by them and feel kind of lost and paralyzed. This overabundance of materials forces you to take a more structured approach and to limit your time you spend on each. Although I recommend online communities, spending too much time on Facebook and other social media is distractive rather than effective. Before you know it the time you planned for studying is gone.

It is in self-limitation that a master first shows himself.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

This means – and this is easier said than done – that you have to confine yourself to the essentials. You have to be your own doctor in a way and prescribe your daily cocktail of learning materials. Combine YouTube video lessons and app learning for example. To some extent, you’ll have to create your own curriculum. Do ask others for advice. Experiment with different things and stick with those that work best for you.

He who considers too much will perform little.

Friedrich Schiller

That all being said, there is no ideal strategy to master Mandarin. You have to find your own way.

What do you think of “low budget learning” for Mandarin Chinese? Can it be done? Please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

Chinese dictionary apps: Pleco vs Hanping Lite

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You’re learning Chinese and looking for a Chinese dictionary app to install on your phone, but don’t want to spend any money. At least not before you know what you can get for free. That’s why for this comparison I only take free features of the two most downloaded dictionary apps into account: Pleco and Hanping Lite.

Pleco vs Hanping Lite: which app is better?

I won’t lie to you: I’m biased towards Pleco as I’ve been using that app as a student until this very day and it has never let me down. But I still want to give Hanping Lite a fair chance. The app keeps getting loads of positive reviews (as does Pleco) in the Google app store and seems to match the needs of its users.

Hanping Lite presents itself as the free and limited version of Hanping Pro. The latter can be purchased for little money (3.39 €, 15.02.2019) and has some features the lite version doesn’t have like AnkiDroid Flashcards support and the stroke order of 839 characters (instead of 463 characters in the lite version). Beware though that you don’t get the full functionality of the app once you buy the “pro version”. Many “pro features” still have to be purchased separately.

Pleco, on the other hand, is Pleco. There is no pro version to which you can upgrade. If you want additional functions, you can buy the premium features or add-ons, either one by one or in bundle packages.

Google app store – review score

The score of Pleco and Hanping Lite in the Google App Store is amazingly similar, although the amount of reviews differs significantly. Pleco (founded in 2000) has been installed over one million times on Android, Hanping Lite over half a million. Hanping actually isn’t the new kid on the block I thought it was. It dates back to 2009 and – needless to say – has been further developed improved ever since (as has Pleco).

Hanping Lite – the good and the bad

To keep this short, I’ll focus on those features which positively surprised me and then discuss the more disappointing things. Here I won’t go into the essentials that you expect to get from any dictionary app so much – like comfortable word search and accurate and up-to-date translations.

Positives

Three Hanping features I want to highlight here:

  • The Pinyin soundboard: It covers all Pinyin syllables and helps you practice the four tones, however only isolated syllables, not in combination. Nonetheless, this is a great help for anyone trying to master Chinese tones and pronunciation. Pleco doesn’t have this feature.
  • The radical list: When you want to see how characters are interconnected by the same radical, the radical list is your best friend. Hanping’s radical list is superior to Pleco’s for one simple reason. It provides the meaning of every radical where as Pleco’s search list just presents the radicals. Most dictionary users aren’t familiar with ALL radicals and it’s very easy to forget them. That’s why reading the definition beneath every radical is both convenient and insightful. This is a very useful feature for anyone trying to tackle Hanzi. Apart from that both (radical) search systems are organized in the same manner (by number of strokes).
  • Tags: This is another feature that Pleco lacks. You can tag characters, allowing you to organize your vocabulary into groups. HSK categories for example – or less obvious – your own personal tags like “tech”, “movies” or “October”, “November” or whatever suits your purpose.

Negatives

Here’s what I found less satisfying and this bullet list is slightly longer:

Hanping Lite: Upgrade to Pro
Hanping Lite: “Upgrade to Pro”
  • Lacking example sentences: Any serious dictionary not just delivers the translation you’re looking for, it also gives you some example sentences and context of use. In this regard, Hanping Lite is no match for Pleco. Even though the app does contain 5000 example sentences for basic vocabulary, with Pleco you get a great deal more, example sentences for less common vocabulary included.
  • English translations of example sentences are a “PRO feature”: Hanping Lite deserves a minus point on the sympathy score for disabling the English google translation for Lite users. Hanzi, Pinyin: yes, but no English which is a pain in the neck for most people. The only rationale behind this – I guess – is to make you buy the “pro version” which does include the English translation…
  • Flashcards are a “PRO feature”: For the majority of learners a Chinese dictionary app without some kind of option to create flashcards to practice vocabulary is incomplete. The Hanping developers play into this by cutting out the flashcard feature completely, hoping you will go for the “pro version” instead. Another minus point.
  • Clipboard reader is not practical to use: When you’re working your way through a text with several words that need checking, the clipboard reader is your best option. Copy & paste the paragraph and read it directly “inside” the dictionary, so you don’t have to switch between screens and look up each word one by one. The Hanping Lite clipboard reader fails to simplify this process, because you’re still forced to open new tabs and then jump between them to look up words. The Pleco clipboard reader solves this problem with a pop-up screen that reveals the word’s meaning to you once you tap on the character(s). Simple, yet effective. You can read entire news articles with it if you want.
  • Affiliate marketing: Another minus point for promoting a VPN service and an online Chinese tutoring platform which doesn’t add any value to the user experience.

If I add up the minus points, I hardly can avoid the conclusion that Hanping Lite is so downgraded for no other reason than “to lure” people into buying the pro version. Maybe it’s worth to spend a few bucks on the upgrade – that’s for another review to discuss – but this downgrading unfortunately does reduce my sympathy for the Hanping project: If the “lite version” doesn’t convince me, why should I want to invest in the “pro version”?

Pleco – the good and the bad

What about the Pleco Chinese dictionary and its free functions? How big is the difference between Pleco and Hanping Lite?

Positives

These Pleco features stand out:

  • Most comprehensive pool of dictionaries: With Pleco you just get more. The dictionary itself is the most essential part of the app, right? It’s Pleco’s key function. According to the developer the two main integrated dictionaries cover 130,000 Chinese words and include 20,000 example sentences with Pinyin. Another 8 dictionaries are optional downloads, free of charge. Decide for yourself.
  • Most detailed character information: Expanding on my first point, I found that Pleco provides the richest information about any given character. From example sentences to anto- and synonyms, “words containing” the given character, “words ending” with the given character, breaking the character into its parts etc. This is much more than even a regular Chinese-Chinese dictionary can offer.
  • Search history is more accurate: This is another attractive feature. Say you’re watching the Chinese news and looking up several new words. This Pleco session will be stored in your search history with the exact time and date. Extremely useful, when you’re reconstructing what you’ve learnt in Chinese class, are revising what you’ve learnt the previous day or week or just want to make notes. Every word you’ve looked up will still be there. Hanping Lite displays previous search entries, but without the time and date.
  • The interface is more user-friendly: I’m a bit cautious bringing forth this argument, since I’m no app developer or UX designer. Besides, I’ve been a longtime user and may simply prefer Pleco’s interface by force of habit. What I’m pointing at though is the convenience of use. Pleco’s search screen with its tabs is designed to have everything within reach, avoiding endlessly scrolling down.

Negatives

I really gave my best to come up with some negative aspects about Pleco’s free features as well, however – even after some research – I fail to do so. I can’t find any free feature that from my point of view as a user needs improvement. Even without paid upgrades like readers and such Pleco has to offer a lot.

Pleco beats Hanping Lite

To sum it all up: Pleco is my number one.

What strikes me is that both apps follow (almost) the same business model: a free version with paid add-ons. Yet with Pleco you’re not forced to purchase the upgraded version first to get the “real deal”, you simply pay for those extra features you want or you leave it. Pleco adopted this model from an early stage and it has served them well.

Where as with Hanping Lite you get an app that is significantly downgraded, pushing you into buying the pro version that’s only slightly better. Once you’ve upgraded, you’ll discover you still didn’t get the “real deal”. But as I mentioned previously: If the “lite version” didn’t convince me, why should I want to invest in the “pro version”?

You might come to different conclusions comparing Pleco and Hanping Pro while spending – let’s say – 40 bucks on each. If you’re serious about learning Chinese investing some money into certain apps is a very reasonable thing to do. But that’s a different comparison that has to wait for another review.

Which one do you prefer, Pleco or Hanping? Which features do you like the most? Which add-ons do you find the most useful? Please feel free to comment! : )

Learning Chinese? 10 BLOGS you should know about

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Blogs can be a great source for tips & tricks, ideas and inspiration, even free resources like reading materials, cheat sheets, video’s and podcasts. Blogs come an go though and some of them have already turned into online fossils. So when I made this top 10, I looked for four things:

  • Engaging and fresh content
  • Relevance
  • Passion
  • Integrity

Top 10 blogs for learning Mandarin

ONE: Sinosplice

This is a great blog by John Pasden, an expert and Mandarin nerd “who’s been around” for a long time. He has published a great series of graded readers for Mandarin learners. Check out his list of resources and inspiring podcasts. It’s a great starting point by someone who knows every obstacle on the way, but maybe a little too nerdy and old-school for some.

TWO: Hacking Chinese

Hacking Chinese is a blog by Mandarin expert Olle Linge from Sweden who has studied for four years in Taiwan and teaches Chinese and English. Having a solid background in linguistics, he answers almost all questions related to successfully learning Mandarin Chinese. His main advise for language learners: “If you don’t take responsibility and think for yourself, it will take ages to reach a decent level, but if you become aware of how to learn and study efficiently, fluency is within reach.” Olle also organizes the “monthly extensive reading challenge“. The main goal here is not “intensive reading” but reading as much Chinese as you can below or at your current level.

THREE: FluentU

FluentU is more like a corporate blog which has a team of (freelance) writers blogging for them. They don’t always share the most practical advice, they do post a lot of relevant tips and ideas though. If you’re wondering what apps you might want to use and which Chinese movies to watch, this is the right place.

FOUR: Chinese Zero to Hero

Chinese Zero to Hero is not a blog, it’s a very well built website for Chinese learners. Lots of useful resources for listening, reading and grammar and they keep improving and expanding the website. I’ve grown very fond of the transcribed YouTube videos and their music database. You can even adjust the website’s settings to your personal taste (show / hide Pinyin, simplified / traditional characters etc.). Great work.

FIVE: alllanguageresources.com/chinese/

All Language Resources is all about reviewing learning resources for Mandarin Chinese and they do a great job on this.

SIX: Chineasy Blog

This is another corporate blog and similar to FluentU you’ll find a broad variety of topics here, not everything directly related to learning Mandarin, but interesting and engaging articles nonetheless. If you’re a fan of the Chineasy approach to character learning, you’ve come to the right place. What the blog lacks, is a categorization of content by topic, level, date etc.

SEVEN: Sapore di Cina

This website as well is a lot broader than just focusing on mastering Mandarin. I included it because of its practical tips for foreigners interested in traveling or even living in China.

EIGHT: Just learn Chinese

This blog by native Chinese speaker Grace (currently living in Toronto, Canada) hasn’t been updated for several years and has some technical issues, but its content and resources are just to great to ignore. If you are looking for free reading material on your level, you might get lucky here. Or look for tips, for example on how to express disagreement in Chinese.

NINE: Chinese Hacks

Chinese Hacks is a widely-varied blog where you find all kinds of practical advise, ideas and inspiration. I particularly enjoy the Chinese idioms covered on his site. Pity it’s not being updated anymore.

TEN: Chinese Breeze

Chinese Breeze is run by three authors who studied Mandarin in China and offer their advise to other learners. This main overview by Kevin Peters, who taught English in Xinjiang for four years, is especially useful for starting learners.

Related post: China podcasts

Check my post on podcasts about China!

What’s your favorite Chinese learning blog? Please feel free to comment down below.

All essential (and less essential) questions about the HSK exam in 2020

You’re about to register for a HSK exam or thinking about it? Here’s all the essential information about the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi in one short FAQ article.

Why should I take the HSK test?

The HSK certificate is the Chinese certificate of language proficiency in Mandarin Chinese for higher educational and professional purposes in Mainland China. Are you going to study or work in China or are you applying for a Chinese scholarship? Then the HSK certificate might come in handy. Since it’s a standardized test – it also serves as a reference to assess Chinese language proficiency.

What language skills does the HSK exam assess?

The HSK exam assesses non-native Chinese speakers’ abilities in using the Chinese language in their daily, academic and professional lives. The exam tests listening and reading comprehension as well as writing skills (starting from HSK level 3). The HSK exam doesn’t test your oral abilities in Chinese. There is a special HSK speaking test for that.

Where is the HSK certificate applicable?

The HSK certificate is an internationally recognized certificate and the standard reference for Chinese language proficiency in Mainland China.

For how long is my HSK certificate valid?

The HSK certificate is valid for life. Just be aware that most Chinese universities may want to see a certificate that’s not older than two years.

Where can I take the HSK Test?

You can take the HSK test almost all over the world. The Hanban organization behind the HSK exam keeps track of all HSK test centers. Enter the exam you want to take and find the HSK test center nearest to you.

When is the next HSK test date?

You can find all the global HSK test dates for 2020 here, but it might be more useful to contact your local HSK center for the precise date and time.

Where do I register for the HSK exam?

You can register for the HSK exam on the official Hanban HSK website. You need to create an user account first.

Can I take the HSK test at home?

No, you have to go to a authorized test HSK center to take the exam.

Is a dictionary allowed during the HSK test? Can I bring my laptop to the exam?

No, you can’t bring your dictionary or laptop to the HSK exam or for that matter any of the following items: a recorder, camera, MP3, mobile phone, tablet, textbook or other articles “irrelevant to the test”.

Should I take the offline or online HSK test?

According to Hanban the only difference between the two tests is that one is paper-based and the other internet-based. The internet-based test has one advantage though: you can write characters using Pinyin on your keyboard which for most HSK-participants is both easier and faster.

What if I fail the HSK Test? Can I retake it?

You can retake the test as many times if you want (though not for free of course).

Who grades the HSK Tests?

The Hanban organization grades all HSK exams in their central headquarters in Beijing. Exam papers have to be sent from your local HSK test center to the Chinese capital to be graded.

Where and when can I find out my HSK Test results?

One month after the end of the test, you can visit the HSK test service website. Input your ticket number of your Test Admit Card and your name to view your test score. Be sure that your input information matches that on Test Admit Card. For the certificate you should contact your local test center.

How do HSK levels compare to the CEFR proficiency levels?

HSK consists of six levels. How do these HSK levels correspond to the European Framework of Reference for languages? Do they correspond directly to the European proficiency levels (A1-C2)? Hanban claims that they do, but I’d agree with the skeptics on this topic that this statement is too optimistic. HSK 5 for example might actually be closer to the skills described for language level B1, though that may vary from case to case:

  • Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.
  • Can deal with most situations likely to arise while traveling in an area where the language is spoken.
  • Can produce simple connected text on topics that are familiar or of personal interest.
  • Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes and ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanyu_Shuiping_Kaoshi

And let’s not forget that the standard HSK exam does not test oral language proficiency, so not all language skills are examined. But anyway, let’s keep that to ourselves.

Best tips to beat any level HSK test

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The Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi has become the main focus point of your life? Congratulations. And don’t worry, the HSK exam can be beaten like any other test. Here are my best tips to pass the HSK test.

  1. Be an early bird^^
  2. Make your own HSK master plan
  3. Know the exam like your favorite movie
  4. Join your local HSK crash course
  5. Cover your carpet with flashcards
  6. Become a grammar guru for your HSK level
  7. Work on your “HSK weakness”
  8. Read the answers first

Start preparing early

The early bird catches the worm. Best to know where you’re at well in advance: take a mock exam to estimate your level and don’t forget to measure your time. How good or bad is it?

The HSK test score doesn’t lie. Remember though: HSK evaluates your language proficiency, BUT writing the HSK exam is a practical skill on its own! The more familiar you are with all the HSK ins and outs, the better your position, the higher your score.

And that’s good news, because with some planning and strategy it all can be mastered. Climb the ladder and see things from above instead.

Make your own HSK study plan

Many HSK-participants don’t prepare for the test! (Or at least, that’s what they say.)

Everybody is different. In my experience things get more challenging, once you hit the higher levels (from HSK 4 upward). But, in the end, that’s all relative. HSK 1 can be just as challenging if you’ve just started your journey.

Preparing for the HSK exam is no rocket science though. The requirements for each level are clear. The vocabulary doesn’t change. The exam structure does neither. Some basic planning will do:

  1. Get an overview of the HSK vocabulary for your target level and HSK grammar points. And get your hands on some mock HSK exams for practice.
  2. Plan how much time you need to get those characters and grammar patterns into your brain. How much (learning) time do you have available?
  3. Develop a schedule based on all that.
  4. Stick to your schedule as much as you can, track your progress by writing occasional mock exams. How are you improving? Are you ready for the final test?

Know every detail about the test

What is there to know about a test? It’s a test, right? Why should I know everything about the test? That’s not what a test is all about.

Right.

But common experience shows: Getting an epic HSK score is as much about knowing your stuff as it is about knowing the ins and outs of the test and pleasing the (Hanban) testers.

From its parts and basic procedure up to which pencil to bring and how to fill out the exam sheets!

Join your local HSK preparation class

Join a HSK preparation course if you can. It’s not absolutely necessary, but it’ll help you a great deal. If you put in the effort, nothing can go wrong. Your HSK teacher will guide you through the process and provide you with everything you need:

  • HSK materials
  • Teacher’s advice and guidance
  • Mock tests and evaluations

By the way, this Youtube channel was the closest thing I could find to HSK prep class.

Make flashcards of hard to remember characters

Yes, yes, flashcards again. Not very original, yet an effective method. You can do it the old-fashioned way or use one of the various apps like Anki, Pleco, Memrise etc. Just focus on those characters that tend to slip your memory. The pile of “easy” cards should grow to be the largest over time.

These three basic categories can help you organize things a little .

Check the relevant grammar and patterns for your HSK level

Since HSK is still a traditional test that focuses on reading and includes such exercises as putting words in the right order (to compose sentences), you’d best take a look at the relevant grammar points for your HSK level. Thanks to John Pasden’s grammar wiki, everything you need is online. If you prefer watching instead of reading this Youtube playlist can be of use.

Work on your “weakness”

Thanks to the results from your mock exam you know in which area to boost your score. The method is simple: invest more time in that domain and turn your weakness into one of your strengths (listen to the force inside of you!).

That sure sounds nice, but how do I do that? Here are some tips for improving your HSK score on listening, reading and writing:

  • Listening: keep doing those HSK listening exercises until you start hearing the familiar Chinese voices in your sleep. Although the typical HSK dialogues are very unnatural to say the least, listening to the endless stream of short conversations helps to cement all that new vocabulary.
  • Reading: for most HSK participants the reading part is a fight against time. If you feel like you’re still too slow: read more (yes.. I know) and work on your vocabulary. The more familiar you are with the characters, the easier it gets. This takes time, but it’s worth the effort.
  • Writing: Writing characters under pressure of time can be a troublesome business. You don’t need to be able to write every character! Build around the characters you can write and start composing simple sentences. Don’t make it too difficult. Use basic verbs like 有,是,喜欢,知道。If you have to hit a minimum amount of characters, use “filler words” like 特别,非常,有的时候, 最近,越来越 and standard phrases 按照我的看法 and other sentences you’ve used before. Just make sure you’ve prepared your little Hanzi toolkit when the exam day arrives.

Read the answers first

When you’re finally writing the test, keep in mind to read the multiple choice answers first. That is to say, you sort of scan through them. Doesn’t matter whether it’s the listening or reading part.

Why? It’s simple: The answers usually provide more context than the questions do and they take less time to read! Once you run through the a, b, c, d options, you know what to focus on. Otherwise, you’ll loose a lot of brain capacity taking in ALL information. The truth is that you don’t need to. Skim through the answers, get the context and concentrate your attention on the relevant stuff.

HSK 5 mock exam

Those are my tips! What helped you beat the HSK exam? How hard was it really? Feel free to leave a comment below…

Studying Mandarin: politics and motivation

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Westerners foolishly believed that once China opened itself to the world, it would become more like them, but lately strong, CCP led nationalism has been on the rise in China. How do learners of Chinese react to this political situation? Does it demotivate them to learn Mandarin?

Recently, someone send the following statement to me:

In China, I do not have political discussions with Chinese people. If a Chinese person makes a political comment to me, or asks me a political question, I will respond with, “I do not have political discussions with Chinese people“.”

I was left to guess what he meant. Was it too uncomfortable to discuss politics? Too dangerous? Pointless maybe?

No matter how many people claim they study Chinese for themselves and their own benefit, this example shows that nobody learns Chinese in a complete vacuum. You study Chinese? What do you think about the social credit system? Not an uncommon question if you are student of Chinese in 2019.

But do the current political situation in China and the international tensions really change anything? Does it make China and the Chinese language somehow less attractive to learn?

In this blog post, I can only scratch the surface of this question. However, I want to shed some light on the discussion by showing how learners of Chinese deal with politics and which arguments they use.

Does the political situation in China demotivate you to learn Chinese?

1. Indifferent: the apolitical learner

bored looking guy holding tablet in a bar
“the apolitical learner”
(Photo by mentatdgt, Pexels)

Some people don’t care about politics. Politics isn’t part of their motivation to learn Chinese. For them the political situation doesn’t change anything, doesn’t matter what they hear on the news or read on the internet. They have their own intrinsic motivation.

For someone with a strong interest in the world of politics, this is hard to believe. How can someone turn a blind eye to the reality in a country? But then again, what composes that reality? How can you ever be sure you know the truth?

2. Fluid situation: the political landscape is ever changing

“If the current political climate is an influencing factor for learning Chinese, then it was also one 70 years ago”

If the current political climate is an influencing factor for learning Chinese, then it was also one 20 years ago (or 50 or 70 years ago etc.). Political circumstances are never stable. If they are part of your motivation to learn Chinese, you make yourself vulnerable. As soon things change for the worst, your motivation is affected.

If you’re interest is in Chinese music or Shanghai cuisine, why indeed be bothered by such external factors you cannot control?

3. The people-does-not-equal-government argument:

Government vs people
“people ≠ government”
(Photo by pixabay)

No matter where you go in this world, people are divided into two groups. Those who govern and those who are governed…

One argument that keeps showing up in this discussion is that we shouldn’t condemn the people for their government, most of all in countries that can’t be called representative democracies.

This distinction indeed seems fair. There is no point in dismissing an entire country and all its people, only because you think you can’t stand its leaders, their views and whatever they are doing (or not doing).

And just because you visit or even live somewhere, doesn’t imply you support or trust the government. So at the end of the day, people ≠ government.

4. Pragmatic

The pragmatist’s view: It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice (Deng Xiaoping)
(Photo by Helena Lopes, Pexels)

News about China – be it positive or negative – affects people’s interest in the country, its culture and language, but not always in the way you would expect.

Based on all the negative media coverage, you could decide to stay as far away as you can from China, never learn the language or have any dealings with the inhabitants of the middle kingdom. On the other side – if you’re more pragmatic – , you might just as well argue that you are going to learn the language and help the people affected by these negative things or at least try to be helpful in some way.

Either way: China is becoming more and more important on the world stage. For the pragmatist learner this is a good thing. He is not limited by ideology or moral judgements about China and doesn’t feel obliged to point his finger at others.

5. Nationalism as a demotivating factor

China is back!

Some people do get demotivated by China’s new nationalism which is creating a climate that is less welcoming and even hostile to foreigners – or so it is said. Party ideology guides you everywhere you go and the cult around XJP is getting more and more obtrusive, not only foreign observers have noticed. Many are worried that China is drifting off in a totalitarian direction.

And there is more disappointment. Some longtime laowai have discovered that they’ll always remain “aliens” and outsiders in China, no matter how deep their understanding of the country and its people have grown. Others even fear being scapegoated once China’s economy declines or political and economical tensions between the West and China rise.

Is this kind of nationalism unique to studying Chinese? Can one have the same experience studying other languages like Japanese, Turkish and Arabic which have their own brands of ultra-nationalism and xenophobia? It can be hard if you admire the culture, only to discover you are not welcome and never will be a true part of it. Obviously, this last point is not unique to immigrants in China, but a problem with an universal quality.

6. Love it!

I almost forgot this one. Many people all over the globe admire Xi and his government for their way of driving modernization forward and dealing with rapid societal transformation. They see him as an example of a strong leader.

A post on LinkedIn from a guy working for a Chinese enterprise: He recommends Xi’s New Year’s speech as learning resource and doesn’t forget to post it on his LinkedIn-profile. For me doing this as an exercise at home with your laptop is one thing, boasting about it on social media another. It becomes a political message...

Does it demotivate me?

Yes and no. I noticed it’s all too easy to be influenced by negative news about China. And here in Europe, almost everything I read about China is negative. (We’re afraid of China! Afraid of what China might become in the future when it decides the rules of the new world order). However, our understanding of China is still very limited.

Ultimately, it’s my own choice to pay attention to this negative and biased news or not. I prefer listening to an insightful China podcast, talking to locals or reading a serious book about China. My goal has always been to stay open-minded and understand different perspectives.

For every negative statement about China I can make an equal remark about my own country, the USA or Europe. I think this is a fair and healthy thing to do. And put things in their right historical perspective as well. No, China is not a democracy, not in today’s western sense, but when has it ever been? Why do we always project our own wishes and expectations on others?

Another important reason to not let yourself get demotivated by politics is this: the world of politics is a day-to-day, month-to-month thing, where as learning Chinese is a long-term endeavor. It doesn’t come without a huge investment of time and energy which is why you should get your priorities straight. It actually makes a lot of sense to protect your motivation and keep a healthy distance from politics if it’s starting to become a negative influence. The apolitical positions mentioned above all reflect that.

Furthermore, the intellectual and aesthetic pleasure of learning Chinese language and culture(s) is undervalued. There’s seems less and less place for that in today’s world. You have to defend yourself against people doubting the usefulness of your endeavors. If your interest is beyond the mainstream – and it doesn’t even have to be some obscure branch of knowledge – you just don’t fit in anywhere.

Anyway, philosophy, arts AND the study of languages, in my view, should be located above politics. And that doesn’t mean you don’t care and aren’t interested.

Whatever happens in the future, there will be a practical value in knowing the Chinese language. The reasons may vary from work, Chinese family and friends, traveling and hopefully, changing something for the better.

Does the political situation in China affect your learning? Please feel free to comment on this topic down below.