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.

Can you learn Chinese from a textbook?

Last week I listened to the You can learn Chinese podcast where the above mentioned question was discussed: Can you learn Chinese (solely) from textbooks? And if so, to what extent? Can you become fluent by studying the whole textbook series of Integrated Chinese from beginner to advanced level? I doubt it, but maybe we should start asking the opposite question first…

Can you learn Chinese WITHOUT a textbook?

Yes, you can but…

Consider the case of Alice: she spent two years in China, but for some reason never found the time to attend Chinese classes or seriously study on her own. Neither in China, nor before China. During her time in China, she started to understand and speak some everyday life Chinese, but after two years, she still couldn’t read a complete sentence and wasn’t able to answer more specific questions like the kind of work experience she has and which cultural differences she experienced…

Easy come, easy go?

I know a number of people who acquired an impressive blending of survival Chinese without ever opening, let alone studying, a Chinese textbook. However those expats were typically very extroverted, outgoing people who enjoyed communicating with the locals from an early stage, unbothered by their limited vocabulary. But then again, sooner or later, they all reached their limit. They had learned everything they could by real life communication and then gradually stopped making any significant progress. Perhaps their Chinese level was sufficient for their purposes, maybe not. It is likely though they could have done better with some kind of “formal learning” to support them.

Flying in all directions

Because without a textbook you’re pretty much like a pilot flying without navigation: you’re going in all directions. What’s more, you know you can buy vegetables and a train ticket, but you don’t know your language level. Although HSK (or other Chinese tests) can’t completely assess your Chinese language skills, it is the best standardized assessment tool so far. It’ll at least give you some indication where you’re at. More than your Chinese friends can ever tell you.

Allergic to textbooks

How far will a textbook get you then? It depends somewhat on your personality and learning style. I know people and have taught students who reacted very allergic to textbooks. I worked for a private language school which discouraged using textbooks, because such books were thought to be the ultimate means to bore (paying) students to death. Teachers should rather bring their own ideas and focus on conversation. They didn’t have a copying machine, since “teachers shouldn’t rely on books and printed materials too much” or so they said… So is language learning without textbooks the new trend in foreign language education?

Can the teacher teach without a textbook?

Textbook-free learning has many practical implications. If you ask me now, to demand from young teachers to give classes without the help of a textbook is unprofessional for a serious language institute. Freestyle teaching requires a great amount of classroom experience, because it implies the teacher knows the curriculum by heart and how to deal with all kind of student’s questions that pop up along the way. The less experienced teacher typically is more reliant on navigation tools. He can’t just fly blindly towards his target. As a freshman you might do a good job on conversation class and have fun discussions about movies and personal ambitions, but to get all your students to the next level within the set period is a different story.

For that you would have to cover an X amount of vocabulary, grammar, sentence patterns, you name it. And you would have to do it in a specific order, not just randomly. In short: you need a good textbook to guide you. Only a textbook provides a basic structure, a step-by-step plan.

How much textbook?

The Chinese language program I attended as a student was based on the idea that you should acquire the Mandarin basics first (for one year). After that, you’d be sent to China and thrown in at the deep end. In the first year, progress was slow. Nobody felt very confident when speaking to Chinese people in their language. But still, by the end of the year, we had covered the groundwork: from counting to the 把-sentence. (We did have a group of experienced teachers.) It was in China that most of us fast-forwarded their command of the language significantly. Over there, we still used textbooks, but we weren’t bent over our books the whole day. Even in class, there were other activities like role playing, guessing games, discussions and so on. Outside of class, there was time for real communication. Learning was never limited to textbooks only.

So, how much textbook then? In the podcast, they answer the question with 25 percent. The other 75 percent should be spent “outside of the textbook”. Indeed, there is no point in endlessly studying your HSK textbook, from one level to the next, without actually using the language in real communication. That’s like preparing for the Olympics for years at home without ever getting out there to compete against other athletes.

Can you learn Chinese solely from a textbook?

To sum it all up: the reasonable answer is NO of course. Just like you can’t learn how to drive a car only by studying the mechanics of a Toyota or Chery.

That being said, I’m not stating that classic textbook learning is the only way. Guidance is important. The world of language learning is changing very fast. Professionals in education are shifting their attention to developing new apps, virtual reality programs and AI supported learning. Information and language input are much more accessible than they used to be. But all that cannot replace – at least in my view – the accumulated experience of teachers that typically flows into a good textbook series.

Which Chinese textbook did you like or hate the most? How far do you think can you get without the help of textbooks? Can apps like DuoLingo and the like replace old-fashioned paper-based learning? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

Ideology in Chinese textbooks

Chinese learning materials have improved a lot over the last 50 years, however more often than not the Chinese learner gets that feeling of being stuck in an artificial world while the real thing – authentic communication – is being kept away from him. But what happens when this artificial world is an ideological world?

Every learner of Mandarin is familiar with it: dialogues that are written just to present grammar patterns and a bunch of key vocabulary; fictional characters that talk like robots, exchanging bits of information nobody cares about. Some new stuff is introduced, then everything gets explained with multiple examples, exceptions and little footnotes. The learner is supposed to do a number of exercises and after all that he should be able to reproduce most of that on his own and then move on to the next chapter. Furthermore, he’s expected to progress at an ever steady pace, at the end of the book reaching the language level it says on the cover.

Screenshot from the Karate Kid

Now we all want to master Mandarin and speak with native-like fluency. What we don’t want is to linger in this artificial realm where non-existing people have endless minimalist conversations like “ni shi Jianadaren ma? wo bu shi Jianadaren, wo shi Meiguoren.” and so on. We don’t want to be children in our target language, we want to be treated like adults from the start. Like in the movie The Karate Kid the black belt is our goal, but we’d like to skip the part with the hard work and suffering.

Ideology and politics

But there is something far worse. Learning materials thankfully have evolved away from that, though not completely. And you could even argue that it’s impossible for any foreign language textbooks to be completely “clean” of it. Older learners who started learning Chinese in Mainland China way back still remember in particular. It’s the presence of ideology and politics in textbooks.

Although this probably has to do less with didactic aspects than it has to do with the simple fact that back in the time of Mao everything was about ideology and politics. Whoever wanted to understand China had to read Mao and the founding stories of that era. Everything referred to that particular set of beliefs and principles of Mao’s political system and the party. You just couldn’t escape it.

In fact, all that was very relevant. Let’s not forget the communists had kicked all foreigners out of the country. Those few foreigners who did come from abroad to visit the People’s Republic of China had good reasons to know their deal about Maoist China and it’s main narrative. After all they had to know how to behave diplomatically in the New China and not to hurt anybody’s feelings.

The Chinese Reader (1972, Beijing)

The Chinese Reader series, 1972, Beijing

This Chinese reader published in Beijing in 1972 is a perfect example of how politics infiltrated the study of Mandarin on every level. This series of readers was developed for intermediate learners. And in some ways I’m surprised by its quality. The chapters are well arranged, the characters nice and clear to read. Black and white drawings visualize what you’re reading. There’s even one color picture of the Great Wall. You’d expect that 50 years later the books would be falling apart, but clearly they refuse to do so.

Sacrifices for a socialist future

The first book starts out with the founding of the PRC, looks back on the Second Sino-Japanese war and shares many “educational” stories about the Mao-era, like the student girl from Shanghai who is sent to the countryside to learn from the poor peasants. It also contains a speech from the Chairman where he urges his countrymen to make sacrifices for the great cause, even to die if need be. It’s rather heavy stuff that would repel any present-day learner who’ll probably ask what all this propaganda is doing there in the first place. Let’s say it’s a different experience…

Dong Cunrui – a true warrior

Dong Cunrui, a Chinese warrior hero?

But it doesn’t stop there. We also meet the great war hero Dong Cunrui in the first book. It’s a short meeting, since he decides to blow himself up with dynamite to destroy a Japanese bunker, shouting “for a new China!”. There is no way to effectively place the explosives so he chooses to support the bomb with his hand, thus loosing his life. From what I hear the story of Dong Cunrui is still being told in Chinese schools today. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

A revolutionary party is, in its essence, the party of its leader that carries out his ideology and cause, and the main thing in its building is to ensure the unitary character and inheritance of his ideology and leadership.

Kim Jong-Un

Liu Hulan – “A great life, a glorious death”

Liu Hulan, a Chinese hero?

Where you mention Dong Cunrui, we should also not forget the Liu Hulan. She was a local communist youth leader in a village in Shanxi Province. One winter day in 1947, the Kuomintang surrounded the village and forced the whole village to gather in a temple. The nationalists started arresting several communists, including Liu Hulan. I’ll quote a fragment of the textbook here:

“敌人把刘胡兰带到了一座庙里,匪军连长恶狠狠地问 : “你叫刘胡兰?”

“刘胡兰回答 我就是刘胡兰!”

“你跟八路军哪些人走联系?”

“和谁也没联系!”

“没联系? 有人已经供出你是共产党员了!”

The army officer urges her to point out her fellow communists to them, but she refuses, saying not even for a mountain of gold would she betray them. Then she states in front of them all that she doesn’t fear death. That being said the nationalists kill her. Chairman Mao, so we continue to read, remembered her with the words: “A great life, a glorious death”. She died at the age of 14.

The English Wikipedia tells the same story in more detail. The article is surprisingly subjective and quotes only a few sources. This is how the death of the young girl is described: “During the interrogation, the Kuomintang tried every possible method to induce Liu Hulan to betray her allies. Liu Hulan refused to obey and died heroically.” It seems the story of Liu Hulan still lives on today, not least on Wikipedia.

Revolutionary vocabulary

The vocabulary which we learn in this book is probably not like anything you’ve seen before, unless you’ve been – let’s say – “politically trained” the Comintern way. It’s been said that after you read Marx, Engels and thinkers like Gramsci, Adorno, Marcuse and so on you’ll never be quite the same.

But this is something different. This book is supposed to teach you a foreign language. It comes however, with a totalitarian world view that separates friend from foe and good from evil. It tells you everything you need to know to function in this new society that Mao is building, even though the Chinese reader obviously is aimed at foreigners. Let’s take a look at some randomly selected vocabulary from the book:

  • 反动派 – reactionary faction (in other words everyone against communism)
  • 帝国主义 – imperialism (those nations who brought humiliation upon China by claiming parts of it)
  • 机枪 – machine gun (power comes from the barrel of a gun, right?)
  • 机械化 – mechanize (remember the Great Leap Forward?)
  • 进攻 – to attack
  • 开国 – the founding of a country
  • 叛徒 – traitor
  • 破坏 – to destroy
  • 强迫 – to force
  • 手榴弹 – hand grenade
  • 牺牲 – to sacrifice (one’s life) (this seems to be the main message in most of the chapters)

To me, ideology is corrupt; it’s a parasite on religious structures. To be an ideologue is to have all of the terrible things that are associated with religious certainty and none of the utility. If you’re an ideologue, you believe everything that you think. If you’re religious, there’s a mystery left there.

Jordan Peterson

Ideology-free learning?

Mao's red bible being sold on a street market in Kaifeng
Mao’s red bible being sold on a street market in Kaifeng near the Henan University

I know the example I brought here is a rather extreme one, but then again, Marx, Lenin and Mao still play a major part in the education of Chinese children today. However nowadays Mao’s red book is sold on the streets for little money and people don’t seem to care so much. Nobody will blame you if you don’t know your Mao-bible by heart or – for that matter – decide to sell it. Western tourists pay good money for it. But does that mean the end of ideology in Chinese textbooks for non-native learners? Have we really moved on? It actually made me think of the deeper question whether it’s possible to learn a foreign language WITHOUT absorbing (some of) its values…

What are your thoughts on this topic? Would you say your Chinese books are ideology-free? Please feel free to comment below.

Corona virus: 口罩都卖完了!

After the Mexican flue, SARS and MERS it was about time the world got hit by another pandemic. Allegedly, this time it all started on a Wuhan wet market where the locals buy their portion of snake and armadillo meat. In this post, I share some virus-related key vocabulary and firsthand footage from Corona-survivors.

(Note: this article was posted on 31 January 2020.)

Shortage of face masks

To start on an optimistic note: Did you know that if you’re still alive today, you’re a virus-survivor too? (One of 7.7 billion people)! If you were planning to go to China, you might want to postpone your next trip though and wear one of those trendy face masks if you use public transport, just in case. That is if you can still lay your (disinfected) hands on one. For this Chinese YouTuber it all seems too late.

With English and Chinese subtitles.

China is red

It’s a very, very serious situation, so I did some homework on the virus-related key vocabulary that you read in the Chinese news. “For your daily apocalypse click here”. The virus is everywhere. It’s amazing how quickly bad news spreads and people start panicking. Even here in Europe many ten thousands miles away from the disaster zone the news is dominated by it. Online news papers provide hourly updates as if the world will perish. It’s almost like a drug.

Map of confirmed corona virus cases.
China is red again! This is a map of how the virus is spreading. You can see in which countries cases have been confirmed.
Map showing the spread of the Corona virus on 26.02.2020
Update (26.02.2020): By now, it’s not only China that’s red! The virus has spread to the Middle East, Africa and Europe, North- and South America. (Source: gisanddata.maps.arcgis.com)

Business opportunities

But where disaster strikes, you’ll also find business opportunities! Do you think 25 bucks is a good price to protect yourself against virus infection? The Asian girl on the picture sure does. Did they pick an Asian girl for a reason or is it just me? From what I hear masks in Germany and many other countries are sold out at the moment.

Amazon product information for face masks. Prices are rising.
口罩都卖完了!

武汉加油!

Meanwhile people in Wuhan can’t go nowhere, so during the long cold nights they started shouting at each other to uplift their spirits. A rather unusual spectacle, isn’t it? It’s hard to imagine a complete lock-down on such a gigantic city.

武汉加油!
新冠病毒Xīnguān bìngdúNew corona virus
感染新冠病毒的人gǎnrǎn xīnguān bìngdú de rénPeople infected with the new corona virus

Who can you trust?

In this video “teacher Mike” discusses the latest rumors about the virus. Which media can you trust, the western or Chinese news? Where does Mike get his info from? After all he lives there, so he needs to know. Unfortunately, no subtitles.

Virus vocabulary

感染gǎnrǎnto infect
感染新冠病毒的人gǎnrǎn xīnguān bìngdú dí rénpeople infected with the new corona virus
受到病毒感染shòudào bìngdú gǎnrǎnget infected with the virus
无症状感染者wú zhèngzhuàng gǎnrǎn zhěpeople that are infected but do not display any symptoms
传染他人chuánrǎn tāréncontaminate others
有传染力yǒu chuánrǎn lìto be contagious or to have “contaminating power”

The ultimate learning video

I finally found a video that walks you through all the Corona-related vocabulary that you need to understand Chinese news reports about the virus. Chinese and English subtitles. Very clear pronunciation.
确诊quèzhěnconfirmed diagnosis
确诊病例quèzhěn bìnglìconfirmed cases
死亡人数sǐwáng rénshùnumber of dead people
2%死亡率2% sǐwáng lǜdeath rate of 2 %

What’s this Corona virus anyway?

For real in-depth information about the virus you need to listen to Li Yongle Laoshi, cause he can explain almost everything. He’s one of the first people I see explaining something about the virus itself: how it behaves and how it multiplies and so on. With Chinese subtitles.
封城fēng chéngsealed city
宣布”封城”xuānbù”fēng chéng”to announce that the city is sealed
武汉wǔhànWuhan
症状zhèngzhuàngsymptoms
无症状携带病毒者wú zhèngzhuàng xiédài bìngdú zhinfected people without symptoms
治疗zhìliáomedical treatment
接受治疗jiēshòu zhìliáoreceive medical treatment
扩散kuòsànto spread
病毒扩散bìngdú kuòsànthe spreading of the virus

The best vocabulary list, sorted by language level, on the Corona virus I found so far, you can download here.

Go shopping, decrease panic

In this video German vlogger Thomas阿福 shows us the “shopping situation” in Shanghai. Are prices really skyrocketing as rumor has it? You can add to the panic as I’ve written above but you can also try to decrease panic and hysteria like Thomas does here. Great job!

An expert opinion…

I’ll finish here with a message of hope from German professor and virus expert Rolf Hilgenfeld, interviewed by German Youtuber Thomas阿福. Hilgenfeld states that the Corona virus won’t be able to multiply forever. Scientists are testing vaccinations right now. Once enough people have been in contact with the virus and produced antigens, the growth will decrease and the pandemic will stop. A matter of 6 to 12 months, he estimates. Let’s hope the situation gets better soon.

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…

Should I read Chinese texts above my level?

Some people get fed up with coursebooks and graded readers, because the more they progress, the less challenging those texts become. But moving on to more daring stuff, they discover that reading turns into an uphill struggle again. Deciphering just one page of text takes ages. How much of a struggle should reading be? What’s the best strategy to improve your reading skills?

  1. Should I read texts above my level or rather on my level?
  2. Should I be doing extensive or intensive reading to speed up my reading?
  3. Should I look up every unknown character?
  4. What about Pinyin written above the characters?
  1. What’s a healthy reading speed?
  2. How can I find out the difficulty level of a random text?
  3. Should I read children’s books for a start?
  4. Where do I find suitable online reading resources?

Should I read texts above my level or rather on my level?

Reading texts far above your level is a bit like plodding your way through high snow. The longer the text, the more exhausting it gets. My advice would be to do both, but to concentrate your time and effort on “less demanding texts”.

Why so? Because – it sounds all too obvious – the best way to improve your reading skills is to read. A lot. You must cover some miles every day. But not just random characters or unreadable prose from the Ming dynasty. Preferably, something meaningful that your brain can process in an enjoyable way. In other words: extensive rather than intensive reading.

Which doesn’t mean you should abandon intensive reading altogether. 80 percent = extensive, 20 percent = intensive worked out really well for me.

To read intensively is to completely deconstruct a text, with the goal of absorbing as much meaning from it as possible. This is done by taking a text, and systematically looking up every word, phrase, or collocation that you do not understand.

Luca Lampariello (01.12.2019)

Reading a lot above your level is “applaudable”, but doesn’t necessarily result in picking up all that new vocabulary. On the contrary, I would have forgotten most of it by the next day. And to counter that, I would spend more time reviewing than actually reading.

Reading on your level means that you are familiar with 95 to 98 % of the words in the text. For each 1000 words you should only have to check 20 up to 50 words on average. It should feel more like a relaxed Sunday morning walk.

Should I be doing extensive or intensive reading to speed up my reading?

One superlatively important effect of wide reading is the enlargement of vocabulary which always accompanies it.

H.P. Lovecraft

Extensive reading of texts suitable for your level is the best way to accelerate. I tried both strategies and I’d say extensive reading is the most helpful means to absorb new words through context and read faster. It shouldn’t cost much effort, since you’re (speed) reading the text as opposed to studying it to extract every detail for eternity.

Extensive reading is also helpful when your preparing for HSK tests, especially the higher levels where reading speed becomes more crucial. Only reading textbooks and HSK tests may not be enough. What you need is all-round reading experience. Once your brain is trained to process Hanzi faster, you’ll extract the meaning from a random HSK question without much guessing.

Should I look up every unknown character?

Admittedly, I often do this myself, however it’s not a good habit to develop. For three main reasons:

  • Looking up characters interrupts the reading process and makes you slow.
  • Looking up every unknown character isn’t necessary to understand what you’re reading. Often you can guess the meaning, or it becomes clearer after a few pages.
  • The more characters you have look up, the harder it gets to remember them and the less time you have to read.

Unfortunately, looking up 1000 characters every month doesn’t result in learning 1000 new characters every month. You have to be a very committed and skilled learner to pull that off. I’d suggest reading easier texts and looking up a limited amount of key characters only.

What about Pinyin written above the characters?

It’s an unnecessary distraction. As helpful Pinyin is when you are just starting out reading Hanzi, after a while you should allow your brain to focus on characters only. It needs time to adapt.

Focusing on Hanzi: this is an old-fashioned graded reader with CD and Pinyin cover mask.

The (non-Chinese?) brain cannot ignore Pinyin and prefers to process alphabetical letters first. Try it yourself:

That’s even more true for English translations added below the Chinese sentence:

So it’s better to get rid of the Pinyin in an early stage and allow your brain to absorb the characters. That doesn’t mean you cannot occasionally uncover the Pinyin if you’re unsure how to pronounce a character.

This question has been debated in depth in this episode of the Mandarin Companion podcast by the way.

What’s a healthy reading speed?

This depends on your reading strategy. If it’s intensive reading, take 10 or 15 minutes per page if you have to, since you are really studying the text.

For extensive reading, you shouldn’t take much more than 4 minutes per page, only occasionally consulting a dictionary (or better, consult it after reading). Remember that you don’t have to understand every detail and analyze sentence patterns, grammar points and so on.  

How can I find out the difficulty level of a random text?

The free reading tool DuShu enables you to analyze Chinese texts on their difficulty level. It shows you detailed statistics like the percentage of vocabulary in different HSK levels and give a difficulty ranking. Like “lower intermediate”, “intermediate”, “upper intermediate”, “advanced” and “highly advanced”. The actual reading experience doesn’t always match this ranking, since the tool doesn’t know what you know, but it’s clarifying anyway.

This tool cannot tell the difficulty of a text, but it filters out the HSK vocabulary. Useful when your preparing for a HSK test and want to focus on HSK characters only.

Chinese Text Analyser can do all those things and more, but you need to purchase the software first.

Should I read children’s books for a start?

I wouldn’t recommend children’s books for beginners. Books for children are much harder than you would assume and usually contain lots of irrelevant vocabulary, since they are meant for kids.

As for content, expect to be bored quickly, unless you are into little rabbit becoming friends with fat piggy in the green forest. More grown-up stories like Harry Potter, The Hobbit or The little Prince require plenty of skill to read and enjoy in Chinese. Try cartoons and graded readers instead.

Reading Xiao Wangzi
Reading 小王子 in an early stage of my learning. I translated character by character. What was even worse: I couldn’t tell which characters belonged together and failed to recognize common grammar patterns. Honest effort, but not a recommendable reading strategy. The little Prince is a good read though.

Where do I find suitable online reading resources?

Free online resources:

Non-free online resources:

What are your experiences with reading Chinese texts? Where do you find useful resources? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

One essential podcast for serious Chinese learners

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I’m talking about the You Can Learn Chinese Podcast. It’s not about teaching you Chinese in 15 minutes or getting 100 percent fluent while you’re asleep or some other click-bait nonsense. No, it’s an expert panel for everything related to learning Mandarin.

Why I recommend the You Can Learn Chinese Podcast

  • Experts views on how to study Chinese effectively and everything related to studying the language
  • Delivers answers to questions many serious learners of Chinese are struggling with. From improving your pronunciation to gaining fluency in speaking and reading and lots of other topics.
  • Great interviews with other Chinese learners who share their stories about how they mastered Mandarin. Some of them, Steven Kaufmann for example, learned Chinese during the seventies. In other words, before the internet and apps like Pleco or Anki revolutionized language learning. Yes, you can learn Chinese: They started out much earlier, without all the tools and resources we have at our disposal today, and still were very successful.
  • Critical discussions about new developments in Chinese teaching and learning from insiders and experts. Doesn’t sound too interesting? Teaching Chinese as a foreign language is a relatively young field. Many questions still need answering: Why is Chinese taught the way it is taught in China today? How do non-natives effectively learn to read Hanzi? What’s common practice in “traditional” Chinese teaching isn’t always backed by solid empirical research, to say the least. The podcast keeps an eye on those new developments, so if a promising method has been invented, you’ll probably hear it here first.

The podcast is all about the meta-level of learning Mandarin. The format doesn’t aim at teaching people the language, though you can pick up some words occasionally. It’s hosted by Mandarin-experts John Pasden and Jared Turner and I really recommend it.