China’s 2020 HSK reform: How different will the new HSK be?

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Recently I have been blogging a lot about HSK 6 and how it relates to people’s language proficiency in Mandarin. Is it worth taking the test? Well, just when I was about to sign up for the exam, someone notified me HSK will be completely reformed!

“HSK is about to be reformed”

The big news was shared on the HSK Official Twitter account, the wording rather cryptic. Apparently the new HSK will consist of 9 levels instead of 6:

HSK Official Twitter message: "HSK is about to be reformed", 21.05.2020.

But as for all the other details, even now three weeks later, I couldn’t find any news concerning the HSK reform on their official website. And the link they shared in the above tweet strangely enough seems to have nothing to do with the planned changes. Instead it talks about the language requirements for overseas students in China who study medicine in English university programs. I couldn’t care less!

Isn’t it odd to officially announce a big reform that will happen this year and then share a link to some b*llshit article that offers zero explanation?

“Three Stages and Nine Levels”

This is what the new HSK system looks like. Each “stage” is divided into three levels:

China's language test HSK: Three stages and nine levels (2020 reform)
Image via @山下智博/Weibo

What does this mean?

The best article I could dig up so far was published in The Beijinger which apparently was able to win some inside info. Since I’m not sure about the source, I think it’s still too early to go into the details of the new system. Many questions remain to be answered: Will an oral examination be mandatory for the higher levels? How will the progression between the levels be? Will HSK 9 more or less match the current HSK 6 or will it be harder?

Concerning this last question the article does give an answer, but honestly I don’t yet know what to make of it. It says the difficulty between the different test levels will increase more gradually, reducing the gaps between the levels to some extent:

Compared to the current standards for HSK 1 to 6, it is not hard to see how the new system will alter the overall difficulty curve. For example, the current HSK 6 requires takers to master cumulative 5,000 words, half of which are new, and 2,663 characters, 978 of which are new. In HSK 3.0 [Kaohongshu: the new system] though, students need to memorize 5,456 words in total, 1,140 of which haven’t previously appeared, while the number of characters needed has been reduced to 1,800, 1,500 of which should already be familiar. That’s good, right? Not so fast.

All those words have to go somewhere, in this case, they’ve been divided among the lower levels: the threshold to pass HSK levels 1 to 4 have now all increased, with the word list for each expanding drastically, by a multiple of three or four. Let’s take HSK 1 for example. Whereas 150 words is currently sufficient for someone to pass, that number will rise to 500 words in HSK 3.0. No word list has yet to be released for any of the levels.

The Beijinger (25.05.2020)

New HSK requirements for international students in China

What does this mean for people who want to study in China? Which HSK level is required? We don’t know yet:

There has also been no word on what these changes will mean for graduation requirements for international students in China. Until now, foreign students who study in Chinese are required to pass the HSK 6 test prior to graduation, while a HSK 4-5 certificate is usually sufficient for students taught in foreign languages to pursue graduate or higher-level degrees. If you major in medicine or a related field, an additional Medical Chinese Test (MCT) may be required.

The Beijinger (25.05.2020)

Is the new HSK system an improvement?

One major problem of the HSK levels in the past was that they were supposed to correspond directly to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, except they didn’t, meaning that HSK 6 was nowhere near the “almost-native” C2 level, HSK 4 by now means matched B2 and so on. To me at this point it’s not at all clear if the reform’s intention is to eradicate this flaw and bring HSK closer to the European Framework. Will the higher levels go beyond the “old” HSK 6? Will they alter the structure of the exams? What’s the reasoning behind the reform?

Two things I would welcome: a more gradual progression between each level and a closer correlation to the European Framework. On that I agree with The Beijinger:

While the changes seem intimidating at first, we’re all for the levels being rebalanced to better reflect an individual’s proficiency. For too long, levels 1-3 have felt little more than token certificates, too easy to pass with a little effort and making the jump to HSK 4 and up too substantial. Finally, adjusting the test to better reflect the CEFR system should help give the HSK improved weighting and caliber on the international stage.

The Beijinger (25.05.2020)

But will that be what we’ll get? I hope we receive an update soon. Then we’ll know what Hanban, the organization behind HSK, has in mind with the new HSK system. Maybe the changes won’t be that radical after all. Only time (and vocabulary lists and mock exams) will tell.

Please feel free to let me know your thoughts on the HSK reform or share any updates in the comments below.

Related posts

How hard is HSK 6?

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Recently I’ve been thinking about taking the HSK 6 Chinese test and started doing some research: how painstakingly difficult is the HSK 6 exam really? And what do native speakers have to say about it?

A quick overview

  • Vocabulary: for HSK 6 you need to master 2500 words on top of the 2500 you’re supposed to know by now. That’s sounds like a lot, but many of them are “variations” of words you’re already familiar with like 出路 (a way out),出卖 (to sell), 出身 (to come from) and 出息 (to profit) . Others you’ve probably come across by now like 用户 (user),祖国 (motherland) or 火箭 (rocket). Not all are that easy to remember though.

  • Chengyu or “idioms”: According to this list HSK 6 contains 111 so-called chengyu, usually 4-character combinations. They can be really annoying. From the positive side: if you’ve come this far, you probably already know a bunch of them. Plus, it’s sufficient to know them passively. In some cases their meaning can be guessed from the context.

  • Grammar points: I couldn’t find a complete overview. ChineseGrammarwiki doesn’t include all HSK 6 grammar points, but it’s good for a start. From what I can tell they are numerous and require special attention, especially the conjunctions and sentence patterns are crucial for comprehension and reading speed.

The exam

HSK 6 consists of three parts and lasts about 140 minutes:

Listening

35 Minutes: The listening section shouldn’t contain any surprises, since it’s entirely based on the HSK 6 basic vocabulary. If you expected the HSK end boss showing up in the final level, you’ll be disappointed. In fact, it’s more of the same. You listen either to a short text or dialogue, spoken slower and clearer than any native speaker in normal life will ever speak to you – unless it happens to be a CCTV news anchor. If you’ve done your share of mock exams, you know the drill. Insider’s tip: read the answers first.

Reading

50 Minutes: The reading comprehension section is more tricky. Not so much because of the difficulty level of the texts and questions: it’s rather the amount of characters you have to plough trough. You need to process the information fast. If you’re not used to that or your reading is still shaky, you run into problems (and out of time). Many test candidates skip the grammar questions completely (meaning answer them randomly) just to win time. It is said even many native speakers have serious trouble answering those.

Writing

45 Minutes: The writing section is not that challenging. Again, if you’d expected to write 3000-character piece on the bureaucratic reforms during the Ming-dynasty, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. What you get is an article of about 1000 characters which you more or less have to rewrite. This means you don’t have to write Hanzi purely from memory which makes things a lot easier for most participants. With some basic writing fluency and composition skills you should be fine.

What do native speakers think about the HSK 6 exam?

Reading some threads on Reddit and Quora, I found that most native Chinese speakers don’t think HSK 6 very hard at all, especially compared to the proficiency levels required for IELTS. They only seemed to be taken a little aback by the grammar questions for which you have to point out the grammatically incorrect sentence. This of course has little to do with the reality of spoken Mandarin where sentence patterns are extremely flexible.

HSK 6, reading comprehension, grammar questions
Two examples from the HSK 6 reading section: find the grammatically incorrect sentence (语病). I’ll write the answers in the comments below.

A Mainland Chinese speaker wrote the following about his experience taking the HSK 6 mock exam:

  1. I can pass this test without any effort. (get 180 in 300)
  2. If I want to get a high mark (>290), I must prick up my ears to listen and pay full attention to every question.
  3. Even if I tried my best, I couldn’t get a full mark.
  4. This test requires a relatively high knowledge level (at least high school graduate). I guess it is really hard for those native speakers who haven’t received a good education. (Source: Quora)

Interestingly, not all native Chinese speakers agree. In particular those who grew up overseas, in an non-Chinese language environment:

Well it depends. As an Indonesian Chinese who grew up in a non-Mandarin speaking society, I think HSK 6 is hard. In Indonesia, only few people passed HSK 6.

I passed HSK 5 last year and am currently studying for HSK 6. I realized that the vocabulary in HSK 5 and 6 are almost the same. It just the question model which is different. They make it a bit more difficult.

Actually it is not that hard if you have plenty of time to do it, especially the reading section. However, due to the very limited time given during the real exam, I might say it is almost impossible for an Indonesian Chinese to finish reading all the question before the time end.

On the other hand, maybe other overseas Chinese who speak mandarin in their daily life like Malaysian Chinese would think that HSK 6 is a piece of cake.

Source: Melody from Indonesia on Quora

How hard is HSK 6?

To wrap it up here: it’s hard to give a definite answer to this question. We should also ask for whom and with which level of preparation. If you’re starting from scratch and planning to take the exam in one or even two years, you have some intensive studying ahead of you and you’d most likely have to go to China and take classes to receive all the input you need. Most people need more time though.

On the other hand, considering this is the highest level of the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, it could be a hell of a lot harder. HSK 6 is definitely not the top of the mountain. There’s still a whole world beyond it. A fact many people who took the exam notice as soon they take up a job or do business in China.

Feel free to let me know what you think about HSK 6.

More on Kaohongshu

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.

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…