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 still can’t (20-01-2021)). The link they shared in the above tweet strangely enough seems to have nothing to do with the announced updates to the HSK system, or does it? The article covers the language requirements for overseas students in China who study medicine in English university programs, but what about the new HSK exam?

Isn’t it odd to officially announce a big reform that will happen this year and then share a link to an Chinese article that offers very little explanation to the average HSK candidate?

“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.


Update, 02.06.2020 – from the Chinese Testing International Barcelona:

Lately, news such as “HSK will have 9 levels! The Chinese level 3.0 test will be coming soon” have attracted a lot of attention inside and outside China. The concerns and inquiries of Chinese students and teachers who are dedicated to the international teaching of this language come one after another, which excites us and shows unprecedented support. In order to answer the main concerns, the “Standards of the Chinese level in international education”, the Chinese proficiency test (HSK) and the relationship between the two will be explained.

With the development of the teaching of the Chinese language and the changes in the global needs of teaching and learning the Chinese language, it is necessary to adjust the “International Standards of Proficiency in Chinese” (published by the headquarters of the Confucius Institute in 2007), to Continuously improve the international teaching and learning of Chinese. In 2017, we began research and development of a new standard, namely “Chinese level standards in international education” (hereinafter referred to as “Level standards”). This research has already been completed and will therefore be launched in the second half of the year.

“Level Standards” is based on the essence of Chinese language and writing, and has been nurtured by the strengths of other language standards in the world, inheriting the experience of teaching Chinese as a foreign language and the international teaching of Chinese. . From this base, divide the Chinese level of non-native speakers into three categories: beginner, medium and high, and each category is subdivided into three levels, that is, three categories with nine levels. Each level description includes three parts: verbal communication skills, content of thematic tasks and quantitative indicators of the language, and describes each level from five aspects according to their abilities to listen, speak, read, write and translate. “Level Standards” is an open and inclusive professional standard system that, after launch, will lead all international fields of Chinese language learning, teaching, testing and assessment, and will become an important indicator of reform and development of international Chinese teaching.

The main change to the next “Level Standard” consists of three new advanced levels 7-9. A higher level of the Chinese language requires students to understand complex subjects in various fields and genres, carry out in-depth exchanges and discussions; are able to express themselves on complex issues of social, professional, daily activities, academic research, etc., have a flexible and effective organization of language, with a clear logic, a rigorous structure, a coherent and reasonable speech, and can communicate decently in various situations; Be flexible in using various communication strategies and resources to complete communication tasks, gain a deep understanding of Chinese cultural knowledge, and possess an international vision and intercultural communication skills.

To this end, we will expand the levels by developing the Advanced HSK exam (levels 7-9), with the premise of guaranteeing the stability of HSK levels 1-6. The advanced exam is mainly for foreign students who specialize in Chinese language and literature, as well as for students from other majors with Chinese proficiency who come to China to study and for Sinology researchers abroad. A single exam will be implemented in the levels 7-9 test for the three levels, which means that only one exam will be added and will be determined by the score if the level 7, 8 or 9 is obtained. The Advanced HSK exam (Level 7-9) is scheduled to be released in the first half of next year.

This text is a translation of the Chinese original and is for informational purposes only.

Chinese Testing International

June 2, 2020 (Source)

Update, 20.06.2020 – from Skritter

Skritter published the below overview on their YouTube channel showing the new levels and vocabulary requirements from “HSK 3.0”. If this information is correct, there will be three new levels on top of HSK 6. The current sixth level will be downgraded to a more appropriate intermediate level. Only those passing the seventh level will be able to call themselves “advanced”. The vocabulary for the advanced levels will be significantly increased (or actually this is true for all levels).

On the whole, “HSK 3.0” will be more difficult and – according to this information – the new levels will correspond more closely to the European Framework (someone who masters HSK 9 in the new system would truly have C2 proficiency for example). But we can’t really be sure until an official statement with more details has been issued by Hanban.

HSK 3.0 - new levels overview
YouTube screenshot. Source: Skritter

HSK 3.0 updates, 18.01.2021

Hard to believe, but It’s still unclear on which date HSK 3.0 will be launched exactly. Without any official updates and information, much about HSK 3.0 still remains speculation. Any news? Well, a longtime Chinese-Forums member compiled a first rough (unofficial) HSK 3.0 vocabulary list which can be downloaded via Dropbox. It is based on this paper which presents the following HSK vocabulary breakdown:

Provisional HSK 3.0 vocabulary breakdown

The same forum-member published a HSK 3.0 FAQ section on Reddit which summarizes the latest information (and rumors) about the HSK reform and is worth sharing:

FAQ about the NEW HSK (03.08.2020) (Source: Reddit)

Q: What changes? A: An increase of 6,092 words, going from 5,000 to 11,092 words, divided over 3 categories corresponding to the CEFR groups which are further divided into 9 HSK levels. The new progression will be less of an inverted pyramid and the newly added words will be divided across said levels.

Q: What is the new Vocab? A: The official vocabulary is so far unknown, but we can make an educated guess. The author of the essay《汉语国际教育汉语水平等级标准全球化之路》***, 刘英林 Liu Yinglin, beckoning in the new HSK structure in 2020 has published a book with the corresponding amount of vocab (11,092 words).

Q: Should I still keep studying for/take the current HSK? A: Yes. If we take in mind the 2010 changes to the HSK: all grammar and the vast majority of vocabulary will carry over. Most, if not all, HSK exams are taken online so if you require an HSK certificate for a course/job you should still take it.

Q: How can I prepare for the new HSK? A: By spending more time on non-course content. Studying only the HSK vocabulary will no longer be enough (at least for the reading section), so venture off the current HSK Standard course and start consuming media and books, or whatever you can get your hands on at your specific level.

Q: Will my old HSK certificate still be valid? A: \[speculation\] Current HSK certificates will be valid for another 2 years. Though for graduate programs they might implement the changes sooner.

Q: When will the new HSK be official? A: Either Winter of 2020 or Spring of 2021.

Q: When/where to buy the new HSK books? A: The first materials will probably be released by BLCUP (Beijing Language and Culture University Publisher), expect this to coincide with the official release of the test.

Q: Will the new HSK be 4+ times more difficult??? A: Not necessarily, the amount of characters you’re required to know has only increased by a few hundred and the same holds true for the grammar covered. What this does entail is that you won’t be able to pass the new HSK by solely learning the course vocab and neglecting any extra-curricular consumption of content. But, this time it will include an (optional?) translation section and the HSKK spoken test has been integrated.

Q: How about the TOCFL? A: The Test of Chinese as a Foreign Language (TOCFL) is a Taiwan specific test and is thus not affected by the new HSK changes (which is a mainland test).

Source: Reddit

Go East Mandarin: “We’re at a presentation about the new HSK levels” (01.11.2020) (Source: Reddit)

GoEast Mandarin is a Chinese language school in Shanghai. They posted the following picture on Reddit which suggests that the HSK 3.0 reform will not affect the existing six HSK levels, but merely will add three additional levels on top. They did provide some additional details on their website. I don’t think this affects the overall validity of the “educated guesses” by the Chinese-Forums member or Skritter, but again, we have to wait and see to be certain.

(Source: Reddit) 教育汉语水平等级标准
Translation: Chinese international education Chinese-level standard grading
HSK3.0只增加7-9级,1-6级不变
Translation: HSK 3.0 only adds levels 7 – 9, levels 1 through 6 are unchanged

Latest HSK 3.0 updates, 20.01.2021

Yesterday I sent an email to two Confucius institutes (one in Germany, one in the Netherlands), asking when it would be possible to take the HSK 7 – 9 exams and in what way the newly added levels would be different from the HSK as we know it.

I didn’t have to wait long for an answer. Here’s the reply from the Confucius Institute in the Netherlands. It confirms what it says on the picture above and corresponds with the information shared earlier by the Chinese Testing International Barcelona from June 2020, that is, the HSK 3.0 reform will not affect the existing HSK levels 1 – 6, but will mainly add three additional levels. Here the original mail with translation:

关于HSK 7-9级,暂时还没有出台相关的文件和方案。
目前我们了解到的信息只是汉考国际会在保证HSK 1-6级考试稳定的前提下,延伸开发HSK高等(7-9级)考试。考试主要面向中国语言文学专业的外籍学生,以及汉语水平较高的其他专业来华留学生、海外汉学研究者等群体。7-9级考试将实行一试3级,也就是说,只增加一次考试,通过分数来确定7-9三个级别。具体的信息,会在我们收到总部的文件后在我院的官网上与大家分享。
希望上面的回答能够解决你的部分疑惑。

Google Translate: Regarding HSK Levels 7-9, no relevant documents and plans have been issued yet. At present, the information we have is only that Hankao International will extend the development of the HSK advanced (level 7-9) test under the premise of ensuring the stability of the HSK level 1-6 test. The exam is mainly for foreign students majoring in Chinese language and literature, as well as international students from other majors with higher Chinese proficiency, and overseas Sinology researchers. The 7-9 level test will be implemented with one try for all 3 levels, that means, only one additional test will be used to determine the three levels of 7-9 through the score. Specific information will be shared with you on the official website of our institute after we receive the documents from the headquarters. Hope the above answer can solve some of your questions.

The mail from the Confucius institute in Germany states the same, adding a rough time frame for the launch:

汉考国际最新的HSK3.0还未正式落地,就目前公布的信息来看HSK3.0主要是增加了高等 7-9 三个级别

考试主要面向中国语言文学专业的外籍学生, 以及汉语水平较高的其他专业来华留学生、海外汉学研究者等群体。7-9 级考试将实行一试 3 级,也就是说,只增加一次考试,通过分数来确定 7-9 三个级别。HSK 高等(7-9 级)考试计划于最晚明年上半年推出

一旦HSK3.0政策信息落地,我们将第一时间发布考试相关信息,请随时关注。

Google Translate: The latest HSK 3.0 of Hankao International has not yet been officially released. According to the information currently released, HSK 3.0 mainly adds three advanced levels 7-9. The exam is mainly for foreign students majoring in Chinese language and literature, as well as international students from other majors with higher Chinese proficiency, and overseas Sinology researchers. The 7-9 level exam will be implemented at 3 levels, that is to say, only one additional test will be used to determine the 7-9 three levels through scores. The HSK Advanced (Level 7-9) test is scheduled to be launched in the first half of next year at the latest. Once the HSK 3.0 policy information is implemented, we will release the test-related information as soon as possible, please feel free to pay attention.

So to sum up the main information from these two emails:

  • “HSK 3.0 mainly adds three advanced levels 7-9” on top of the existing six levels, “under the premise of ensuring the stability of the HSK level 1-6 test”. To me this sounds as HSK 1 – 6 are not affected by the reform, but I’m not fully sure.
  • The new levels HSK 7 – 9 are targeted at overseas M.A. students and researchers studying / working in China in fields that require advanced Mandarin language skills. This probably means HSK 7 – 9 won’t concern most Chinese learners, only a very small group of students and academics.
  • Candidates are supposed to take the advanced test only once to determine their HSK level. My interpretation: there will be one exam for the HSK levels 7 – 9.
  • At the latest, the new HSK 7 – 9 exam will be launched by the first half of next year. This doesn’t sound like the new levels will come as early as this spring.

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

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How much Mandarin can you listen to in one month?

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For one month I digitally teamed up with like-minded spirits for a Mandarin learning challenge. This is what I learned.

Hacking Chinese challenges

Maybe the biggest problem of self-studying a language in the long run is to keep the flame of motivation burning. Especially if you’re not perceiving any clear sign of progress – no matter how hard you are pushing forward – and no one of your friends shows any particular interest in your “hobby”…

The truth is most people can’t relate to language learning as an activity to voluntarily engage yourself in. To stop feeling that you’re wasting your time, it’s worth looking for like-minded spirits who share your passion. They can also support you to tackle another issue: to set achievable goals and make you see light at the end of the tunnel.

This is where the Hacking Chinese challenges come in. The basic idea is to digitally team up with other motivated people for – what could be called – a Mandarin learning competition focused on one of the four language skills. You set a personal goal, make it public and give it what you got.

The June 2020 challenge was all about listening, an activity which is (arguably) more laid-back than writing, reading and speaking, since all you have to do is sponge up spoken words.

Set a goal and share it

I updated my personal goal twice: from a modest 15 hours to 20, up to a more ambitious 25 hours eventually, cause I wasn’t sure how much time I could find to effectively listen between work and family duties.

How high you set your goal doesn’t really matter, as long as it is reasonable and challenging at the same time, which is easier said than done. Listening about an hour everyday, I reached my goal of 25 listening hours surprisingly smoothly – that equals more than one day of quality Mandarin input. It was the perfect excuse to spend more time on YouTube. Other participants managed 30 or even 50 hours.

Finding suitable listening materials

Finding the right stuff to listen to was a challenge in itself. For an intermediate learner like me randomly tuning in to a Chinese radio station or listening to some podcast you’ve never heard of before doesn’t cut it. The Chinese audiobook called “十年徒步中国” I tried proved to be too difficult to enjoy. I missed major information about Lei Diansheng’s hiking adventure and pretty soon lost track of the supposedly simple story line.

Hacking Chinese listening challenge, personal record

The popular YouTube Channel Mandarin Corner worked best for me. I really enjoyed all the Mandarin subtitled interviews with taxi drivers, tattoo artists and the like. Very authentic and perfect when you’re not yet ready for non-subtitled, high speed Chinese radio and podcasts.

A little more challenging were the speeches from TEDxTaipei with a great variety of topics and (mostly Taiwanese) speakers to choose from.

One of the bests things of teaming up with others is that you can share ideas and resources: Popup Chinese and Learning Chinese through Stories are podcasts I hadn’t checked out before. The same goes for the Chinese podcast websites Qingting.fm and lizhi.fm. There’s definitely no lack of Chinese audio materials. It’s just where to find something that matches your level and interests.

Check your progress and the leaderboard

We live in a KPI-obsessed world. That’s not always a bad thing. The performance chart keeps track of your progress, so you know if you’re on schedule or not. I’d normally never do this kind of thing, but I realized it does help to stay focused on your goal. Plus, it feels reassuring to know you’re on schedule and delivering a solid performance.

Hacking Chinese listening challenge, performance chart
My performance chart: my goal was to do at least 25 hours of Mandarin-listening

There’s an element of competition to it as well. Open the leaderboard and see how you have been performing compared to the others, with the score standing for hours spent listening. It’s not about being the best of course. Far more important is to motivate yourself and others. As you can see everybody did quite well.

Hacking Chinese listening challenge, leaderboard

It worked

By joining this Mandarin Challenge, I studied far more productively than I could have done on my own. I know I can be goal-orientated and self-motivated to a certain degree, but being a part of a group of enthusiastic people with a shared objective felt like shifting gears. It was also refreshing to focus on one language skill for an entire month.

That’s why I am really grateful to Olle Linge from Hacking Chinese for organizing this Mandarin adventure. If you’re interested in participating, you can check the upcoming challenges.

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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.

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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 it is, I gotta admit I’ve been tempted to take the HSK 6 exam myself. Mainly to have a goal to focus on and test my progress since I took HSK 5, three years ago. Back then my biggest problem was reading speed. My reading was so slow that I couldn’t finish the questions in time. I’ve been working on that by reading more often and more extensively, but will it be enough to survive the HSK 6 reading part?

My HSK score, 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.

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Learning Mandarin the low-budget way

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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 a 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 you’re 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 to get that Chinese language input you need. It’s not always easy to find “appropriate input” that you enjoy and understand to some degree, but in my opinion any daily input is better than none. I’m not sure if listening to Chinese music does a lot to improve your mastery of the four tones, but it certainly helps to get a better feeling for the language and acquire new vocabulary.

In this post, I discuss a number of Chinese movie classics that I greatly recommend. Other options are:

  • ifsp.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 or even 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.

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.

Schiller

That all being said, there is no ideal strategy to master Mandarin. You have to find your own way and – one way or the other – determine the budget for your Chinese learning success. Although you certainly should consider the low-budget options, you also might want to invest a certain sum to achieve your goals. Either in apps and tools or in real lessons (or both!).

What do you think of “low-budget learning” for Mandarin Chinese? How far can low-budget options get you? Please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.