Here Comes The Much Dreaded HSK…

Most of us know about the HSK, but how many of us have actually taken it or are aiming to in the future? Our language enthusiast speaks of her qualms and quandaries over the dreaded test.

So, I’ve done it, I’ve finally joined the ranks of those Mandarin language learners, arduously climbing up the HSK ladder. A short introduction might be due here for those of you not familiar with the official world of Chinese language proficiency tests. HSK, short for Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, is a centrally administered (and universally hated) system of testing the language skills of non-Mandarin speakers both in China and abroad. It claims to be able to determine, and thus certify, the learner’s degree of proficiency in an objective and unified manner. There are several steps; the first one merely means that you have a basic grasp of a few everyday phrases, whereas mastering the sixth and highest level should be sufficient for embarking on studies at a Chinese university.

For a long time, I managed to resist the urge of setting an official stamp on my Chinese studies. After all, this is my hobby, something I’m doing just for the fun of it. Why bother with a certificate when I’m as acutely aware as ever of the fact that learning Chinese is a life-long project, a never-ending journey of discovery that magically keeps expanding the further you venture? To be fair, I was also somewhat afraid that the inevitable, if not necessarily logical, pressure that accompanies any exam might detract some of the joy of learning that is so essential to me. So, what made me do it at the end? A fair amount of good old peer pressure, I suppose. But also, a newly awakened curiosity for what I gather is a profoundly different exam system, one with Chinese characteristics.

Why bother with a certificate when I’m as acutely aware as ever of the fact that learning Chinese is a life-long project, a never-ending journey of discovery that magically keeps expanding the further you venture?

To make it just that little bit more exciting, my first attempt at the notorious HSK had to be directly at a vertiginous level 5. It definitely felt like reaching beyond my current grasp, but, I figured, what’s a heaven for otherwise… And so, I embarked on the exam preparation, light-hearted and optimistic to start with, while it still felt like the dreaded D-Day was oceans of time away; increasingly less so as those oceans rapidly evaporated like that in an educational documentary on the effects of global warming.

I’ve heard people complain about the curriculum—full of bookish abstractions and obsolete phrases… And let me tell you, preparing for HSK 5 does involve memorizing a lot of vocabulary of the kind that is not easy to practice in a day-to-day conversation with your friends. Every other text in the mock-exam books start with the phrase “A recent scientific study found out that….” Alternatively, the texts would relay an ancient story with a deep and profound moral, well hidden somewhere beneath a plethora of set phrases and historical references that elude most foreigners. On the bright side, quite often after successfully deciphering the meaning of a particularly complicated piece, I would feel like I had got another glimpse of China: a strange interpretation of the facts here, an unexpected conclusion there, a totally different point of view most of the time.

What bothered me more was the insistence on speed. The time for reading the scientific reports and moralistic fables mentioned above and answering the related questions is strictly limited, so limited in fact that it quickly became obvious to me that there’s no chance I would ever be able to actually read them all. “Am I such an extremely slow reader?” I asked my tutor in horror. But, no, turns out you’re not supposed to read and understand the whole text; browsing for some key words would suffice. That or simply guessing some of the answers. I do of course recognize the usefulness of browsing as a study technique, yet somehow, I can’t help wondering whether the point of taking a language proficiency test is checking my grasp of study techniques. Why not simply give an aspiring test-taker enough time to finish reading the highly educational text snippets?

By now you’re probably wondering how it all went. I’m happy to report that I did pass the exam. No flying colors anywhere in sight, but still, a clear-cut pass. Which is good. It’ll keep me humble and, hopefully, focused on studying on. After all, there’s so much room for improvement…