In December 2019, I took the HSK 5 exam (汉语水平考试五级), which is the fifth of six levels of the official Mandarin Chinese language exam. I took it exactly one year after the previous, fourth level. There wasn’t a computer version offered at the Berlin testing center anyway (since Germans are allergic to the electronic form), but more importantly, I took the pen-and-paper version because handwriting characters is more challenging.
The exam booklets are sent to China and take around four weeks to grade. However, the Coronavirus outbreak in early 2020 paralyzed some of China’s workforce, apparently including officials who grade language exams from foreigners. So, I received my results about three months later, in early March.
The HSK 5 supposedly corresponds to the CEFR C1 proficiency level, although in Europe, the HSK’s self-classification is disputed and realistically corresponds to B2 proficiency. According to this source, B2 demonstrates “the capacity to achieve most goals and express oneself on a range of topics”, whereas C1 demonstrates
The ability to communicate with the emphasis on how well it is done, in terms of appropriacy, sensitivity and the capacity to deal with unfamiliar topics. Can deal with hostile questioning confidently. Can get and hold onto his/her turn to speak.
I certainly don’t feel at the C1 level in Mandarin now, rather, B2.
Here I describe my exam preparation over the 11 months between January and December 2019, and my exam results and experience.
My motivation in continuing to the HSK 5 from the HSK 4 was enter the big leagues of Mandarin Chinese. I do not live in China and observe Eastern goings-on from afar, but am fascinated by the Chinese language. The level 5 test is, in my opinion, the first difficult exam (albeit some of its difficulty is artificial – more on that later) in the HSK series. It opens doors to government scholarships for study in China, is often required for employment by Chinese companies, and separates the dabblers from the devotees.
Passing the HSK 5 gives a reasonable guarantee of quality Mandarin, which is important in these times. Nowadays, everyone who did a semester abroad in Beijing writes that they can speak business Chinese in their LinkedIn Profile. Dare I say it: Chinese has become cool! Everyone’s doing it. Chinese Americans who loathed going to Chinese school in their childhood have rekindled their efforts with their third-generation children. Even American elementary school students of no Chinese descent whatsoever are learning Mandarin, in a land where fraternizing with the Chinese amounts to social treason.
I work full-time and I have a family, which take precedence over language learning. I had a maximum of about one hour per day, more on weekends, to learn Chinese. Those are precious few instructional hours. I estimate I spent 400 to 500 hours after the HSK 4 before taking the HSK 5.
Time constraints can spur one to be highly focused with the time one has. When I studied Chinese, I studied Chinese. Nothing else: no YouTube, no computer. Being focused in your endeavors is important and perhaps obviously so, but it bears repeating.
Also, 500 self-study hours are worth more than 500 classroom hours. You might think: that’s only 12 weeks of intense classroom instruction! Correct. But, first of all, languages take time to percolate into the brain, so I’d rather have hours spread out over a year than over a quarter.
Secondly, well, there’s no easy way to say this: classroom language learning is a waste of time. Listening to other students’ bad pronunciation and ill-prepared questions, and having to follow a learning plain tailored for the lowest-common-denominator is something a focused language student should avoid. You know thyself; tailor your instruction around your constraints and needs.
However, if you’re self-studying, it’s all the more essential to check your language production and progress with a native Chinese teacher. I met with my Mandarin teacher once a week for one hour. My teacher, although from Taiwan, where they use the Traditional Chinese script, conducted our sessions entirely using simplified Chinese materials. Her main contribution was giving me essay prompts, and correcting my essays after I read them aloud to her.
I structured my exam preparation in three parts: for the first three months, I focused on learning new characters and words since the HSK 4. The official HSK 4 list is 1200 words, and the HSK 5 list is 2500, so there are 1300 new words to learn, and according to Huamake about 180 new written characters. However, these lists are just a guideline, as on the exam there are no restrictions on what vocabulary will be used.
My rationale was to “front-load” all of the new characters and words, and then naturally over the course of the year see them again in context. I created an Anki deck of all the HSK 5 words and practiced writing them on paper with correct stroke order. There are apps to do this, like Skritter, but I stare at a screen at work all day long and so appreciate the chance to feel pen and paper again.
After a few months, I could draw characters with around 99% stroke order accuracy. By cramming characters and their stroke orders, I learned to recognize them in text and write them. But, I didn’t yet truly understand how to use the words in context, because I hadn’t see them in context often enough. Sure, the flashcards would prompt me to recite the definition, but that’s insufficient for learning to reproduce natural language. Context is key.
I’m still happy I spent the initial months solely studying characters and vocabulary. At the B2 level I prefer mass-learning a set of vocabulary to kick-start my reading level than to organically accumulate them over time. Afterwards, there’s always time to start reading those words in context to truly bring them into long-term memory.
During the summer months I read various pedagogical material. I started with the official Hanban HSK 5 series, which has a 上 (Part I) and a 下 (Part II) textbook with a book for exercises. It was difficult for me get engaged with the content, which was often absurd or juvenile. I gave up around the series about halfway through the Part I.
Thankfully, around this time I found a purveyor of fine Chinese instructional materials, Purple Culture, which ships books from Hong Kong to all over the world. They can procure any learning material you can think of. As an aside, they have great customer service and will send you MP3 files if the included book CDs don’t work! I rummaged around their website for a while and selected textbooks at random.
Through buying random books, I found some real gems. For example, the Erya series book “Contemporary Chinese Literature” is stellar. It summarizes the life and work of great contemporary Chinese authors, many of whom we’ve never heard of in the West, in beautiful prose. The reading level is advanced; more like HSK 6+, but it’s worth the effort.
In general, I worked through the textbooks that I bought sequentially so as not to distract myself. Slow, steady, and focused is how language learning is done, although reading long-form Chinese at this level is a slog. I would underline or circle on paper any words or terms I did not know, which lead to desecration of the margins:
I had convinced myself earlier that the Chinese couldn’t possibly have a character for everything, because logically nobody would be able to memorize them. Ergo, at the advanced levels of Chinese, learning would be get easier. My wishful thinking led me to the conclusion that erudite Chinese simply operate with a smaller vocabulary. Wrong! There are characters for phosphorous (磷) and platinum (铂), and there are Chinese idioms that use characters rarely seen elsewhere (一蹴而就). Many Chinese towns have characters for their names that are one-time occurrences. One must simply bear this cross.
Around month 8 I got antsy and worried I would fail the exam. I bought ten practice HSK 5 exams and took one exam per week for about ten weeks. However, I didn’t do this optimally, because I split up the sections on different weekdays. For example, I’d do the reading section on Monday, the listening section on Wednesday, the writing section on Thursday, and then set aside a day on the weekend to review the answers. I also failed to time myself. This method was to my detriment, as during test time I was neither prepared to take the sections together, nor for the exam’s significant time pressure.
Below is a picture of how I would review the material in my testing booklets. I reviewed vocabulary I did not know and augmented them with practice sentences from a dictionary. In retrospect, I think copying sentences from a dictionary did little to improve my knowledge. My time would have been spent reading.
I had problems understanding Mandarin at speed, so I bought a book with 30 days’ worth of practice audio questions (see Resources). Although this acquainted me better with the HSK 5 audio questions, crucially, the audio was all at the same speed as the audio in the exam, and therefore did not over-prepare me as I would have liked. If you’re training for a competition, you need to over-prepare so everything is easy at test time!
Later, I analyzed some HSK 5 listening section samples, and discovered that narratives in the test are spoken at around 210 characters per minute. Fast native Chinese in broadcasts or talk shows, based on other materials I analyzed, are delivered at 300 - 340 characters/min. That’s 50% faster than in the exam. Had I practiced with native, up-to-speed audio, I would have blown past the the HSK 5 listening portion at test time. Check out this comparison and you will immediately notice the difference:
HSK 5 Dialogue speed:
Native content speed:
For the writing section, my teacher corrected my essays, but I also messed up in my methodology here. I should have timed myself during their writing, but I did not. I also used a dictionary as a crutch to write elaborate essays (in response to absurdly simple test essay prompts). In hindsight, this was counterproductive. I should have constrained myself to testing conditions.
I took the exam in a small university room in Berlin, with six students proctored by two Chinese docents. Nobody took the highest level, the HSK 6, during that sitting, and when I asked why, they said “Guess nobody had the courage! You can do it next time!” After the docents proofed our identity, we sat down and were handed a test booklet. We had time at the end of each section to copy our answers over to the answer sheet, but, as we say in German, the whole process was ereignislos, uneventful.
I scored in sum 227 out of 300 possible points, which is not terrible. It’s 19 points over the average in my testing session and 47 points over the passing grade of 180, but also lower than my target of 250. In comparison, my HSK 4 results were much closer to ideal at 274 of 300. I felt this exam to be much harder, even in relation to the amount of language learning I did in preparation for it. Below are my online test results:
Although the test is only moderately difficult in content, time pressure makes it artificially hard. Is that reasonable? I contend not.
I took the C2 exam in German and never felt time pressure. In that exam, either I knew the answer or I did not, but whatever the case, I had a moment to think. In this Chinese exam I was fighting for time the whole way, as if being able to answer questions under pressure has any relation with language ability. I’m not surprised there was significant time pressure, as Chinese testing culture is all about bending the candidate to one’s will. See the Imperial examinations of antiquity, and the Gaokao of today.
The the HSK 5 reading section, one has 40 minutes to solve 45 questions, which is on average 53 seconds per question. I just tried to correctly solve this random multiple-choice question (from a past HSK 5 exam), and it took me exactly 53 seconds after double-checking my answer:
Admittedly, the vocabulary and content of that question aren’t hard. But, during a high-pressure exam, a set of 45 similar questions could overwhelm a test-taker whose reading level is marginally above the testing level. Plus, test takers need to sweat, wipe their sweat off of the exam paper, break the pencil lead, re-sharpen it, blow off the pencil shavings and admire their graceful swirling before being ripped back into testing consciousness at least every ten minutes. At least, that’s what happens to me.
To be able to sail through the test, I think one’s competence level has to far surpass that of the HSK 5, so kudos to those who have done it.
The listening section was easy, per design, in the beginning. The first questions of this section are the first in the test overall, so warming up the test-taker gradually is a good idea.
The first 20 question in Part I of the listening section went smoothly. However, at around question 30 in the second section, the situation worsened. The words from the speakers pounded my skull and I found myself in a mental quagmire, unable to parse spoken Chinese.
The stories and aphorisms typically told in this section went in one ear and out the other, and I’m fairly certain I scored zero points from questions 30 to 45, unless Fortuna took pity on my harried circling. It turns out if one doesn’t pass these sections in the comfort of one’s living room, one sure as hell will not pass them under time pressure. Caveat auditor.
Reading went by painlessly. I had read a lot in Chinese over the year, but usually with a slow, critical eye, circling all oddities, new words, and grammatical points I wanted to spend time on later. Thus, I was surprised to find that under time pressure I was able to speed read small paragraphs. My highest score across the three sections was on this section.
I nevertheless felt pressed for time during the reading portion, and barely finished the last question within the time allotted. Speed-reading all 45 questions overheated the circuits in my brain and may have caused lasting damage, which manifested in the writing portion that came next.
The writing section is where I scored the poorliest. See, I can’t write anymore.
Some of the difficulty was self-inflicted, since I opted to take the handwritten version of the test. Most foreigners consider this masochism, whereas most Chinese consider this to be the bare minimum you could do to meet cultural expectations.
The goal is to write several paragraphs in Chinese. My normally faulty memory became craterous. Under the time pressure I found myself frantically writing malformed characters, erasing them, and re-writing them in novel, yet equally hideous ways.
For example, I distinctly recall writing the word 危险 (i.e. danger) as 脆检 (laughably nonsensical; “crispy + inspect”). Compare them line-by-line:
危险 (danger) 脆检 (crispy inspect)
They both are partially right, in that each of the characters contains the main radical: 危 and 佥, respectively, but the entire ideogram is made absurd by my addition of incorrect left radicals.
I simply couldn’t muster the correct characters in the test setting. I’m not sure if the testing committee grades those as spelling mistakes or grave crimes against the Chinese language, but my barely passing score speaks for the latter, mediated by a merciful panel of judges.
I walked out of the exam room disappointed by my writing performance, and to a lesser extent my listening performance. In the listening section, at times I just didn’t know what they were talking about, and there’s no cure for that except more significantly more input. I felt worse about the writing section because I hadn’t been strict enough with myself while writing essays over the year, since I had always had a dictionary on-hand. But at least the reading section was the silver lining.
I was sure I had failed and was upset for a day afterwards. But, over time I pushed it out of my mind and three months later got my passing score. A sigh of relief. I never planned to do anything with the certification – it was simply for holding myself accountable and measuring my own progress objectively – but I am happy I did it.
Below is a brief summary of resources I can recommend for preparing for the HSK 5 (assuming knowledge at the HSK 4 level), as well as some resources I purchased but don’t recommend.
Good luck, and see you at the end boss stage. The HSK 6! Wait, are we really going to do that to ourselves? 当然！加油！
Berlin-based. Write me, auf Deutsch oder in English.
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