In December 2018, I passed the HSK 4 exam (汉语水平考试四级), that is, the fourth of six levels of the official Mandarin Chinese language exam, designed by mainland China’s Confucius Institute. It was my first Chinese language exam and tests advanced beginner competence (four may seem like a high level, but it’s not: exams double in difficulty after every level and even the highest level is only high intermediate). Here, I describe my experience on what spurred me to study Chinese in the first place, my motivational ebb and flow throughout the years, and my experience with the exam.
My first encounter with Mandarin was happened more than a half decade ago ago, while on a trip to Portland, Oregon at Powell’s bookstore, a local haunt. As is my habit, I was rummaging for treasures in a different tongue, comprehensible or not – I can never avoid the “Foreign Languages” section — when a pale, sage green volume from between the shelves caught my eye. Yellow bamboo trees ornamented the front cover and pushed the dark, blotted book title to the fore. Occult calligraphy. Next to it, in the most poorly typeset of Roman characters, the translation: Practical Chinese Reader I.
I folded over the cover and was struck by the scent of cheap paper and smeared ink, musty, reminiscent of third-world country classroom. As I thumbed through, I read an introduction to the Chinese writing system: how Eastern characters are transcribed — the Pinyin system — and how the language is written using a combination of pictograms and abstract strokes representing tones and syllables. The Beijing Language and Culture University Press had composed the book for foreign learners of Chinese in the 1980s, and in an attempt to teach culture with language, had commissioned cartoons of then present-day China. The unabashed communism in the book was hilarious — comrades greeted each other in earnest, along the lines of: Comrade! Please come inside to drink tea! Answer: Thank you, comrade! May I sit?
I was intrigued. What on earth was going on in that country?
It is easier to speak of learning Chinese than to actually do it. The United States Foreign Service Institute classifies it as a “Super-hard language”:
Languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers.
Although the language itself isn’t terribly difficult once you’ve got momentum, the catch with Mandarin is that the writing system, which is necessary for further study, is of considerable difficulty in the beginning. For English speakers, foreign European languages will often have at least the writing system in common, and a strong correlation between sounds one can already approximate, and the Roman alphabet. On top of it, there’s often a shared vocabulary. But English speakers learning Mandarin have to learn everything from scratch. One must learn the writing system, which isn’t an alphabet, but whose characters consist of one of 214 component radicals plus a varying number of strokes; one must learn to write variant forms of those radicals depending on where they’re spatially located in the character, and top it all off, learn a tonal language system overlaid on foreign syllables.
I started as I do with other foreign languages I had learned: listening to audio recordings. If I am to use the language to communicate with people, I should be able to understand and to make myself clearly understood. I believe audio recordings to be exceptionally important in every language, and especially in Mandarin because the language is tonal. To start, I went through Pimsleur Mandarin Chinese I through III. Although the course teaches a strong Beijing accent — whose linguistic hegemony many non-Beijingers contest or find distasteful — it is nevertheless a great springboard for standard Mandarin.
After the records, I tried to use various websites, such as Memrise, to memorize random characters. I gave up in this endeavor. I had no motivation to continue ingesting random symbols into my brain, for the sole purpose of regurgitating them later. I thought I needed to learn how to write the characters, and so bought Tuttle Learning Chinese Characters. It provided a bit of history on different radicals (that is, character components: if you take the character 男, you can decompose it into 田 and 力 and stack them, often one of the radicals convey meaning, and one conveys pronunciation hints, in what is called a phono-semantic compound), as well as the correct writing technique for each of them. Alone, the book was almost as boring as memorizing random characters, but in tandem with the Practical Chinese Reader, it became useful. I would write characters that I had seen in the text, and was able to sustain my interest for a full two weeks.
I learned there were thousands upon thousands of these characters, and that literate Chinese knew a great deal of them. A daunting enough task for children who grew up in China — but for me, a foreigner, madness of the first degree. Being a software engineer by profession and keen to optimize, I decided that the Chinese writing system was too inefficient for my enlightened, Western sensibilities. I told myself I would wait to learn the language once China shaped up and invented a reasonable, syllabic writing system. The mainland government had indeed once previously simplified the writing system, whittling down the complex traditional script still used in Taiwan into simplified symbols that required fewer strokes to write. It improved literacy in the country and was generally applauded. And so, I thought, they had done that once before — perhaps they’d see the light and adopt an alphabet. I could hope, anyway. And so that night, I shut the book on the Practical Chinese Reader forever. Idiots.
Nearly a half decade passed before I thought of Chinese again — that is, apart from my weekly outings to the local Cantonese dim sum restaurant. I decided to live abroad somewhere to expand my cultural horizons. Taiwan beckoned: it had a high standard of living, an amenable visa policy, and was absolutely foreign. I thought I would learn Chinese by absorbing my surroundings, and in the daytime spent most of my day programming at a computer on personal projects. I shied away from the tedious work of writing characters or taking Mandarin classes. When my stint was up and I returned to the US, I had little to show for my Chinese. Instead, I had become something of a gourmet. I may not have been able to write the characters for chicken feet — 鳳爪 — but my ability to scarf the barbecued delicacies down impressed more old Chinese women than my language abilities ever would have.
After my return, it behooved me to focus my attention on another, considerably easier foreign language: German. I had fallen in love with a German woman and felt we would eventually marry — we did — and for the first time in my life, put real effort into learning a foreign language. Despite Mark Twain’s amusing protests, it is a language that is straightforward to learn for English speakers. I didn’t have to rack my brain.
My wife and I eventually moved to Germany, and some time later I passed my German C2 exam. I learned what it took to attain the highest qualification in a foreign language: thousands of hours of work, an attention to detail, and eternal motivation. Mine came from living in the country and wanting to live among Germans, instead of in a expat enclave (a fate that sadly befalls many of my countrymen). I wanted to crack the oyster, to behold the pearl of German literature that writers such as Herman Hesse, Max Frisch, and Patrick Süskind had lovingly deposited over the centuries. And I wanted to understand the world from the European perspective, with the help of German media. These goals allowed me to soberly, relentlessly pursue mastering German.
Years later in mid-2018, with German under my belt, I decided to give Mandarin another go. The Confucius Institute in Berlin proctored Chinese language exams, called the HSK, of many levels — what if I signed up to sit for one? The HSK levels 1 through 3 were trivial with the exposure to the language I had gotten through Pimsleur, writing basic characters, and living in Taiwan. I needed a goal that was challenging but realistic, and so set my sights on the HSK 4. I couldn’t remember how to write any characters, but I was familiar with the system and could still read and understand extremely basic Chinese, to the tune of: How are you? The apple you bought is very delicious. Shall we go to the store tomorrow? The HSK at the lower levels is tested from a finite set of vocabulary, and I knew roughly 80% of the vocabulary from HSK 1 - 3, and perhaps 20% from the HSK 4.
I fired up my trusty spaced-repetition software, Anki, which I had used to memorize German vocabulary when I was around the B2 level. I downloaded readily available Anki decks for HSK 1, 2, 3, and 4, and merged them into a combined deck. I oriented the flashcards so that given the English meaning and Chinese pronunciation, I’d be prompted to write the characters for that word. Often, I had to look up how to write the character in the first place. If I could handwrite the word from memory in the notebook I kept next to me, in correct stroke order, I marked the flashcard as successful. If I trivially confused the stroke order or made minor mistakes, I marked the card as “hard,” and when I missed more than that, I marked the card as “failed.”
I studied about thirty cards per day for three months. It didn’t take very long — a maximum of twenty minutes per night. By the time of the exam, according to Anki statistics, about 70% of the HSK 1-4 vocabulary had “matured” in my brain — that is, I could theoretically write them effortlessly, while 30% remained in a “learning” stage — I could still get them wrong at any given moment, but it was unlikely I’d confuse them if I read them on paper. They belonged to my passive vocabulary.
I used the textbook “Ziel HSK 4”, written for German learners of intermediate Chinese. Simply learning the vocabulary wasn’t interesting enough for me: I needed context around the words for it to be meaningful. It was my intent to do all the exercises in the book, but by the time of the exam, I had only completed about 25% of the book. In the meantime, I had also taken the two parts fo the Coursera HSK 4 course, which was great to improve my listening comprehension and to give me a concise overview of the vocabulary in sentence, but not much else.
For the last few months before the exam, I also met with a Mandarin tutor from Taiwan once a week to check homework and force me to speak in Chinese. My old piano teacher used to tell me: “You don’t pay me to teach you, you pay me to make sure it hurts when you don’t practice.” Following this generous pedagogic mentality, she helped sustain my enthusiasm for the language and correct the many obvious failures I regularly made.
My enthusiasm arises from manifold interests: I’d like to be able to read modern Chinese literature, and to an extent Chinese poetry, which I find both aesthetically beautiful and poignant, yet in a terse way that is difficult to achieve with an alphabetic writing system. An admittedly trite excerpt from the work of the Song-dynasty poet 李之仪 shows what I mean:
In good rhythm and using a grand total of 22 characters, this stanza tells a poignant story of two lovers living at opposing ends of the Yangtze river and dreaming of each other. That’s hard to pull off in a European language.
I’d also like to broaden my perspective on things by being able to consume media from the Orient. Consuming mainly German media for the past two years has shown me that there are such things as national echo chambers, and having more sources paves a better path to being a wise old man one day. And, I’d like to prepare myself for the future. China is a rising nation and investing a lot into science and technology, where I’m active, and I can’t imagine being fluent in Chinese would do anything but broaden my opportunities, much like English education does for non-Anglophones.
Lastly, learning Chinese to high competence will be a continually challenging task, and I like surmounting challenges. Why should life be boring?
I took the exam early one morning in the south of Berlin, on a cold day. I don’t like eating before tests, because I feel like it makes my head fuzzy (it is perhaps apocryphal, but I’ve heard research says the more blood used in digestion, the less available to the brain). I travelled about an hour on the U-Bahn, along the ride trying to prime my brain to operate in Chinese by listening to random recordings from my textbook through my earbuds.
The exam all told took about 90 minutes. Because of lack of availability at the Berlin test center, about four months before the exam I learned I would need to take the paper-based version of the test, so I had to be able to write characters by hand. I despaired. Using a Pinyin IME system allows one to type roman characters on the keyboard and get suggestions in Chinese, which doesn’t train one’s actual ability to write, rather strengthening passive recall. However, I wasn’t completely against learning the characters, because I figured I’d have to swallow that bitter pill one day. Might as well start now.
I started writing characters in my notebook when prompted by flashcards using Anki. I often had to look up stroke orders (and I still make mistakes) and character etymology on Wiktionary to figure out why on earth a character would have that gestalt.
The questions themselves were also easy, but the imposed time constraints made it difficult enough that I never had leftover time at the end of a section. I also found I often got distracted between audio recordings on the 听力 (listening ability) section, and so would miss the key first few seconds of the question. I believe I ended up blind guessing on at least five questions in that section.
In the end, I scored 273⁄300 points, 180 being required to pass. Each of the three sections has a maximum 100 points attainable, but no section has a minimum threshold. I scored 80 on writing, 93 on listening, and a full 100 in reading. Compared to my fellow test-takers at the same location in Berlin on that day (the HSK helpfully publishes such statistics – see the numbers in blue), my writing was below-average, while my listening and reading were above-average.
I think I can attribute my relatively poor writing results to making what I consider to be minor stroke errors. Stroke errors turn out to be egregious to native speakers; for example, if I confuse 第 and 弟, my Chinese teacher shakes her head in disappointment. Also, I often didn’t know exactly how certain words were to be used in context. I learned the HSK 4 vocabulary in a bit of a flurry and while my comprehension is high, my production isn’t that great and can suffer from grammatical abnormalities.
As as an adult, the cumulative vocabulary of the HSK 4 is much too constrained to be able to say anything meaningful about my Chinese prowess — it encompasses after all only 1200 words. I can’t read or listen to any real content from China, and can’t talk about meaningful topics without constantly struggling for a word not in my vocabulary. The most I am willing to claim is: “I can speak some basic Chinese.” The Hanban, official HSK exam publisher, claims the HSK 4 is a B2 level analog in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), however this is universally contested in Europe. The Fachverband Chinesisch e.V. (Association of Chinese Teachers in German Speaking Countries) publicly issued a statement claiming that HSK 4 more accurately represents a much lower, A2 level, and I must say I agree. So, my Chinese is at the A2 level.
Nevertheless, taking the exam was important for me because it forced me to light a fire under my waning interest, rather than letting it smoulder for years as I had done before. The primary difficulty in learning languages is years of slogging through boring material without any reward in sight, and Chinese is no exception. I learned how to write mostly correctly, in the right stroke order, and learned vocabulary fundamentals which I can build upon. The certification may mean nothing to strangers — and certainly nothing to the Chinese, who are in the unfortunate habit of falsely praising every butchered Chinese syllable that comes out of a foreigner’s mouth — but it meant proving to myself that I could put in the work.
Given my test results, I will be making certain modifications to my study plan. First, I’m going to focus a lot more on production rather than simply consumption of Chinese. The next level test, the HSK 5, requires one to write a brief essay for the writing section, and with my current writing ability I’d probably fail outright. So I will be changing my flashcard study habits to prompt me to not only write the character in my notebook, but also to recall the Chinese pronunciation of the word given a rough German definition, and to mentally think of a sentence in which I can use the word. As I now have it, I am prompted with just the first letter of each syllable in the Chinese word (to avoid disambiguation with other vocabulary items, but not to give it away) and the (German) definition. The answer is shown with the full character, an example sentence, and the pronunciation.
In addition, I will simply write more long-form prose in Chinese and have my weekly tutor spend more of her time checking it. Yesterday, I cracked open the textbook for 标准教程五级上 — the first half of the official Standard Course for the HSK 5. Reading through the first article, I can already tell it will respectably augment my vocabulary. The essays are almost interesting — the Beijing Language and Culture University Press does its damnedest to write interesting pedagogic content with a 2500-word vocabulary list, but alas, a few thousand words leave little room to express nuance. The HSK 5 won’t be able to offer the intellectual ambrosia I seek — I have no misconceptions about that — but it is a start.
A brief summary of resources I can recommend up until the HSK 4:
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