Editor’s note: The majority of foreigners who come to China are familiar with the HSK, even if they’ve never taken it themselves. The test, which is proof of one’s Chinese proficiency, can be taken in various levels with each level more difficult than the next. Recently, the HSK 6 – a notoriously difficult-to-pass level – has come under fire for being too difficult. But are the complaints justified?
On March 22, the Hanban Confucius Institute opened a new Chinese Proficiency Test (HSK) Center in Shaanxi’s Xi’an Jiaotong University School of Continuing Education. This grand opening came hand in hand with the unveiling of a less desirable side of the HSK.
Understanding the HSK
The director of the International Chinese Language Examination Center, Zhang Qiumin, said that the new HSK test is mainly for foreign students studying abroad in China. These students are learning Chinese at a university or planning to enter a university to take courses in Chinese.
“The domestic equivalent of the HSK is the College English Test (CET). The HSK is the Chinese version of the CET,” said Zhang Qiumin. A satiric version of the Chinese CET recently circulated on the Internet in China, showing that many Chinese Netizens are interested in how the test works. Luckily, the real test is not as strange as the satirized “spoof,” version.
He Yangyang, a language instructor at the University of Electronic Science and Technology in Xi’an, noted that for ordinary Chinese people, the HSK 6 is not a hard exam at all. The test is equivalent to a junior high school language exam. The questions aren’t terrifyingly difficult, however the test still requires a substantial amount of background knowledge and a high level Chinese language skills.
Students usually test at level three or four
Zhang Jihong, a Chinese teacher at Xi’an Jiaotong University’s ICA International Language Northwestern Testing Center, spoke on the structure of the HSK. The new recently updated HSK test is divided into six levels. The first level tests very basic beginner knowledge while the sixth level tests advanced proficiency. At each level of the exam, the time and content are different. Zhang Jihong explained that the HSK 1 and HSK 2 are divided into listening and reading sections and test 150-300 of the most commonly used characters and grammar structures. The HSK 3 and HSK 4 include listening, reading and writing and test 600-1200 characters and grammar structures. The HSK 5 and HSK 6 are also divided into listening, reading and writing sections and test 2500-5000 commonly used words and grammar structures.
“The average student studying Chinese will take the HSK 3 or the HSK 4. At this level, students will be able to have basic everyday conversations. Some students who would like to use Chinese professionally will take the HSK 5 or HSK 6. However the pass rate on these tests is relatively low,” said Zhang Jihong. A student’s HSK score is valid for two years and has no relation to or impact on their degree, diploma or certificate course. A passing grade is merely proof of Chinese proficiency for foreign students studying in Chinese universities. In addition to foreign students, Chinese ethnic minorities studying in Chinese universities can also take the exam. Those who pass receive a “Chinese Proficiency Certificate,” for the appropriate level.
Students say the HSK 6 is too difficult
“I already use Chinese professionally, and I still found this exam to be way too difficult!” said Li Ming (Chinese name), a student from Turkey on the Shaanxi Normal University campus. Li Ming is a 20 year old student studying Chinese at Shaanxi Normal. He has been studying for three years in China. “After I had been here for about a year, I took the HSK 5 exam and did not pass. Six months later, I took it again and passed,” said Li Ming. He said that last year some of his classmates had taken the HSK 6 and the results were “just appalling.”
After he heard his classmates talk about the exam he felt that it was too difficult and abandoned his original plan to take the test. Li Ming said, after studying Chinese for three years, there are still many places where he needs to improve and study further. “Even when you say the same thing with different tones, it means something different!” he exclaimed. “I also once found 46 HSK 6 level questions online, but I know that the actual test is much harder. Tests are supposed to gauge one’s level or proficiency, not become a dead end,” Li Ming added.
Can you handle the HSK 6?
Below are some example questions from the listening section of the HSK 6. Have your friend read them out loud for you to test yourself. Is your Chinese good enough to pass? (Translations included). Beware, the actual test also includes Classical Chinese, fill in the blank vocabulary, tricky grammar and listening questions much harder than these!
Listening Exam Questions:
A. 小明B. 小强C. 小红D. 曹操
Xiao Ming and Xiao Qiang are talking about Xiao Hong. At this moment, Xiao Hong comes over. Xiao Ming says to Xiao Qiang, “Speak of Cao Cao and Cao Cao arrives” (A version of speak of the devil and he doth appears, referring to Cao Cao from Three Kingdoms).
Question: Who has arrived?
A. Xiao Ming
B. Xiao Qiang
C. Xiao Hong
D. Cao Cao
Why this is a hard question: Students would have to recognize the Cao Cao idiom and therefore be familiar with Three Kingdoms.
A biologist and an economist go for a walk in the woods. They suddenly come across a big black bear. The economist turns to run away. The biologist tells him, “Do not run away, we cannot outrun a black bear.” The economist begins to run away and calls to the biologist, “I may not be able to outrun a black bear, but I can outrun you!”
A. They are at the zoo
B. They come across a tiger
C. The biologist is dizzy with fear
D. The economist is continuously running
Why this is difficult: Vocabulary! If students miss one word, for example, “woods,” or “black bear,” then the answers will be confusing. Students will most likely focus more on trying to figure out “economist,” and “biologist,” which do not matter as much in the end.
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Learning the Chinese language is very much the same with English...it takes a lot of practice. If your read, write and speak it daily your language proficiency will improve. Just as we say of our students, if they study only when they are in school, it will take a long time to get it right. Chinese has the added difficulty in the four tones, get the tone wrong and the entire meaning is off.
Mar 31, 2014 00:36 Report Abuse
I have heard that the opposite about the HSK6, that it is actually not that difficult. German language schools have said that passing the HSK 6 is too easy in comparison to other language tests it is said to be equivalent to in terms of language proficiency. I apologise for not having the link for you. Nor would I say the vocabulary of the second example is difficult. I disagree you would need to be familiar with the three kingdoms era to understand question 1, it just requires common sense. I would like to know who wrote this article. The tone sounds rather familiar, mahjong is too hard, Chinese language is too hard for foreigners, Chinese history is so much harder to understand than the history of other countries. No.
Mar 31, 2014 09:46 Report Abuse
I have a level 6 and passed the first time around with barely any preparation. I'm not bragging, I'm just saying a university student can pass it. 3 years on a language course (which is what Li Ming is obviously doing) is useless. 3 years on a degree course and you will have decent Chinese. If I took it now I would probably fail because my daily use of Chinese is nothing like what it was when I was at uni. I would need to study hard to take it now. Take for example the Cao Cao question. It is a very VERY commonly used saying which is the equivalent of "speak of the devil...". Anyone learning Chinese to a decent level should know who Cao Cao is, should at least know of the Three Kingdoms, and should know this saying. The listening part of the exam is actually the easiest because there is a set time limit and pace. The other sections are really rushed. I've seen much harder English exams.
Mar 31, 2014 09:49 Report Abuse
I have HSK6 and I passed it in May 2013 after having studied Chinese for 4,5 years (from which a bit more than 3 years in China). The new HSK exam is easier than the old HSK exam that used to have 11 levels. The HSK6 is now the highest level possible in the official Chinese proficiency test and I think that more higher level tests are needed. I still have so much to learn about the Chinese language and having HSK6 doesn't necessarily mean you are fluent in Chinese. The first example questions is actually very easy as the saying 说曹操曹操就到 is very common and advanced students should know it without having read the Three Kingdoms. For more information how the HSK correlates with CEFR the take a look here: http://www.fachverband-chinesisch.de/sites/default/files/FaCh2010_ErklaerungHSK.pdf
Mar 31, 2014 11:29 Report Abuse
These questions are so easy! The first one is the English equivalent of "speak of the devil." You don't exactly need to be familiar with scripture to understand the meaning. The second question is a little more difficult but still reasonable for level 6. And it's also easy to eliminate 2 of the choices as they're obviously wrong.
Apr 03, 2014 14:14 Report Abuse
Agreed, these questions are very simple. According to yaxuefang's link (thanks for the link, even though it's in German, the table is easy to understand), HSK6 is equivalent to B2 in CEFR. That's not even considered advanced. Anyway, Chinese proficiency is dictated by usage, the test only helps you get your foot in the door.
Apr 04, 2014 10:35 Report Abuse
I don't understand how people are complaining about the HSK. Compare HSK 6 with Academic IELTS 9 and you'll see a great difference! The new HSK is really easy, you just have to study. BTW, I only passed level 5 yet I understood both examples written above, just to prove my point.
Apr 05, 2014 22:42 Report Abuse
Free resources for HSK learning is plentiful and some of them, very effective. From websites like mdbg.net to free android apps like HSK Locker, at the end of the day, its all about the student willing to put himself through the hoops to get to level 6. For me, it was more difficult learning pronunciation than the meaning so I try to do the simple things like listening to chinese songs and watch chinese movies whenever I can. What matters is persistance ultimately (I am at about Lvl 5 at the moment, and I'm learning mostly for self growth rather than for the test). The next step for me once i learn to read and understand the 5,000 words is to start writing basic characters. I've forgone that completely in my lvl 1- lvl 5 learning just to get the ball rolling. I don't see any point making it more difficult than it already is and just start by learning how to read.
Oct 15, 2014 11:13 Report Abuse
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