Taking HSK 2

When I was growing up, I did a lot of exams. School exams – SATs, GCSEs, A-Levels, end of year exams, mock exams – as well as extracurricular exams. When I was 15 I took Grade 8 violin, Grade 8 ballet and Grade 6 piano. A lot of exams!

By the time it came to my postgraduate exams, I knew how to revise for essay based exams but faced a new horror: Chinese exams. I was so stressed revising for my final exams, studying endless hanzi that immediately flew out of my memory, and trying to understand grammatical concepts that had only been explained to me in Chinese.

Fast forward nearly a decade and I decided to do another Chinese exam. Partly because we’re moving to China and I wanted to have a piece of paper proving that I knew some Chinese, partly because having a set date to revise for would force me to study even if I didn’t feel like it. I signed up online for the HSK level 2 exam at my old university.

HSK is an test administered by the Chinese government. It can be taken all around the world and passing different levels allows you to study at Chinese universities or – coming soon – gain points in the new resident permit grading system. Previously there were 11 levels, attainable through three exam papers. The highest level was known to be insanely hard. In 2010 the exam was restructured and now there are six levels, each with their own paper.

I was confident that HSK 2 would be achievable, as all the vocabulary would be revision. I downloaded the Anki app on my phone, then the vocab needed, and started working my way through. Anki is an SRS tool – spaced recognition software – where you see flashcards and test yourself on the vocab. If you know the word, great, you’ll see it again in a little while. If you don’t know then you see it a lot sooner. I ploughed through the 600 flashcards needed.

Along with revising vocab, I started reading a bit more. I have some graded readers from the Chinese Breeze series, and I read one called “I really want to find her”. It’s impressive that it’s possible to tell a story using only 300 characters but my goodness it’s an inane story.

All this didn’t stop me panicking a week before the exam and worrying that I couldn’t write every character on the test perfectly. I downloaded a couple of mock exams and realised that HSK 2 didn’t need any writing at all; it was multiple choice, yes/no or fill in the blank answers. I scored 45/60 and 50/60 in two mock exams, which put my mind at ease a little.

It was snowing on the morning of the exam, and I wrapped up warm and headed to SOAS. There were a few people standing outside the exam room, and we all ignored each other. Once in the exam room, our cheery invigilator greeted us and asked if we had 2B pencils to fill in the answer sheet. No one had the correct pencil and he went to fetch us some spares. The answer sheet looked complicated, you had to block out little squares indicating your response, not just for the answers but for your name and candidate number and so on. I could feel myself getting a little stressed but the invigilator was helpful.

And then… it began. The first part of the exam is listening. I took a deep breath and tried to stay calm, but I didn’t understand the very first part of the very first question and immediately felt like quitting. More deep breaths and I got to grips with the rest of it.

Some of the questions are quite hard because I feel it’s a bit ambiguous – for example, one section has pictures of activities and you have to say whether what you hear matches the picture or not. So if you hear a dialogue about drinking a cup of tea, and there’s a cup and saucer, but it doesn’t look like tea inside, it doesn’t really look like anything as the picture is black and white and pixelated…

Once the listening part was over I moved on to the reading section. I’m better at reading than listening (I think, anyway) and it was fairly straightforward but also a few slightly unclear questions.

I finished with 8 minutes to go (the exam is 50 minutes long) and watched the invigilator looking out of the window at the falling snow.

On the way I bought a hot chocolate and downloaded the vocab for HSK 3. Maybe I’m going to get back into doing exams.


Learning Chinese

At the beginning of my second year at university, I got an email from the department administrator saying that all History students should be able to speak other languages and they would therefore pay for us to take courses at the Language Centre. I decided to take Chinese, as I’d enjoyed reading about Chinese history in my first year, and fancied something different to the French and German I already spoke. My Chinese teacher was an older lady from Taiwan, who insisted that we wrote characters beautifully and didn’t like us making jokes.

In third year I carried on with Chinese, with a different teacher, although he was also from Taiwan. I even wrote a poem in Chinese!

By the time I went back to uni to do my MA a year later, I’d forgotten a lot of Chinese and really struggled in my Chinese classes. My teacher was Song Laoshi, and he wore slippers to class and openly laughed at us. He was very keen on grammar and sometimes made borderline racist comments but we loved him. We also had another teacher who we fell out with spectacularly as she wouldn’t explain something to one of my classmates, who didn’t understand but wasn’t just being difficult. I spent many, many hours in the university library copying out characters but I found it really hard.

Since graduating from my MA I’ve been to China three times, and have taken a year’s worth of evening classes. I did a language exchange for a year or so too but ended up speaking English a lot.

However this year I’m moving to China. I’ve accepted a job at a school in Shanghai, starting in March. I’m panicking a little about my Chinese – I haven’t spoken it in so long!

There’s a standardised test run by the Chinese government, which has 6 levels. I am confident with all the vocab in level 1 and know most of level 2. So to focus the mind, I’ve entered the exam for level 2, which I’ll take in February.

I have two very useful apps on my phone – Pleco (a dictionary) and AnkiDroid (a tool for memorising information, which I’m using to drill vocab for the exam). I’m reasonably sure that by the time the exam comes round I’ll be fine with all of the vocabulary.
Who knows what my Chinese will be like by the end of the year! I’m hopeful that moving to China will be really helpful for my spoken Chinese, which is really poor thanks to spending so much time studying grammar. I’d also like to break some of my bad learning practices, namely my fear of making mistakes. It’s okay to get things wrong (must keep telling myself this…).