From HSK2 to HSK3 – Thoughts on HSK, And The Different Methods of Language Learning

On December 1st I took my HSK2 exam after roughly six months of preparation, I knew beforehand that I would pass, as even months before that I found that I could pass the HSK2 exam, and I had only learned more since then. My test results came back, so how did I do?

Well pretty good. 198/200 is never a bad percentage. I think it shows just how over-prepared I was, and how it’s likely that I should have gone for the next test up – HSK3. Incidentally, I did a practice paper of HSK3 a couple of days ago and found that I had passed with a score of 85% despite having to guess a lot of sentences and not knowing roughly 70 words.

Perhaps there is a growing trend that I have noticed, but still have yet to confirm. By the time you can fully comprehend and understand every single sentence of a HSK exam, you can get roughly 80% in the next test. This happened to me with HSK2 and now HSK3 – however because I am yet to reach this same level of quality with HSK3 I am yet to test this trend, if any of you have experiences like this please let me know. The main factor I see preventing this trend for a lot of people is the reading because HSK3 doesn’t have pinyin. Due to this I’m sure many people will have vastly different experiences, and much like I was, be overwhelmed with the number of new words they are unable to read, yet know once they search them online.

So what did I think of the test? Well from my score it was clear that I was already over prepared – when you understand every word it’s hard to judge the quality of the exam. Also when you make language learning your hobby and do it all the time it’s also hard to judge. Nether-the-less I will try.

The transition from HSK1 to HSK2 feels quite big at first. You notice a lot of grammar that is difficult to comprehend, structures you’ve not seen before and new vocabulary. These additions aren’t too difficult though. Because I keep a record of the words I didn’t know for each test, I know how many words I didn’t know for every past exam paper that I did. In the first one, I didn’t know 56 words. From there it dramatically dropped to 13, 16, 8 and 6, so essentially theirs a lot of repetition and the test is made much easier having studied as much as one past paper.

The vocabulary list from HSK1 to HSK2 likely should increase more than this, I don’t think it’s a sign of a good test.

To give a comparison, most recently, in my HSK3 practice paper, there were 71 words that I didn’t know. This amount isn’t so bad, despite the fact that it’s a longer test, but if it were to drop dramatically I think that would be a bad thing, as an easy test is pointless.

However to give the test credit, I believe you have to have some level of knowledge in the language unlike HSK1 which you could reasonably pass by cheating and just learning a small amount of words.

I’m just thinking about the huge difference in the nature of test candidates between HSK1 and HSK2. As generally the Chinese language is not taught in schools, for a long time it must only have been properly serious candidates that take the exam. That it people who generally want to learn the language, and potentially learn on their own online or have a tutor. I don’t believe that the HSK was really ready for candidates who don’t give a shit.

When I first took the HSK1 two years ago (when I didn’t give a shit) it was with a class of people who had 6 two hour long Chinese lessons, and most of us didn’t care, me included. We would go to the lessons, listen, not really make any special effort to try and learn any of it, then prepare so that we didn’t fail the exam. When we were in these lessons our notebooks were key, we would rely on them. Instead of learning for ourselves, when the teacher came around to ask us a question we would always just use our textbooks. This is the kind of learner I don’t really think HSK is designed to combat, and also a kind of learner that is very obviously not trying to learn well.

Granted, if you go to a lesson your sure to learn a lot eventually, and if you prepare hard on your own to pass the test through doing past exam papers and using SRS software I suppose it’s fair enough that you pass. It just seems, for HSK1 at least, that these kinds of learners still have a really good chance of passing.

Let’s take the HSK2 exam, for these types of learners, I think they could pass, but with a much higher difficulty. So it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

However I am really unaware of who is taking the HSK2 exam, is it only serious language learners or are there courses that strongly recommend that people take it? I’m unsure.

You could argue that HSK1 is a kind of “get you through the door” kind of test, something incredibly basic which once passed makes you feel a small level of accomplishment to motivate you to study more. If HSK1 is indeed that test (which I think it’s likely to be) then HSK2 serves as a high step up for those who don’t care, and much more of a natural progression of what you were doing previously for anyone seriously learning.

I think it must be designed to be like this. You can quite quickly, within a short amount of time pass both of these exams, and in terms of motivating people to progress, that’s quite a good thing. As HSK3 is a larger step up (Since it removes pinyin) already having two HSK’s done and sorted makes the preparation for that exam more bearable.

What I like about all of the HSK’s I’ve studied for so far to be honest is the way that it fits in with your natural progression of learning a language. I personally use HSK, not as a goal, but as a measure of the level of the language I have currently.

So for me, I would never prepare for a HSK exam beyond doing the past papers and learning everything I didn’t know. The past papers are a useful resource and in many cases it would be a shame not to use them.

What I’ve found is that the grammar structures within these exams more or less appear in the same order that you learn it while studying on your own. I’ve noticed some cases where things I learned very early, before even HSK1 didn’t appear until HSK3, however on the whole, it keeps the simple grammar first and slowly adds in the harder stuff later in line of what you should be learning.

I know not many people will have the same experiences as me, but it makes me happy when I see the structures that I’ve learned on my own show up in the new tests that I am studying.

So should you take this exam? I would say it depends. Ultimately passing one low level exam is nowhere near the end goal of fluency, however if you can gain some use from it, such as proving to yourself the level of skill you have in the language, or proving to other people such as family or employers then I’d say it’s a good thing to do.

I would however also say, having made the step from HSK2 to HSK3, that it feels very similar to the step from HSK1 to HSK2, even though it doesn’t feel that way at first. After you pass HSK2 you might attempt the reading section of HSK3 and feel like the world is ending, but you’d be surprised by how fast you can learn how to words if you already know their pinyin counterpart.

I personally will be taking the HSK3 exam in a months time, mostly to see how much I can push myself further and to see how far I can go from 85% in just a month but also so I can talk about it and tell other people. I’ve heard that it gets significantly harder after HSK3, however the simple fact that you’ve passed half of the HSK tests can never be a bad feeling.

Recently I’ve been getting more impatient with my language, which is to say that simply studying it and learning grammar doesn’t feel like enough for me. So now I’ve taken to watching Chinese drama’s in Chinese with Chinese subtitles as I want to engage more with my target language. It’s not easy, however re-watching programs that you’ve seen already just with subtitles in a different language makes comprehension much easier. You know roughly what they’re talking about already so the worry of missing things is practically gone.

I’m not going to pretend that watching Chinese programs is easy for me, it’s incredibly difficult. However once you’ve achieved a certain level in the language you can always understand just slightly more than you think you can.

In a single 45 minute episode I will maybe understand maybe about 50 complex sentences as well as many basic expressions. This is not very much in comparison to the length of the episode, however it’s all good practice. And overall, passing a test can never beat the feeling of accomplishment you get when you fully understand a complicated fluent sentence in your target language.

The drama that I am watching currently I also tried to watch just in Chinese much earlier when I was studying the language, it genuinely feels amazing to me, and fills me with such immense pride, when I now understand scenes that I completely failed to comprehend previously.

I am lucky enough to have a wonderful Chinese girlfriend, so potentially for me it’s easier as when we’re watching a show in Chinese I can just ask her if theirs something I’m curious about or find difficult to understand. However I feel like switching to these kinds of methods would be more fulfilling for most learners who at the stage I am at currently. I never thought I would find myself genuinely excited for, and looking forward to watching the next program of a show most of which you don’t understand, because the moments that you do understand feel amazing. As this method of learning is recent to me, that feeling has not faded yet, if/when it does theirs sure to be another post about it.

I think there are plenty of resources online for learning Chinese, largely as a consequence of HSK. Sure, many people will want to learn Chinese anyway, however without a proficiency test with many different levels such as this many would lack motivation to continue, as well as that, test papers and books created by the organisations that make these tests I’m sure has helped people invaluably. I am just happy and grateful that there were enough resources to get me to this point where I feel comfortable beginning to try and watch dramas and read articles in Chinese.

I plan to try something called LingQ which is spaced repetition software where the words are added based on articles you read in Chinese. If you don’t know a word it gets added to the spaced repetition software and you can try to learn it. This kind of platform appeals to me so much, because at the end of the day the whole reason why your learning the language in the first place is so that you can use it and engage with it.

These methods, to me at least seem to be far more interesting ways of learning the language from here. Granted, I cannot fully confirm that it does work, even though many polyglots and language learners have mentioned these methods, perhaps I’m just not ready for them yet, or perhaps I lack the time to fully invest in trying to learn through these methods. Regardless, I’m sure my old traditional methods will always have a place, yet if I’m able to learn through these methods I will be much happier.

I hope to comment and make more posts about HSK3 and these new methods that I would like to try to help me learn the language better. In the meantime, I wish you all the best with your language learning journey.

 

 

 

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