In the Garage

Studying for the HSK

April 20, 2016 | 9 Minute Read

I realize that I haven't written since the end of February, but I've actually got very good reason -- I've been studying my tail off for the official Chinese language test, the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi 汉语水平考试, better known as the HSK. Although my time in China has been over for almost four months already, I don't want my year there to be for naught. Considering I was more or less a beginner when I first arrived, you could argue that I know I can speak Chinese at a fairly decent level now. However, it was a personal goal of mine to at least reach a solid intermediate level. I even wrote what my goal was in this blog post. My goal wasn't ever so concrete that I specifically said I wanted to take a test, but at the same time, it got me to constantly learn every day while not being in the country.

After leaving Shanghai, I kept saying to myself, "Sure, I'll sign up for the HSK," which is only offered here in Düsseldorf twice per year. I handed in my registration the day before it closed, not wanting to wait until the fall to take it. I had been a bit indecisive which level to take, either HSK3 or HSK4. The main difference is the number of vocabulary words that appear (600 vs. 1200, cumulatively) and the grammatical concepts. I decided to take level 3 because I figured I don't actually need the certificate for anything in particular, e.g. studying at a university or for a job. I'm really glad I decided on level 3 because I soon realized there were a lot of gaps in my vocab and grammar that I needed to fill! So here's how I spent the last few weeks studying.

Learning tools for the HSK

The Tools

After signing up, there were three things I immediately bought:

  • Hefei Huang and Dieter Ziethen's HSK 3 Vorbereitung HSK-Prüfung
  • Quick Study's Mandarin Grammar cheat sheet
  • Quick Study's Mandarin Vocabulary cheat sheet

And there was one additional book that I already owned but used extensively, Tuttle Learning Chinese Charactersby Alison Matthews and Laurence Matthews.

I had bought the Huang book for levels 1 and 2 awhile ago and felt they were organized really well. Level 3 is no different, listing all of the necessary vocabulary at the beginning and going through all required grammatical concepts. Lastly, the book has a ton of exercises exactly like the ones on the test. You might be wondering why I didn't buy a book in English, and that's a fair point. However, living in Germany, there's obviously more material available in German and the range of materials is wider. I've also realized when learning languages, making connections between ones I've already learned helps me remember things more easily. For example, when I was first learning German, I kept referring back to concepts that I had learned in Spanish, rather than connecting back to English. I'm sure this doesn't necessarily work for everyone, but for me, it sort of reinforces what I've already learned (if that makes any sense). I could go off on a tangent about learning languages generally, so I'll save that for another blog entry at some point. However, the Matthews book is actually in English, though I mostly used it to see the stroke order and maybe get some tips on how to remember pronunciation. I didn't use it as is suggested since it wasn't my main guide for studying, but I still highly recommend it for learning Chinese characters.

I bought the two cheat sheets from Quick Study because I had picked up their guide for German grammar when I was learning it and really found it helpful. The sheets just break down necessary concepts in an easy, clear way, though the Mandarin grammar sheet is admittedly much more complicated than the German one. They're good for quick references rather than looking it up in a book and reading everything. Together with the Huang book, reviewing and understanding grammar became a much easier task.

The Process

As with my undergrad and master's thesis, I counted the number of days I had until the test and then calculated how many words per day I needed to study in order to be in good shape. That wound up being about 20 words per day every day (including weekends!) for five weeks, which left me about a week before the test to really make sure I knew what I was doing. I also always leave a buffer for myself because I know on some days, I just can't reach my goal. It sounds like a lot, and yes, on some days it felt that way. But because there are also a lot of words in the list I already know how to read, write, and use (words like I 我, you 你, is 是, student 学生, eat 吃), some days I could "learn" up to 30 words.

Practicing writing

How did I actually review vocabulary? Very old school, to say the least. 8-year-old me would've cried having to do this, but 30-year-old me is more determined and disciplined -- I wrote every single word multiple times with a pencil and paper. Now, as an 8-year-old, I probably would've had to fill an entire page per word to have it stick, but as a 30-year-old, I don't have time for that. Besides which, rather than using four boxes for one word on grid paper, I used one box per word since my handwriting is now much smaller. For new words, I would essentially take a look at it and see the components that comprise it. One example is the wordqí 骑, which means to ride (a bike or horse). I didn't remember encountering this word before, but looking at it, the left side is the radicalmǎ 马, which is the word for "horse," a word that I already knew. The right side consists of two words; on top, we have dà 大, which means "big," and on the bottom we have kě 可, which means "can" or "to be able to." Again, these are also two words that I already knew. By putting all three of these words together in my head, I can imagine and remember the word qí 骑 in terms of writing, reading, and knowing its meaning. Pronunciation (i.e. connecting the sound "qí" to 骑) is my weak point and I basically just repeated it in my head over and over again while I wrote it. Some words were easier to remember than others, but being able to read, write, and know its meaning is 75% of the way there. If I didn't actually know any of the components of a word, I'd look up how to write it. The process of physically writing the words usually took between 45 minutes to an hour every day.

After writing vocabulary, I used my app YiXue Chinese Dictionary to create a list of all the words I needed to know for the HSK3 (quick reminder: I'm a Windows Phone user, and I don't think this app is available on Android or iOS). Before I started writing new ones, I'd review the words from the previous day(s) for about an hour, which basically made vocabulary learning a two-hour affair every day. YiXue has different quizzes with which to study; I basically used the study function to look at the Chinese writing and test myself if I knew how to write it. You can see the character, hide it, write it using your finger, and then make the character appear again to check if you're right or not. I also used the app to go through various timed quizzes like only using the pinyin (romanization) and selecting the corresponding character, or having the English definition and selecting the Chinese character.

Screenshot YiXue Screenshot YiXue

Finally, after my two-hour writing exercise, I'd spend about 30 minutes reviewing grammar. Knowing the format of the HSK, I knew I didn't need to actually do any grammar-specific exercises like on the Test Deutsch als Fremdsprache (official German language test). The point was more to understand how sentences are structured and recognize various signal words that indicate important information (e.g. passive structure, if something is in the past/present/future, etc). A lot of people who study Chinese say the language doesn't have grammar, which isn't really true. Sure, there are no tenses, no articles, no plurals, and no verb conjugation that plague learning western languages. But there is most definitely word order and lots of words that signal all of the things that are "missing" from European languages.

I wound up only doing the listening, reading, and writing exercises in the book about two weeks before the actual HSK. I felt confident that my listening comprehension is fairly good, especially compared to other foreigners who haven't lived in China and would also be taking the test. My reading comprehension is also not so bad; my biggest problem is having the patience of reading through a complete sentence. I actually have also been reading short things fairly regularly on WeChat, whether it's people's updates or articles posted (granted, I don't read entire articles, I usually read the first two or three paragraphs before I decide to move on). So again, I wasn't too worried about it. And writing -- I had a fair bit of that just practicing!

The Test

I took the test five days ago and walking in, I felt a bit nervous. Filling out the answer sheet reminded me of filling out Scantron tests in school. It was almost a flashback to how terrible I was at taking tests in high school, making my mom wait for me for four hours while I took the ACT. But this test was a breeze, only taking an hour and a half of my Saturday afternoon. All of the questions were easier than what I had been practicing in Hefei Huang's book. The only thing that I was a bit skeptical about was the listening comprehension -- it almost sounded as if they had had Siri or Cortana read the test aloud, rather than having actual human beings. Even so, it was very straightforward and much easier to listen to and understand than doing it in Shanghai.

Although I might be saying now that the test itself was quite easy, we'll see how my scores are when they're posted online in five weeks.