Although Chinese has been my “to-learn language” for several years, I haven’t been able to improve much simply because my level of motivation was not that high.
Having known myself, I knew I was not going to take actions to establish my Chinese study habit quite soon, so I just found registration info on the exam called “HSK”, and before thinking too much, I signed up for it and paid, so there would be no way but to study for passing.
The deadline was in 1 month, which was descent timeline (as opposed to X years). In this entry, I am sharing my journey, including what HSK is, why I took and how I worked on to pass it in 1 month.
What is HSK
Simply put, HSK (Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì or 汉语水平考试) is an international Chinese (Mandarin) language test organized by the Ministry of Education in China.
It is used for studying aboard, proving language skill for job recruitment, and self improvement (my case).
As shown in the below table, there are six levels, 1 as the easiest and 6 as the most difficult. It “tries” to align with Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), although some other CFER languages might not be exactly the same (e.g. French and Germany) .
What I took this time was the level 3. This means I can “use it to serve the demands of my personal life, study and work and am capable of completing most of communicative tasks I experience during my Chinese tour”.
Now that I passed this level, can I do all these?
I think the description is overstating, since all I can do is minimum survival conversation(restaurant, direction, shopping, etc.), or even that might be difficult
In addition, the exam I took didn’t have speaking part which is a big gap (there is different type of HSK to focus more on conversation).
Also, there is no certificate’s expiration, so even if you pass it, if you don’t use it for a few years, you are likely to forget most of them while you keep the certificate to state “you are qualified to do this and that”.
Why taking HSK
So the difficulty is overstating, no speaking test and no expiration, that makes me think that this doesn’t show real language capacity.
So why did I take this exam anyway?
The answer is to push myself.
It was quite obvious that when I registered for the exam 1 month before, I was not ready for this content. And the fact that I passed with quite good score means I learned something thanks to the motivation and effort.
As I mentioned in my previous post “How to keep motivating yourself“, I think taking a test is one of the good ways to ignite/maintain your motivation towards the goal (the common mistake is mixing test and goal though).
To change something to motivate myself, I just paid for the exam. Why? Because if I let myself think carefully, I would have come up with 100 reasons not to register (busy for work, not ready yet, I don’t need certificate, etc.).
So once I entered my credit card information and registered, my time started ticking!
Why studying Chinese
Before going to “how I studied for HSK”, let me share why I chose learning Chinese in the first place.
Yes, Chinese language is popular because it might be useful in the future, including job, study , etc. In fact, during my seminar with young people, some asked me if they should study English or Chinese for their future success. The answer was it depends on what each one of us wants to do and be.
Everyone is different and has different source of energy. I speak more than 5 languages (none of them is perfect, of course). I have tried more languages and failed. From that experience, I learned that you have to have “YOUR own reason” to study language, since it needs long term motivation, commitment and action to improve.
Therefore, although I tend to jump into whatever I feel interesting, when it comes to deciding if I want to learn or not, I apply my “3 times rule“. This rule is similar to the 3 times rule to declutter I talked about previously for organizing physical space. The rule is quite simple. If I had 3 times I really wished I had learned that skill, I would start learning it.
Let me share my 3 reasons for starting Chinese.
First reason was expanding my world. When I started traveling, I met so many Chinese people and visited China town (which is in many countries). I am impressed with Chinese history, culture and foods, so I simply wanted to communicate with them.
Second reason was to be able to argue. In Mauritania, I used to go to a small Chinese garden to buy some veg, Tofu and soybeans (please see “Arigato Natto – How to Make Natto at Home even in Africa“). The owner couple was very nice and that was my favorite place. One day, there was one Chinese customer who asked the owner who I was. When the owner told him that I was Japanese regular customer, the customer said something I would never forget:
This is a typical way of insulting Japanese. Although I could catch that word and wanted to say something back, I could not say a single word, which was quite frustrating.
Thirdly, since I was outside Japan for many years but I love Japanese comics including the ones that took place in ancient China (Kingdom, 三国志, 水滸伝, etc) I was sometimes reading those in English. That was when I really wanted to read it in original language.
For those reasons, I decided to study Chinese. However, starting is one thing and practicing and improving are different things. It is a shame to say that I actually made that decision 3 years ago, but I became more interested in learning other languages (French, Arabic, Portuguese, Kiswahili, etc.) so I postponed Chinese. From time to time, I did some Chinese exercise through Duolingo (not enough for actually practicing language).
That is why I decided to push myself to work on Chinese through HSK exam.
Again, everyone has different reason, but whatever your reason to learn Chinese (or other thing) is, please take your time and reflect your reason of learning it. If you wish, please apply/modify 3 times rule.
How I studied for HSK to pass within 1 month
Know the test
Every test has its own characteristic so you need to know it first. Generally speaking, exams don’t represent whole language skill. Just because you have the certificate, it doesn’t mean you can really dominate that language. You can actually study for the test and pass it while not being able to use it in practice.
My first task was to really Know the test, including structure, time, score to pass, what others have done to pass it, etc.
Practice previous test
Once you get to know the test structure, before you start studying, I would really recommend to do the practice/mock test, which allows you to know the level of difficulty and timing. You can feel how tiring it can be (e.g. having 10 min of writing test differs if you do it as a daily practice or after listening and reading exercise).
Assess to know your weakness and strength
Once you try previous/mock test, it is quite easy to know your weakness and strength.
Unlike general good practice in life I recommend (focusing on strength), I tend to work more on my weakness to pass any exam, otherwise I might fail for not having a minimum score for each section. After trying some mock test, I learned that I was good at reading (advantage of being Japanese) and really bad at listening, which became my primary focus.
Pick right resources
All I did was doing Duolingo for 5-10min, followed by work on 2 materials: official guide/textbook (20min) and vocabulary book (5-10 min) and cross check with each other. So I spent 30-40 min every morning for a month.
Practice, practice and practice (except the last day).
Once you do all of the above, You just need to take actions. What I did was booking a morning slot to work on it every single day to make it a habit. Sometimes people do 3 times per week, but to me, what’s important is to make a daily habit (of course, to secure morning slot, you need to sleep earlier and get rid of other distraction).
When it comes to specific method, everyone has different learning style and preference so I wouldn’t say my method works for everyone. What I did was below:
(1) Listening to audio first and try to see how much I understood.
(2) Then I see the text to crosscheck.
(3) I come back to audio to improve comprehension.
(4) Whatever I cannot remember, I take notes.
(5) I highlight what I am struggling to remember and focus on that part.
I repeated this over and over.
Once you do your best, the result is just secondary (of course it gives you a great joy, but the goal is to improve it). I could establish a daily habit to study Chinese and I could see my progress. Oh, I personally don’t recommend studying on the day before exam to rest your brain and body.
In the end, my score was not bad (listening 82, reading 100, writing 82). Studying for the test is temporal measurement. What’s important is how I will make my learning system to improve further.
The learning of this time
I learned that deciding to learn new language should be considered carefully. Even if you make a decision, keeping motivation can be difficult, and registering for an exam without thinking much can be one way of pushing yourself to study harder.
Thank you for reading this article. If you like it, please don’t forget to subscribe before your leave. If you have any comments/questions, please feel free to do so. Have great learning!