Two semesters, 1200 note cards, and plenty of practice tests later, I did it. I passed the HSK 4. It was a little anti-climactic. The truth is, passing the HSK 4 doesn’t mean I speak Chinese well. It doesn’t mean I’ll be able to find work at an international company here in China. And it definitely doesn’t mean I can stop studying. What it does mean is that I set a goal and I reached it. And despite the fact that an HSK 4 certificate has very little impact on my day-to-day life, I am positive that preparing for the HSK 4 improved my Chinese. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that a goal isn’t just a target that we hit or miss, it’s also the fuel we use to drive towards improvement. I want to explain what the HSK is and how taking the HSK has benefited my Chinese studies.
The HSK is a measuring stick, although an incomplete one at that. There is no speaking portion for the HSK 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or even 6. That’s right, a person could score perfectly on the highest level of HSK without ever needing to open their mouth. Instead of speaking, it has a writing section. It seems like a mistake to emphasize writing characters over speaking. I’m not saying becoming familiar with characters is a mistake. I’m saying that after almost 3 years in China, I have never once been seriously inconvenienced by my inability to write Chinese characters. I’ve written e-mails and sent text messages, but never needed to handwrite a single character outside of my Chinese class, whereas my speaking ability is challenged almost daily. However, the HSK 4 does do a fairly good job of incorporating basic vocabulary into realistic listening and reading questions that challenged my Chinese.
I feel there are two separate points that make the HSK a valuable tool when studying Chinese. First, it has immense value as a tangible language goal. In the world of language learning, improvement is hard to come by, and worse, it’s even harder to see. There are some months I feel like I’ve even gone backwards. In this vague world of language learning, it’s great to find an unambiguous challenge to measure one’s self against. The first practice test I took for the HSK 4, my combined score was less than the 180 points needed to pass. When I took the HSK 4 in May, my combined score was over 180 points. And that’s the first reason I love the HSK. I can see my improvement quantified. Everyone who’s said “Ni hao” to a taxi driver has been told how good his or her Chinese is. But people lie. Tests do not. The lady behind the counter of my local corner store can tell me that my Chinese improved, but if I see a 50 point change in my HSK 4 score, I know exactly how much I’ve improved.
The second reason why I believe in taking the HSK is the practice it provides. Between making and reviewing note cards, taking practice tests, reviewing my mistakes, and taking the actual test, I estimate the total amount of time spent on the HSK 4 was about 40 hours. According to their website, the U.S. State Department estimates the total amount of time needed to learn Chinese to fluency is roughly 2,000 hours (over half of that time should be spent in a country that speaks the target language). That means I’m 40 hours closer to my goal than I would have been if I hadn’t taken the HSK 4. In my experience it can be difficult to find reading and listening materials appropriate for my level. The HSK provides those materials.
Of course some people don’t need that extra motivation. Some people are so driven that they put in the extra hours whether or not they plan on taking the HSK. As a matter of fact, I should point out that out of the foreigners I’ve met who speak the best mandarin, not a single one of them has taken the HSK.
Honestly, to go from not being able to pass HSK 1, to passing HSK 4 in a year isn’t an amazing accomplishment considering I’m a full time student. But I’m still proud of it. Also, the encouragement and praise I’ve received from friends and family upon hearing that I passed has given me a real sense of satisfaction rarely achieved in my language studies. A person can choose any number of language goals other than the HSK. A person can likewise find many other ways to practice their reading, listening, and writing. But I like the HSK because it provides both of those. Is it right for everyone? No. But it was definitely right for me.