As you may know, I have been trying to learn Mandarin Chinese.
This post talks about how it’s going.
Upshot: I took the official HSK 3 test and the HSKK Beginner test on Sunday. I think it went well!
Here’s what I’ve been doing for the last two months to prepare.
Update July 12: Scores are in!
HSKK Beginner: 85/100.
HSK 3: 284/300.
Chinese Lessons on Zoom
Here’s the info for the Singapore company I used to hire an online tutor in China:
Panda Chinese Language School
AKA Panda Mandarin or ipandamandarin
Actually, I found them by looking for an HSK tutor on Carousell, which is a platform I love to use to shop for second-hand items.
Panda Mandarin sells packages of lessons, not just for HSK practice but also for primary school students, secondary school students, and junior college students, for business people, for learning about Chinese culture, etc. There are individual and group classes online, and they also conduct local classes live.
I don’t know whether their other courses and tutors are as good as mine, or if I was just lucky. I think their tutors are all certified teachers in China or Singapore. Thankfully, you can get a free 1-hour trial lesson to be sure you like the tutor before you buy a package. After a satisfactory free lesson, I bought a package of 12 1-hour zoom lessons listed as “1 on 1 social Chinese course” for $29.90/hour, total = $358.80.
I chose timings for my lesson with the coordinator via Whatsapp. Mine were mostly weekday mornings (an unbusy time in the tutor’s schedule), irregularly spaced. Sometimes I had lessons only once a week, but I arranged lessons five days in a row in the lead-up to my HSK test date. The list of bookings was loaded into my account on the website so I could see all the upcoming lesson dates. The system sends an email reminder the day before each lesson. The policy is that you can reschedule if needed, even on the same day. I did reschedule one of my lessons; at the same time, I moved another of the lessons at the tutor’s request (because it was a holiday period in China).
My tutor was Tan Laoshi (“Teacher Tan”, Tan being a last name), English name “Tracy”. She’s located in Beijing, China, and speaks with a Northern Chinese accent. I get the sense that this tutoring is her only job, not something she does on the side. She used the whole class time, was always punctual, professional, and efficient but still cheerful and friendly.
She never really commented on my (presumably lousy) pronunciation; once in a while she would repeat back a word I’d butchered, and sometimes she would rephrase my spontaneous utterances so I could hear what I should have said. Mostly she would just get the idea and keep the conversation going.
She used Powerpoint slides throughout each lesson and gave me homework using sample test papers and PDF copies of the HSK standard course materials for Level 3. There are 20 lessons in the HSK 3 book, and we more or less covered one per lesson.
Class was conducted totally in Chinese, but she could prompt me to read specific words and phrases using English, or give instructions to me in English if necessary.
Occasionally we had some short, spontaneous conversations in Chinese related to the lesson content. She knows that I love books. She said she had a handful of books at her place. When she told me the title of one of them and it had a “three” in it, I thought it might be “The Three-Body Problem”, a trendy Chinese sci-fi novel by Cixin Liu, and I was right! I told her I read it (in English), and that I’d watched the movie adaptation of another title by the same author, “The Wandering Earth”. She didn’t seem to be a big sci-fi fan but she said she liked the movie.
I think the main benefits I got from lessons with Tracy were:
(1) Being made to speak without concern for speaking perfectly. The best of the community centre classes I tried going to was basically nothing but practice reading pinyin words aloud with accurate tones. That doesn’t help students practice conversing and may actually hinder them!
(2) Being made to read sentences written with characters out loud. Man, I stink at that! It’s much easier when I can slowly puzzle out the meaning in a non-linear way. Once or twice, I made some hilariously bad guesses because I was trying to read faster. I felt like a clumsy child. But I improved.
(3) Being made accountable for regular homework tasks. Having a workbook and access to sample tests is not the same as having someone ask you how you did on your latest assignment.
I don’t think the lessons did much to teach me vocabulary; I didn’t review the lesson materials outside the Zoom lessons. (Sorry, Tracy.) I just carried on practicing with Duolingo. Because gamification.
I think the grammar points in the lessons helped a bit. Duolingo makes you compose sentences, and somewhere tucked away it offers “tips” which explain some grammar points, but it doesn’t really teach you the patterns explicitly, and Tracy’s slides did. One of the grammar points in my last lesson with Tracy probably got me 10 whole points on the HSK! See below.
Duolingo really helped!
An acquaintance from the local book club I’m in mentioned that her husband was using Duolingo to practice Chinese and had taken the HSK. I had a hard time believing an app would be helpful, but I figured I’d download it and give it a try.
Wow. I’m so glad I did. I thanked her profusely.
I used the free version very briefly, but quickly decided to try out the premium version, which has some additional features, and doesn’t have time-wasting ads. At the end of the trial, I signed up for the paid version.
I’ve completed all the lessons. I don’t necessarily know all the characters (meaning and pronunciation), or all the implicit grammar points, so I think I should keep it going a bit longer. But it doesn’t have a lot more to teach me at this point. I think I should probably switch to a different premium app that has content at a higher level, and one that’s designed to align with the HSK, which Duolingo is not.
With Duolingo, your mileage may vary. Many of the lower-level lessons were not teaching me, they were just reminding me of things I had already learned in other Chinese classes. I wouldn’t recommend relying on Duolingo alone to learn Chinese, especially as a totally raw beginner.
How could Duolingo be better?
Yeah, I know you’re almost certainly not a Duolingo product developer, but these thoughts might help you decide whether you want to pay money to use the app. If you already use it, feel free to skip down a few paragraphs to the turban dude. On the other hand, if you use the app, you may be feeling some of the same frustrations yourself, and misery loves company!
So anyway, in general, I don’t really subscribe to the way Duolingo teaches, which is by asking a bunch of multiple choice questions, essentially. I’m interested in languages, and my preferred approach is to analyze and understand the features of a language rather than to just kinda dive in and go with the flow. That’s particularly the case when a language is really different from English. Duolingo was originally designed for European languages, which function much more like English than Chinese does. So I feel like there are a lot of urgently needed explanations (measure words! lack of plurals! lack of tenses! perfective aspect markers! particles in general!) which are, at best, tacked on. On the other hand, perhaps this isn’t really a fair assessment, since I didn’t, you know, actually read any of Duolingo’s grammar tips. Heh.
Separately, I don’t always like the way the “hard practice” that I’m doing now is structured. There are several activities.
- They show you a character: you have to pick one of three pronunciations.
- They show you a pinyin word: you have to pick one of our characters.
- They show you a sentence in English: you have to rearrange a wordbank of Chinese words and phrases written in characters.
- They show you a sentence in Chinese characters: you have to rearrange a wordbank of English words and phrases.
- They show you five characters: you have to match them to five pinyin words.
For the questions where they show a character, the app also speaks the word… so it’s really easy to pick the pinyin. These days, I only practice with the sound off, so the exercise will force me to remember more. But: I have to use my phone’s volume control to switch off the sound; there’s no option in the app! WHY???
Similarly, if you have to select a character to match the pinyin, when you touch the character, it will pronounce the character for you, which again, makes it really easy to choose the right one before submitting your answer. That’s fine for learning, but… reeeealllly lousy for quizzing yourself.
The five-character matching task also speaks the characters for you if you have the sound on. Again, not helpful in my context.
For the word bank questions with an English word bank, you can completely ignore the Chinese and just make a sentence in English. Especially if you’ve encountered the English version of the target sentence in the app before. Come on guys, my English doesn’t need testing. The app could include a typing box instead; there’s a typing box when you do the level tests, but for some reason there’s not after you pass the tests and are doing “hard practice”.
The sentences with Chinese wordbanks are more useful; but using the English target sentence to figure out what the characters in the wordbank mean still kinda feels like cheating. The HSK task of making sentences doesn’t give you an English target sentence; you have to work out the meanings of the characters yourself in order to be able to arrange them to make a sentence.
I sometimes really wanted to be shown the English meanings after matching a character and its pinyin. If I remember or guess the sound correspondence correctly, I could still be clueless how to use it in a sentence. Ultimately I need to be able to associate character, sound, and meaning.
Another feature I’d add is some sort of marker on the lessons I re-practiced recently, like a check mark, with the ability to show multiple check marks and maybe have the marks fade and/or disappear over time. Possibly also a counter to show total number of times practiced. All the level icons are purple now, and I’ve done all the lessons multiple times. The level titles are labels like “Travel 2” and “School 3”. If I close the app for a while or even just visit the leaderboard page, when I go back to the lesson tree, I don’t know which lesson I should practice next. That’s frustrating. I don’t want to choose one randomly, I want to do something I haven’t done in a while.
One more thing: There’s a “Scholar” badge you get when you learn 2000 words of a language. The Chinese program only has about 1900, so there’s just literally no way for me to earn the next Scholar badge. It’s annoying. It’s one of the three badges that displays right at the bottom of my profile, and seems to show that I’m close. The purpose of the badge is to motivate me. But the goal is impossible! Seems like Duolingo should turn the badge gold, indicating that you’ve fully achieved the goal, when you hit some convenient number, like 1500, within the existing Chinese program.
One thing I think is hilarious about Duolingo (which I wouldn’t suggest changing) is that the sentences seem to disregard the gender of the cartoon shown (which matches the voice that speaks). For example, I screenshotted this image of a dude in a turban saying “My boyfriend loves cats.” It could be laziness regarding matching up all the sentences properly, but I think it’s at least partly a conscious choice to suggest that, you know, maybe he really does have a boyfriend. I don’t know if the version of Duolingo that’s in the Chinese app store is also like this. That would be interesting to find out. The app also has a bear who says “I will practice playing table tennis at school in the afternoon,” so… Duolingo could believably claim that realism isn’t the goal.
My Duolingo Profile
Are you a Duolingo user? Then maybe my stats will mean something to you. And we can connect if you like.
My username is MingTian19. I joined in March 2022. Today is the 76th consecutive day I’ve practiced using Duolingo. (Technically, there was one 24-hour period I didn’t practice and I had to use a “streak freeze” option purchased with those otherwise useless blue gems that you get for practicing. I did practice before I went to sleep that day, but it was too late as far as the software was concerned.)
Since March, I’ve earned over 44,000 experience points. It’s my first week in the Diamond League. I hope to earn first place, but it takes a ridiculous amount of practice time; I’m not sure it’s worth it just to get the “Legendary” badge. I’ve finished in the top 3 places 7 times, including once last week in Obsidian League.
Now, on to a different app.
Pleco HSK Flashcards
On April 12, I realized that Pleco has a built-in flashcard feature and also pre-made sets of flashcards for the HSK levels. That day, I tested myself on HSK 1 (150 cards), HSK 2 (149 cards), and HSK 3 (299 cards).
Pleco’s flashcards can be configured in a variety of ways. I asked it to show me the character (or character phrase) only. Then I could ask myself, do I know how to say it and what it means, and decide whether to tap “correct” or “incorrect” and then see the answer. If I wasn’t confident, I didn’t tap “correct”. If I turned out to be wrong despite being confident, I could go back and change the answer to “incorrect”. Results of the first test:
HSK Level 1, score 94%.
HSK Level 2, score 38%.
HSK Level 3, score 14%.
I decided I didn’t need to worry about the Level 1 words. I was plenty worried about HSK Levels 2 and 3! I only had two months to learn 355 items, well over half of the 600 needed to pass the test!
Okay, I know you don’t necessarily need to recognize every single character to get the test questions correct, especially in the listening section, and the HSK passing score is only 60%. But still. I felt I had a lonnnnng way to go back in April.
I didn’t use Pleco to practice; I was more interested in amassing experience points by practicing in Duolingo. Because gamification. I just went back to Pleco to test myself occasionally. Here are the results of my subsequent Pleco self-tests.
HSK Level 2, score 51%.
HSK Level 2, score 55%.
HSK Level 3, score 25%.
HSK Level 2, score 61%.
HSK Level 3, score 36%.
HSK Level 2, score 71%.
HSK Level 3, score 46%.
HSK Level 2, score 82%.
HSK Level 3, score 52%.
HSK Level 1, score 96%.
HSK Level 2, score 89%.
HSK Level 3, score 70%.
I’m really pleased that my scores always went up, even the Level 1 score! I didn’t engineer that, or cherry pick which self-tests to share; this is all of them.
Other Uses for Pleco
I really like Pleco in general. I don’t remember when I installed it, but I’ve had it for a long time. It’s a free dictionary app. I like how you can see the radicals that characters are composed of, and their meanings. I like how you can see phrases that a character is part of. I like how you can draw a character or sequence of characters to get a translation. I wish it had more stroke-order animations included for free, but I like that it has some.
I was taught stroke order for writing characters in Japanese class long ago, and I think I was taught stroke order again in a class in Singapore slightly less long ago, but I can’t necessarily write a randomly chosen character correctly by myself. I used Pleco (and a handful of random online pages) to see how to write some of the characters. My intent was to practice all the HSK 3 characters a bunch of times each in a blank exercise book printed with little squares, but I didn’t make it through the list. I don’t think it matters much for the HSK.
ChinesePod was not designed to help with the HSK. It’s a podcast that operates out of Shanghai offering lessons in spoken Mandarin. They have lesson transcripts you can study if you want, but the lessons are all audio. Or maybe they have videos too, but I’ve been listening to their audio lessons. I long ago outgrew their newbie lessons. I went through hundreds of beginner lessons, some if not most of them multiple times, and now I’m trying to learn at their intermediate level, which is much harder because those lessons are conducted mostly in Chinese.
The lessons are like 10-20 minutes, and the format is: Some branding segment; a welcome and intro to the topic by two hosts, a Westerner and a Chinese person; a recorded dialog between two other voices (usually repeated a couple of times); a translation by the hosts; a discussion of related vocabulary, grammar, and culture points by the hosts; the dialog again; an outro with some closing thoughts and a farewell; another branding segment.
Although the vocab and grammar points are not in any way aligned to the HSK, I credit my use of ChinesePod with making the HSK listening section ridiculously easy. My listening skills are miles ahead of my reading skills, which are similarly far ahead of my writing and speaking skills. I think that skill ordering is probably typical, but even so, my listening skills seem disproportionately good. I regret not getting Duolingo (or some other gamified app for learning characters) earlier.
Crestar Test Preparation
There was a Zoom session on Saturday, June 4 to explain the requirements for reporting to the test centre and the format of the HSK 3 test. The session was mostly useless. We kinda went through a practice test together, but I’d already done a bunch of practice tests. The written instructions they send by email say all the necessary stuff about bringing your passport, a negative Covid test, and a 2B pencil, and arriving 30min early to check in.
There was a separate Zoom session on the same day for the HSKK test. That one was a bit more useful since I hadn’t done much preparing for the speaking test and wasn’t as familiar with the format. The host had some useful tips for answering the questions: He explained that we have to wait for a beep sound to repeat the sentence in the first section, he said to answer the short spoken questions in a verbose sentence format, and he suggested bracketing our answers to the two long responses with sentences indicating which question we were about to answer or had just finished answering.
HSK 3 Sample Test Results
So. Mainly by practicing heavily on Duolingo and attending 13 hours of Zoom lessons with Tracy at Panda Chinese, I prepared for HSK 3 over the course of two months. Would my preparation be enough? I took some sample tests to find out. And because Tracy told me to.
The HSK 3 has three timed sections. My understanding is that all questions in each section have equal weight.
Listening: 40 questions, 100 points total
Reading: 30 questions, 100 points total
Writing: 10 questions, 100 points total
I completed 1 sample test on my computer and 3 sample tests on paper. I think I used a timer for all the paper ones.
H31002: 95+80+90 = 265/300 (June 3, no timer)
H31003: 92+86+70 = 242/300 (June 6)
H31004: 95+93+70 = 258/300 (June 8)
H31005: 97+93+90 = 280/300 (June 9)
Apparently, an individual’s score doesn’t depend on the scores of the other test takers, just on the percentage of questions answered correctly.
Passing score is 60% overall, a total of 180 points in any combination.
After taking these practice tests and learning how the scoring works, I was pretty confident about passing the official test.
Test Day: Sunday, June 12, 2022
I took a taxi to the test location, RELC International Hotel, i.e. the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization’s Regional Languages Centre. The driver was worried there would be some kind of road block or traffic jam, because RELC is near the Shangri-La, where a high-profile global security conference that I had no knowledge of was underway. Luckily, there was no problem.
There seemed to be a LOT of different tests happening on that day; the HSK was being conducted in several of the fifth floor conference rooms. The elevators were busy or badly programmed (possibly both); I mostly used the stairs to go up and down. I was one of only five people registered for the HSKK Beginner Level Test at 11am. I think I was one of about 50 registered for the HSK Level 3 Test at 1.30pm.
I probably passed the HSKK (the speaking test), but since I don’t know how they score the test, it is hard to be sure. The beginner level is actually supposed to correspond to HSK Levels 1 and 2, so maybe I was better prepared than most of the other test takers in some sense, but I know I made some mistakes, and I don’t think my pronunciation is particularly good overall. And I was nervous! I don’t like the way they do the test. Everyone was sitting at desks in the same room, so I could hear other people answering into their digital recorders. There were only four other people. The feeling was awkward. Maybe it would have been better if there had been more people—or maybe more voices would have been more distracting. I feel like I’d have done better if I’d drunk a beer in the morning before the test, but apart from being a somewhat strange way to prepare for a test, drinking alcohol would have interfered with my concentration during the written test in the afternoon.
Because of my high practice scores, I wasn’t really worried about passing the HSK itself, just hoping to do well and get it over with! In the listening part, there was one question that I didn’t understand but the rest were okay. In the reading part, I didn’t read all the text, but I finished answering all the questions within the time, sometimes just by searching for key words. In the writing part, I was rather unsure about the order for one of the five sentences. Another sentence required knowing a grammar point that I had just learned with Tracy. I think I wrote three of the five character questions correctly.
I will know my results in about a month. I have the impression I can log on to some portal with my ID number to check. And I vaguely recall paying the test centre $5 to mail me some sort of paper record. Tracy says she’s interested in hearing my results.
Wherefore HSK 3?
When I was registering for the HSK, my thinking was: I bet I can already pass HSK 2, since it doesn’t require knowing any characters. But what I read about the levels indicated that HSK 2 is… pretty pathetic. (For one thing, it doesn’t require knowing any characters!) So I decided, as long as I was going to pay for the test, I should stretch myself a bit and aim to do the test at the next level up. Then I got a shock when I did that first Pleco flashcard self-test and realized what I’d gotten myself into. So. Many. Characters.
Now that I’ve done the HSK 3, it seems that HSK 3 is… also not very impressive. Disregarding the levels that only require knowing pinyin makes HSK 3 the bottom level of the levels anybody might care about. Oh well.
What does (presumably) having passed the HSK 3 mean in terms of practical skill?
In April when I announced plans to further my intermittent Chinese studies, someone on Facebook commented that Singapore is a bad place to learn Chinese because the Chinese in the local newspapers is a bit… wonky. Hah. Thanks man, but I am very truly nowhere near being able to read an article in a Chinese newspaper now; back in April, the possibility was even more remote.
In any case, my Chinese learning during the past two months has relied not on local Chinese speakers or locally-produced materials, but on an American edtech app, a native speaker in Beijing, and some official HSK test-prep books. Being physically in Singapore hasn’t had much chance to hurt the quality of my learning.
However, being in Singapore, I do have the chance to apply what I learn!
I have started picking out familiar characters on signs—beyond, of course, the stunningly obvious ‘fish’ character that’s next to a picture of a fish that’s also labelled in English on the sign over a hawker stall selling fish-based dishes.
The other day I messaged someone on Carousell about buying something of hers, and got back a reply in characters. Out of habit, I pasted her text into Google translate, then sent a reply back in English. But after I got another reply written in Chinese, I decided I should at least give reading it a go before turning to Google. Turns out, I knew all the characters except one, which wasn’t one I ever studied but was clear from context. I read a whole sentence written by a random human! That was pretty gratifying.
Onward to HSK 4?
The figure quoted for the number of hours of study needed to be “fluent” in Spanish is 600. For Chinese it’s 2,200. That’s depressing. But I’m a lot farther along than I was, and things are starting to make sense. I would really love to be able to read newspaper articles in Chinese some day. So I need to find a way not to lose what I’ve got so far. That probably means aiming for a new goal: Pass HSK Level 4.
HSK 4 Test
That being said… I’m not going to register for the next available HSK 4 test, which is September 17—too soon for me to double the size of my Chinese vocabulary! I’m not even sure whether registering for the next next one, on December 4, would give me enough time. Obviously it depends on how much time I’m able to devote to practicing between now and then.
Panda Chinese Lessons
Although I think SG$30/hr is a fair price for 1-to-1 online tutoring with a native speaker in China, I don’t really want to spend SG$360 on another package right now. I’d love to send Tracy another client in my place, though.
HSK 4 Standard Course Textbooks
Each level has a textbook, a workbook, audio for the listening activities (either on CD or downloadable from the website), and a teacher’s manual that includes answers.
I’ve realized that unlike Level 3, HSK Level 4 actually has two parts, variously known as A and B or 上 (shang) and 下 (xia). Counterintuitively, it seems “upper” (shang) is A and “lower” (xia) is B. This fits the very common spatio-temporal Chinese metaphor that “next” is “down”, so the prerequisite or more basic of the two levels is “up”. This seems like needless confusion. They could have just called the books Level 4 (Part 1) and Level 4 (Part 2). Everybody, even the hypothetical user who doesn’t understand the alphabetic sequence of A/B, understands increasing numbers!
I’m pretty sure I can order the authentic HSK materials from China using Taobao cheaper than I can get them any other way. Amazon, BookDepository, and Blackwells seem needlessly expensive—they’d probably be reshipping books from some US or UK warehouse. Meanwhile, some sellers on local ecommerce platforms like Shopee are selling pirated softcopies and even pirated printouts from Indonesia and Thailand. Taobao seems like the way to go. (Taobao has all the made-in-China stuff that’s for sale on Aliexpress, but cheaper. Shipping costs to Southeast Asia are reasonable. I’ve ordered stuff to Singapore on Taobao by visiting the site in Chrome with the Google translation plugin. )
Apps and Other Tools
I’ll start testing myself on the Level 4 Pleco flashcards. I will probably stop my Duolingo subscription after a while and pay some other app for their premium learning resources. The ones I have installed already are ChineseSkill, HelloChinese, and SuperTest. I’m vaguely contemplating Skritter, but handwriting still seems like a lower priority than reading. I love reading, and I still really stink at reading in Chinese.
I found something called the “HSK Anti mix-up tool”. It’s a huge spreadsheet that groups similar-looking characters together so that you can learn to distinguish them. It’s a great tool, but so far, it’s only managed to make me feel… more mixed-up. I think it would probably be worth spending some more time looking into it.
Study Group in Singapore?
I am thinking of forming or joining some kind of meetup group with a lady I met after the conclusion of the HSKK Beginner test. She did HSK 2 and is vaguely looking for others who are studying written Chinese. It would be cool to have some language buddies!