Author Archives: mike

Crowdfunding an app that teaches a true understanding of Chinese characters

Memorising a large number of Chinese characters is notoriously difficult and consumes and large amount of a Chinese learner’s time. Even after you’ve learnt a character, keeping it in memory is quite difficult. Experts generally agree that learning and understanding the functional components of characters is the best long-term, sustainable way to do this. There’s a crowdfunding campaign going on right now for a special add-on dictionary for Pleco that looks like it will be an excellent tool to achieve this.

The dictionary is called Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters, and it looks like it’s much more substantial and useful than a lot of the Chinese learning apps coming out these days (especially for those moving beyond the early beginner levels).

It includes the usual things like pronunciation, definitions, support for both simplified and traditional characters and stroke order. But some of the things it has that make it different include:

  • character form explanations,
  • original & derivative meanings,
  • component-by-component stroke order breakdown,
  • HSK/TOCFL stats,
  • character history (oracle bones, etc.) with explanations, comparisons & trivia, and
  • related characters by:
    • sound series,
    • semantic component (including corrupted components), and
    • dictionary radical

    Demo of dictionary

    You can view more details (including a demo video) and back the project on its Kickstarter page here.


Taking an HSK exam in Sydney, Australia

The HSK (汉语水平考试) is the official Chinese proficiency test, basically the equivalent to the IELTS or TOEFL for English. Passing a certain level of the HSK is often necessary for entrance to Chinese universities or to apply for jobs in China. While I don’t really have a need for this accreditation, I’ve set a goal to take these exams to help motivate myself and reward my progress.

I sat the HSK 1 exam (the lowest/easiest level) this month. I’m still waiting on the results but, because I’ve been studying Chinese for some time now, it was quite easy (as expected). Let’s start with what the different HSK exam levels consist of.

HSK exam levels

Each level has a specified ‘syllabus’ of words and characters that students are expected to know. Each subsequent level obviously assumes the vocabulary of all the previous levels. You can find HSK word lists compiled by Alan Davies on his web site.

The speaking component of the HSK is a separate set of oral tests called the HSKK (汉语水平口语考试). There are three of these: Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced. Typically a student would take the beginner HSKK exam around a similar time to doing HSK 2, intermediate around HSK 4 and advanced around HSK 6.

HSK Levels 1 & 2 have listening and reading sections (no writing) of about equal size. All Chinese characters have accompanying pinyin, so you can theoretically get away without knowing any characters. For Level 1 you need to know 150 words (174 characters) and the test goes for about 30 minutes. For Level 2 you need to learn an additional 150 words (173 new characters) and the test is a fair bit longer at around 50 minutes. The questions are all multiple choice (sometimes true/false, sometimes A-F) and tests may be done on computer or on paper (2B pencil, computer marked).

The Beginner HSKK test is done with you sitting in a room listening to a recording while you yourself are being recorded. It lasts about 20 minutes.

You pass these exams if you get a score of 60% or higher. Check out details of the higher levels on the HSK Wikipedia page.

Applying to take an HSK exam

The exams are administered at a limited number of locations. You can use this official web site to find your nearest location. In Sydney (actually, for all of NSW) the place is the Sydney HSK Centre. It’s located within Strathfield College, which is on Pitt St near Central Station, NOT in the suburb of Strathfield! They also do Mandarin classes there, which is where I go for classes. I definitely recommend them!

After registering online, you can do a bank transfer to their bank account to pay the exam fee (or you can go in person to pay with cash if you prefer, but you’d probably want to contact them by email to arrange this prior). One to two weeks before the exam date you’ll receive an email with your HSK Admission Ticket, which you need to print and bring with you.

This ticket includes important details like:

  • the time of your exam (my one was at 9:30am but on the day there were many exams going on, all started at different times),
  • your 准考证号 (exam registration number),
  • room to attach a passport-style photo for ID, and
  • a series of instructions relating to the exam.

This ticket can be quite daunting as it’s almost all exclusively in Chinese. In reality, you just need to print it out and bring it along to the exam. If you’re doing HSK 1 or 2, there’s no need to attach a photo for ID purposes (it’s only for the higher levels). The instructions at the bottom are mostly about what happens if you show up to the exam late (you wouldn’t do that, would you?) and how long/where you can get your final marks from online.

Studying for the exam

I may not be the best person to give general advice about this, having only done HSK 1 so far, but I’ll tell you what worked for me.

I found an excellent article on DigMandarin about studying for the listening section of the HSK 1, but much of the advice given there I imagine would apply to the higher levels. This is a must-read.

In addition to the above, I found it useful to review the HSK 1 word list in flash-card form (using Anki with a shared HSK 1 deck from here). Doing some listening practice of full dialogues (not just individual words or sentences) was also helpful.

Looking at past exam papers is also very useful. It helps give you an idea of the format and gives you a way to test yourself (at least, for the reading part). The Sydney HSK Centre’s web site has some sample exams. You should be able to find more by searching online. There are also various sites that offer ‘practise exams’, which might be useful.

Taking the exam

I showed up 30 minutes before the exam was due to start with my HSK admission ticket, some 2B pencils and an eraser. I also brought some ID with me, but it was not needed.

About 10 minutes prior to the exam starting, we were let into the exam room and we sat at our assigned tables, which  had our name, rego number, etc. on our designated desks. Also on the desks was the question booklet (sealed with a sticker) and our answer sheet.

We spent most of the time before the exam started filling out our details on the answer sheet. It was all in Chinese so was daunting and hard to know what to fill out and where (last five digits of exam registration number, gender, country code, etc.), but the exam coordinator very helpfully provided us with instructions and made sure we did the right thing. We were also reminded to put our mobile phones on silent. (Pro tip: Also turn off vibration, since even vibration is really loud in a quiet classroom!)

We were then told we could open our question booklets (breaking the ‘seal’) and the exam then started with the listening section. All the dialogue in the listening section is in Chinese (except when they say the letters ‘HSK’ :P). There is a bit of introductory dialogue announcing each section and question, so it’s helpful to be able to recognise these phrases.

All the questions/statements in my HSK 1 exam were spoken very slowly and repeated (in female and male voices). Even without understanding everything, it was possible to narrow down the correct answer. It definitely helps to read and get familiar with the question before the dialogue for it is played.

The question paper can be written on, although it does get collected at the end along with your answer sheet. I mention this because I found it very helpful to write down key words on the question paper for the relevant questions as you hear them. If you want to go back to double-check your answers, these notes will be the only thing you have to go off (in this listening section).

For the reading section, my advice would be to make sure you choose the most correct answer, and use the process of elimination to your advantage. That is, if words A and B could both be an answer for one of the questions in a section, move on and answer the other questions in that part. Most likely A or B will be the only viable option for another question, leaving the other to be the correct answer for the one you were unsure of.

We received a warning from the exam coordinator when we had 10 minutes remaining, although I think all of us were finished by then. At the end, our question and answer papers were collected and we were free to go.

Exam results

I’ll come back and update this section once I have my results — probably in about a month!

Update January 11, 2015

I was able to check my score on the web site. I just had to enter my 考试证号 (examination certificate number, the code with 18 characters at the top of my HSK admission ticket) where it said “Ticket No.”, my name and solve a simple CAPTCHA code.

I was then taken to a page that showed information about myself and the test I took, followed by a breakdown of the scores for the listening section and reading section (each out of 100), and then a total score, followed by ‘status’. In my case I received a total score of 200 (full marks!) with a status of 合格 (‘qualified’), which I guess means I passed 🙂 I expect to receive a certificate confirming this a bit later.

The HSK 1 was below my current level so I was glad to get a high score. The next exams will not be so easy!

I hope you found this helpful. Feel free to ask any questions in the comments.


Kevin Rudd – Interest in China

This post is part of a series on Kevin Rudd – Australia’s Mandarin-speaking Prime Minister.

  1. Introduction
  2. Brief life summary
  3. Interest in China (this page)
  4. Mandarin in professional life (coming soon)
  5. Present day (coming soon)

Having spent his childhood in regional Queensland in the 1960s and 70s, it’s quite surprising that Kevin Rudd developed an interest in China, since he would have had very little exposure to it there. Despite this, his interest was first kindled when he was about seven years old after his mother gave him a book on archeology that included Chinese artefacts. His interest grew further when Australia’s current prime minister Gough Whitlam visited China on two occasions (the first while still opposition leader) in 1971 and 1973, establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries.

As a bright student, he could have easily done a law degree (which would have aligned well with his interest in politics) but he opted instead to follow his passion and sense of adventure by doing a Bachelor of Arts (Asian Studies) with honours at the Australian National University in Canberra, starting in 1976 and graduating in 1981. During this course he learnt not only Mandarin but also Chinese calligraphy and the history, literature, poetry, philosophy and aesthetics of Chinese civilisation.

Chinese Studies

A young Kevin Rudd

During this time, he took a ‘gap year’, deferring his university studies in 1979 and spending most of that year in Taiwan to improve his Mandarin. He trained at the Mandarin Training Centre at the National Taiwan Normal University. With a solid theoretical foundation, he skills quickly increased during this time. He would study in the mornings and then wander around in the afternoons, working on his character cards.

Returning to Canberra, Australia he resumed his final year of university. His 10,000 word honours thesis examined the conviction of Chinese human rights activist Wei Jingsheng and the state of human rights in China around this time (the 1970s), including transcripts of his trial that Rudd translated himself. You can download a copy of his thesis here.

After graduating in 1981, he joined the Department of Foreign Affairs in the hopes he’d be posted somewhere that would make use of his Chinese skills. Unfortunately, he was sent to Sweden for a few years before finally being sent to Beijing around 1984, but not before being sent to the Chinese University of Hong Kong to brush up on his Mandarin. Rudd is quoted as saying:

Their Mandarin course was designed for defence types and spooks. Consequently, I had a perfect vocabulary at that stage along the lines of “Is your flamethrower in good order?” and other useful things to help you in the streets of Beijing.

Next: Mandarin in Professional Life (coming soon)