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The "New" New HSK: Suddenly So Significant

"Cataclysmic" is how I describe the impact I foresee of the recent decision of Beijing's educational establishment to allow HSK test takers to type instead of write.

"HSK" stands for hanyu shuiping kaoshi (). Beginning in 1992, the HSK tests Chinese proficiency just as the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) tests English proficiency. Revised in 2009, it's now called the "New HSK."

For the average student of Chinese, even those who are otherwise quite good, writing characters by hand is slow and mistakes many. But typing Chinese is fast and mistakes few. [On a properly configured computer, you first type the pronunciation of a Chinese word, like shiqing, then select from a short list of characters so pronounced: .]

For most students, typing instead of writing makes the HSK test a far more accurate reflection of their true Chinese proficiency. That's because nearly all real-life writing is or can be done on computers and devices. And, with no handwritten section, the test is far less intimidating.

A spokesman at Hanban (the organizer of the HSK) said the computer based test is not available at all test centers or on all dates, thus they do not have valid data to show its relative attractiveness. But they have definitely noticed a sharp trend favoring the computer version when it is offered.

You think you'll never take it? You might be wrong. I was. After 25 years in China, I'm taking the HSK for the first time later this month! As a non-native teacher of Chinese, a good score could burnish my credentials. When I considered this in the past, I worried my writing would drag down my score. No longer. If you are a serious student of Chinese, think about it.

Traditionally the HSK has been used primarily by Chinese educational institutions in recruiting of students, just as TOEFL is used in the U.S. But now the HSK is becoming an important way employers measure Chinese proficiency in recruiting of employees to more and more jobs. I recommend my students put their score on their resume.

Because the HSK is curriculum independent, self-taught students are using it to confirm to themselves and others how far they have come. The HSK rewards your general knowledge of Chinese no matter how you came by it.

Finally, I expect educational or language training institutions will use HSK results to demonstrate their effectiveness."95% of our students pass HSK level 3 after one year" could be a very strong selling point. [Please contact me if you know of any school which is already doing this.]

There are obstacles to institutional adoption. The HSK is not yet readily available in many places. Today's textbooks are not well suited to this kind of testing. And institutions may be afraid: "what if only 35% of our students pass level 3 after one year?" They may reject the HSK not because it is a bad test, but because it is a good test. Herein lies an opportunity for an aggressive institution (or textbook publisher) to stand apart from the crowd.

Kudos to Hanban for slipping the shackles of tradition and letting us type! Now I expect to see a lot more students taking the HSK; perhaps including you or someone you know.

Image credit: Wall Creator

Paul Condrell

Paul Condrell, whose Chinese name is Kang Baole 康保乐, grew up in Washington, D.C., and has lived in China since 1988. He is founder and chairman of consumer products retailer 小康之家 is developing apps, under the "Laokang" brand, for Apple iOS devices to help students master Chinese. He teaches... View Full Bio