After ten weeks following the second half of the HeadStart2 Mandarin course, a language course available for free courtesy of the USA Government, two weeks ago I started to share reviews of books and other material that could be useful also if you are not really interested in learning Chinese- but just curious about the Chinese culture.
This week, a slightly more “technical” article, focused on those who are actually learning not for personal curiosity, but as a stepping stone toward using Chinese within their business environment.
Eventually, you will certainly have to choose an exam and prepare to pass it.
The first obvious step is to learn the basics about the available exams- and there are plenty of partially overlapping assessments on the new HSK tests, that have been harmonized (at least in name) with the corresponding European levels, i.e. A1=HSK1, A2=HSK2, and then B1, B2, C1, up to C2=HSK6.
There are also other exams focused just on business Chinese, but, unless you already got through at least the introductory levels (up to HSK4), from what I saw in books at that level, you could probably get a certification, but waste your time- and suffer as much as those who get any business certification on something that they have no experience whatsoever do, when confronted with business reality.
I know that many online say that the “new” HSK1-6 “dumbs down” the requirements, as the levels before HSK6 are actually easier than would be the case with the corresponding levels for European languages.
Frankly, I will let the discussion to others: from my perspective, a mere “user” of languages as (personal, business) communication tools, what matters is how I would be able to use my new skills if I were to follow the steps up to the minimal level needed to get a work permit in other countries (B1=HSK3), which would include a limited ability to read newspapers and grasp at least the overall gist of articles, and hold a simple business conversation and carry out routine tasks.
As a functional tool, from what I saw in courses, and my “cross-mapping” of the “patterns” used in Headstart2 Mandarin with the vocabulary required by HSK1 to HSK3, probably HSK3 isn’t enough to obtain the skills that you would be expected to have with a B1 in Europe (Headstart 2 delivers patterns that are beyond what you can find in B2 Mandarin courses).
With German and other European languages, I used e.g. in the 1990s basic skills at that level (or below) and a limited vocabulary to sometimes “invent” new words by association, and generally it was easy for a German or Latvian native to spot the meaning, and provide the appropriate words.
With Chinese and its tonal system, where the same sound might mean something different according to the context, and when sometimes polysyllabic words are the juxtaposition of e.g. a character referring to the meaning, and one adding a sound, probably inventing words by association could be the best way to get “lost in translation”.
Anyway, it is too early for me to say with an acceptable degree of confidence- I will say what happens down the road: meanwhile, I will stick to the HSK3 as my first target.
Maybe extended to HSK4, as my current course covers both B1 and B2, and to cross-check at which point of HSK I will have covered each one of the characters provided within Headstart2 Mandarin- of course, except business-specific words (e.g. military ranks)!
As for newspapers… I did a try long ago, after my first Mandarin learning experiments in Brussels in 2010, and I saw that keywords (e.g. country names), a little bit of knowledge of how few hundred characters (from the MIT Chinese course material) are pronounced, and at least few radicals (e.g. the one for fire) helped in “spotting” articles worth a read.
Nonetheless, business Chinese and learning “patterns” to be able to read and understand at least titles in newspapers without using a dictionary is something that I have currently planned for 2015, so stay tuned.
As I promised last week, I wanted instead to share links to some “testing material” available online, so that you can use it to assess your progression, before spending money on language tests (or language courses in traditional schools).
I know that many would disagree- but as I said to some of my online and offline friends and contacts, I think that getting through the basics of a foreign language through trial and repetition in your own time and by using books, CDs, online material, and other sources before joining a school is a good investment.
Why? Because I collected around Europe plenty of horror stories about “absolute beginners” language courses, that way too often get the worst or less motivated teachers, and anyway have a high “attrition” rate, i.e. a large number of students who don’t complete the course, but while staying in, magically have the side-effect of acting as ballast on the whole class.
So, if you can skip the “absolute beginners” class, then probably you will find more committed students and teachers- and both your time and money will be better spent.
I am also sceptical of having a one-to-one teacher when you are an absolute beginner: you risk losing the human interaction side that will then be part of your everyday use of your new language skills, and maybe your teacher will make it way too easy for you (in a one-to-one situation, you become a customer, not a student).
As for sources of tests (I found them by cross-checking few sources in the past and recently but, of course, I cannot yet say if they are really good!)…
for training listening tests (just change the number within the following link from 1 to 6 to have all of them: http://www.confuciusinstitute.qut.edu.au/study/hsk1.jsp)
for test examples (just change the number within the following link from 1 to 6 to have all of them: chinaeducenter.com/en/hsk/hsklevel1.php)
As for writing material to do your own exercises… in the past, I bought in London some cheap Chinese elementary-school training notebooks, containing either squares or squares with diagonals.
I could not find them in my current Italian location (I actually checked also in Chinese shops), but I found an alternative source, cheaper than online stores: go in any supermarket that sells also pens, pencils, and notebooks for elementary school pupils- and buy the notebooks that are designed for first year pupils to learn to write numbers, as the size of each square is large enough to write a character.
Alternatively, buy any ordinary A4 notebook, and consider that approximately 2×2 squares are equivalent to the size of a character (so that you can still differentiate each stroke, while using a pencil or a ballpoint pen).
I am mainly left-handed, and therefore I do not use a fountain pen (to avoid spreading ink around while moving my hand), something that probably you will need instead to use, if you want to write better-looking characters with all the proper shapes and types of strokes (I bought long ago in London also a Chinese calligraphy kit, but never used it).
As I wrote last week, I used my Windows and Linux computers to type in Chinese (Pinyin text entry- on Windows 7, I suggest to use the “new Microsoft experience”, and on Linux “ibus” and “Pinyin”, as both “guess” the right combination of characters according to the context of your phrase), using as my source material the dialogues from each Chinese language book that I used (I did the same in the past with German and Spanish).
Nonetheless, in Chinese I think that learning to write by hand is a good mnemonic tool, so that you can associate each character with a sound, an image, and movements of your hands (yes, “multimedia learning” :D).
Knowing the stroke order is also useful to use electronic or paper dictionaries that aren’t based on a Pinyin directory.
If you are looking for a dictionary containing the basic HSK (1 to 6) dictionary where characters are listed by Pinyin (i.e. alphabetical, and the tone 1 to 4), I use a nice “Lexique Fondamental HSK Multilingue” that I bought in Paris at FNAC, for a mere 20 EUR, published by Sinolingua (my 2002 edition, that I keep routinely updating with the new HSK lists and each new book, marks firstname.lastname@example.org as the email address to contact).
As a funny yet informative way to use your Chinese, have a look at a documentary on the Terracotta Army (with both English and Mandarin subtitles) that ends with a “superconducting surprise” over 2000 years old:)
Have a nice week!
PS Please read the introduction to understand how to use this website 🙂