I take the HSK tomorrow. The HSK (abbreviation for 汉语水平考试, or Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, or Chinese Level Test) is the national test for non-native speakers. I don’t need an HSK score for anything because I’m not planning on attending college in Chinese or finding a job based solely on my Mandarin skills, so one could say I’m taking this test “for fun”. And usually, because test-taking is one of my strengths, it might be fun. (I once took my Calc III final even after being exempted from it – and enjoyed it. I kid you not.)
But I think this one is going to be less enjoyable than the tests I’m used to. I love sitting down to a test, hot off the printer, armed with my bad-ass TI-89 and one sheet of paper carefully filled with every equation and constant that might come up. From there it’s just logic, reasoning, and dimensional analysis. Taking a math- or science-based test is a triumph in deduction, using a few given facts and a general knowledge of the subject matter to find the specific desired answer. Since most teachers rationally don’t expect us to memorize easily-accessible information, they allow us a single sheet for equations and constants. Freed from this burden, I spend the night before drawing up my equation sheet and that’s about it as far as studying goes.
Chinese, on the other hand, is like biology and chemistry – relying more on rote memorization than on reasoning. This type of subject matter is the cause of epic late-night cram sessions, desperately trying to fit just a few more facts into your head before morning. Yes, there are grammar rules, but at some point it just comes down to one question:
Do you know what this character means?
And if you, like me, are still around the two to three thousand character mark, the answer quite frequently is ‘no’.
Sometimes I can get around the few pesky ones I don’t know, but sometimes they’re the crux of the question. Example:
Question: “This is really something that makes people ___ uebalvfh!”
Answer choices: all variations on the word “not”
Result: I chose B – FAIL.
Sometimes I understand everything except one of the answer choices, which I choose because I know all the others are wrong. Example:
Question: “During the day she worked until she was exhausted, and at night she had to take care of the kids. ____-ly, the two of them [husband and wife] talked less and less.”
Answer choices: a) often, b) unexpected, c) once or twice, or d) puvalvkj
Result: I chose D – SUCCESS!
Correcting my practice tests is a lesson in humiliation. I’m a 99th-percentile sort of test taker, and my average score on a section of the HSK is somewhere between 60 and 70%. At one point I stopped to check if I was even using the right answer key – it was that bad.
The [only?] nice thing about this sort of test is the way it forces you to be realistic. The night before a Partial Differential Equations test, if I still don’t understand how to solve the wave equation, I can run through examples until the wee hours of the night. I know that type of question will be on the test, and I know that if I understand how to solve it, that I will get that part right. There’s a foreseeable end to the preparation, and therefore a reasonable desire to get there.
With Chinese, on the other hand, I know that the only thing that I could possibly do right now to improve my score tomorrow is to know more characters. And since I’ve already been maxing out, learning 100 new words a day, more just isn’t going to happen. So . . . I plan on brushing up on the myriad ways to say “no matter what”/“even if”, doing my daily flashcard reviews, and going to bed.
Because there is actually one more way I can help myself do better tomorrow: getting enough rest so I don’t fall asleep during the 60-minute reading section, like I have on all three practice tests.