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Learning Chinese the Chinese way

By Peh Shing Huei, China Bureau Chief

BEIJING: When South Korean student Yi Da Hye came to China in 2004, she could speak a smattering of Mandarin but struggled with sentences and could write only a few Chinese characters.

After five years of drilling for the state-run Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) or 'Chinese Proficiency Test' here, the 27-year-old has been certified as an 'Advanced' student of the language and is sharp enough to major in Chinese at the elite Peking University.

'I learnt a lot during the preparation of the HSK tests. I have no problem conversing with Chinese, and I have a lot of Chinese friends,' she told The Straits Times on Wednesday.

The HSK, which is China's Mandarin Chinese equivalent of Britain's International English Language Testing System (IELTS) and the United States' Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), has been mentioned this week as a possible model for Singapore as the Government looks to revamp Chinese language teaching.

But the Chinese test is also undergoing changes itself.

Memory work will be slashed when the new HSK kicks in this year, with emphasis given to comprehension and communication, especially on the usage of the language in daily life.

It is believed to be the first time the two-decade-old test is undergoing a revamp, as it seeks to improve its examination of Chinese proficiency among non-native speakers.

'We have been studying the IELTS and TOEFL, and finding our own way towards the new model,' said Mr Zhou, a department head of the Office of Chinese Language Council International, or Hanban. He declined to give his full name.

There will be six levels - one being the lowest.

An oral component will also be introduced, using short conversations and dialogues on daily events.

For the basic learners, the test uses a large number of pictures and pinyin to help the students. Native languages of the students, such as English for example, are also used to guide the students along.

'We want to keep things lively and the key to learning a new language is to ensure the student is not discouraged,' said Mr Zhou.

'So we have no problem using English to teach Chinese at the introductory level. But once we are in the intermediate classes, it will almost entirely be in Chinese.'

To clear the first grade in HSK, a student starting from scratch would need to know about 150 Chinese words. It is an effort which would generally require full-time learning over six months.

'The most basic HSK is very tough and challenging for those without any knowledge of Mandarin, especially for the Westerners,' said Ms Jane Wang, a teacher from Ambassador Mandarin, a private centre in Beijing that coaches foreigners on Chinese.

'Normally, if a student takes five hours a day to learn in our centre, he will need at least four months to prepare for the basic HSK test. And it doesn't mean he will pass it.'

Both students and experts that The Straits Times spoke to agreed that even passing the highest level of the HSK does not equate to proficiency. The key, they say, is still usage and immersion.

'If you pass Level 3 and immerse yourself in Beijing for months, you will have no problem interacting with the locals,' said Mr Zhou. 'But even if you obtain Level6, if you are not soaked in a conducive language environment, you most probably will still struggle to converse or read Chinese newspapers.'

Added Ms Wang: 'HSK is helpful in teaching people Mandarin, but passing the test does not mean that a person can use it freely. He must practice it often.'