When I hacked the Mandarin exam

I did it. I passed my exam Mandarin (HSK-3) after only 68 hours of class. I will tell you how I did it in a minute, but first let me tell you why.

HSK stands for Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi which translates to Chinese level examination. It is meant to test non-native speakers on their level of listening, reading and writing Mandarin. There is 6 levels and I did not do HSK-1 or 2 before. Then why did I enroll the HSK-3 exam?

Honestly, it’s mostly because I am an idiot.

Since my Brazilian Jiu Jitsu instructor said “Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn” I am trying to fail at as many things as possible. So when I was enrolling I had this huge Fuck-It moment and clicked HSK-3 instead of 2.

Then consecutive business trips, holidays and the leave of my online teacher kept me from taking a single class for more than 2 months. (Excuses I know!) 18 days before the examination I got myself to work and met my new online teacher. I asked her to prep me for the exam. She replied:

“How many of the 600 characters can you read and write?”

Oops! I did not know that HSK-3 was the first exam that includes writing and reading characters. Beginners start with learning Pinyin, a phonetic alphabet. She tried to talk me out of it and explained that people need 120 to 150 classes before entering the HSK-3 exam. But the reply “Maybe you’re not the right teacher for me” triggered her into our commitment to the preparation.

In all honesty, I am not worthy of the HSK-3 level (yet) because I hacked the exam and forgot a lot the next day. The point is that it doesn’t matter at all because I studied and learned more than ever in such a short time frame.

I have to give a lot of credit to Tim Ferriss and Benny Lewis because their article about how to learn languages helped me a great deal. Read it here. It was their advice with these fine factors on top that pulled me through:

1 – Luck. I was really lucky. Scored 183 out of 300. 180 was the minimum to pass.

2 – Putting in the time. It sounds simple on paper, but we are all busy, face many distractions and excuses. What works really well for me is giving advice to myself as if I was some else. Let’s face it, it’s easier to give some else good advice than to follow your own. Once you’ve given yourself the advice to do this or that, you take your agenda and schedule as required. A former boxing world champion by the name of Regilio Tuur once told me that he hadn’t missed a day of training since his retirement simply because he has appointments at the gym -with himself! “I think of myself as the most important person in my life” he added. We should not skip appointments with that person.

3 – Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn. There is absolutely no reason to set realistic goals. Even though I ran into new words at the examination itself and my teacher tried to talk me out of it until the night before, I didn’t feel I was crazy for a single moment. Now I do, but then didn’t.

4 – Here also the Pareto rule applied. 80% of the conversation involves 20% of the words and characters. At the exam it was something closer to 65/35. In the first 2 days I found out my mind could digest a maximum of 25 new characters per day and only if those words were already in my Chinese spoken vocabulary. I decided to focus on 350 words and characters instead of 600.

5 – First focus on your strong points. In my case the listening. For each listening, reading and writing a 100 points were rewarded. The listening got me an almost 100% score, The reading a little over 60. The Writing part was my weakest part. I only scored 20 out of 100. (not bad after 18 days of practice) Do you want to take a job you’re not good at? Hell no. So focus on what your good at. Always.

6 – Every day I would create 25 new post-its. The biggest part of the post-it would be used to write a new character. In the corner I wrote the Pinyin, usually in red and a lot smaller. I would try not to stick the post-its to my wall in a logical order. Then 2 times a day I would go to my wall and read the characters out loud while covering the Pinyin with a long spoon. It was ridiculous, effective and fun!  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.