How to Assess Your Chinese Level

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Assessing your level of Chinese may sound simple but it is easier said than done. There is no objective test that can accurately measure your ability to understand and use Chinese. Moreover, categories like ‘elementary’, ‘intermediate’ and ‘advanced’ are used so loosely and in such varied contexts that they are virtually meaningless. Add to this the fact that reading, writing, listening and speaking skills rarely progress at exactly the same pace. One learner may be able to read novels in Chinese yet not yet feel comfortable uttering a sentence. Another might be illiterate yet conversationally fluent. Labelling a learner’s competency requires an element of subjective judgment. Below I list four ways in which you can attempt to assess your Mandarin proficiency, discuss each method’s pros and cons and offer an estimation of my of my own level according to each method.

Method 1: Assessed by Non-Chinese Speakers

This is by far the most unreliable way of assessing your level of Chinese. A few years ago a video emerged of Marc Zuckerberg being interviewed in Chinese. When I first watched this video I had not yet started learning Chinese. Zuckerberg seemed completely fluent to me. He appeared able to understand the questions and answer them freely. If you had asked me to assess his level of Chinese I would probably have said ‘advanced’. Watching Zuckerberg’s video several years later with the benefit of being able to understand the conversation I would assess him as elementary – possibly higher elementary. That is by no means an insult. Achieving a higher elementary level of spoken Chinese requires a significant amount of effort, especially if you have a full time job.

I, too, am able to speak Chinese in a way that could convince non-Chinese speakers that I am at an advanced level. Actually, I have been able to do this for a couple of years – in this sense I haven’t advanced at all. This way of assessing one’s level has the advantage of being the most generous. You could be speaking complete gibberish and beginner learners would still assess you as fully competent.

My Method 1 Level: Super Elite Advanced

Method 2: Assessed by Exam

For those who require a piece of paper to prove their level, the official Chinese exam is the 汉语水平考试 (HSK) which assesses your listening, reading and writing skills. The HSK is set at six levels: 1-2, beginner, 3-4 intermediate and 5-6 advanced. That sounds simple enough, but there’s a problem. Each level includes a list of words which you need to cram in order to pass the test. As with all vocabulary lists, the decision to include certain words at the exclusion of others is quite arbitrary. Many words which you will commonly encounter in everyday life don’t appear, whilst words you would almost never encounter do. As a result these exams do not measure your proficiency in Chinese as much as your ability to cram for the exam.

Two years ago I passed the HSK 3 exam. I was overjoyed to receive a piece of paper which confirmed to the world that I had officially reached an intermediate level. I studied very hard for the exam, memorising around 600 characters and practicing countless past papers. The problem was I still couldn’t actually do anything in Chinese. News articles were impossible to read and I could never understand what native speakers were saying. What’s more, for three months I had done nothing except cram for the test. During this time, my practice tests scores went up but my ability to interact with native speakers remained stagnant. I have since avoided HSK exams and instead concentrated my efforts on comprehending native podcasts and books. Based on my current level, if I were to study for an exam it would be HSK 5. However, for reasons already discussed I don’t believe this tells us anything about my actual level.

My Method 2 Level: Higher Intermediate/ Lower Advanced

Method 3: Assessed by Honest Native Tutor

In my view the most reliable method is to consult a native speaker – preferably a tutor – who has ample experience of interacting with Chinese learners. It’s important to make sure that their verdict is not influenced by a fear of offending you. Opinions should therefore be sought from those you can trust rather than those who scream “哇! 你的中文很棒!” each time you say “你好”. Furthermore, the tutor should avoid measuring your level relative to that of other learners. If you persist in studying Chinese for longer than a year you will find yourself in a minority of people who have stayed the course. For this reason your Chinese will be more advanced than a large majority of learners. But being in the top 10% of learners says nothing about what you can do in the language.

Through conversations with trusted Chinese friends and tutors I would place my current level at lower/mid-intermediate. At this level I have moved beyond learner textbooks and study exclusively using material intended for native speakers: podcasts, articles, novels etc. However, I am still working towards being able to fluently comprehend longer material. When reading novels I have to look up around 5-10% words on each page. When listening to podcasts, audiobooks and TV shows I often need to pause and rewind if I want to understand them fully.

My Method 3 Level: Lower/Mid-Intermediate

Method 4: Honest Self-Assessment

This method is both the easiest and the most difficult. It is the easiest because you don’t need to spend energy consulting other people or taking a test. It is the hardest because we are all prone to self-deception. In order to avoid deceiving ourselves there are a couple of tools which can help. The first is to think: how would I assess a Chinese person’s language level if their ability to understand and express themselves in English were at the same level as my Chinese? For example, imagining a Chinese person with a similar level of English to my Mandarin when I passed the ‘intermediate’ HSK 3 exam, it would feel generous to describe their proficiency as higher elementary.

A second tool is to measure your ability against an independent framework which describes what you should be able to do at each level of language proficiency. The CEFR framework is useful here. It measures proficiency on a six point scale: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2 – with A1 the most elementary level and C2 the most advanced. A person is deemed B1 in English if they can “understand the main points of clear standard speech on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.” B2 is achieved if they can “understand extended speech and lectures and follow even complex lines of argument provided the topic is reasonably familiar.” Based on this framework I judge my Mandarin level at an upper B1 progressing towards B2.

My Method 4 Level: Lower/Mid-Intermediate

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