HSK6 Test Experience for a Native Chinese Speaker

HSK6 vs native Chinese fluency

“Even a native Chinese speaker would have trouble with the HSK6!” You might think.

Yes, HSK6 is the last step of the HSK tests. It’s the highest level to reach for non-native Chinese speakers. Hanban (HSK organizer) says HSK6 corresponds precisely to C2 level (educated native speaker) of CERF (the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages).

But is it true? Is HSK6 hard for native Chinese speakers? What do native speakers think of the HSK6?

In this post, we interviewed Ayae, a girl born and grew up in Beijing to shed light on this question. Ayae is a native speaker of both Chinese and Japanese (she has a Chinese dad and a Japanese mom). She took the HSK6 test at the age of 16 when she was attending a local high school in Beijing.

Why did you take the HSK test, being a native Chinese speaker?

Well, I am still a foreigner in China. I was granted Japanese citizenship when I was born. Even though I went to local schools all the way to adulthood in Beijing, and spoke Mandarin as well as everybody else around me, I still needed the HSK certificate to apply for a university in China. That’s why I took the HSK6 test in my freshman year of high school.

HSK6 vs native fluency

Did you do well in the HSK6 test? What marks did you score?

I am embarrassed to say I only got 275 out of 300 (96 in listening, 90 in reading and 89 in writing), which is kind of low for a native Chinese speaker. I thought I could get higher marks since I had been living in China all my life. I was also surprised to find out later that a few international students who studied Chinese as a foreign language scored higher than me in the HSK6 at my university.

HSK6 score report

Did you make any preparation for the HSK6 test?

Not, I did not make any preparation for the test. I only had a rough idea of what HSK6 was like and that was it. If I had done some preparation, I would’ve gotten higher marks, I think. But back then everyone said HSK6 was a breeze for native Chinese – even a kid in fifth grade could easily pass it, so I just did the 裸考 (literally “naked test”, meaning show up to a test totally unprepared) then.

What was it like to take the HSK6 test as a native Chinese speaker?

We never had any listening test in Chinese at school, so the listening section felt a bit strange to me. I think the conversations were designed very well as they covered a range of topics from the cultural aspects of China to recent scientific discoveries and cutting edge technologies. However, they could be quite challenging to foreigners, as there were some science terminologies and chengyu (traditional Chinese idiomatic expressions) involved in the conversations.

At the beginning of the test, I was not aware that the recording of conversation would be played only once, and I missed a few details in the first conversation because I was skimming the other parts of the section and not being very attentive to what was playing. In our English tests at school, the listening part was always played twice.

One thing that might frustrate foreigners was that the conversations were quite long and the questions were only asked after the conversations finished. But luckily for me, it was easy enough to guess what question was going to be raised at the end by just looking at the answer options. I think that’s easy for Chinese students based on their instinctive understanding of the language.

As for reading, it amazed me that I lost 10 marks in that section. I found “choosing the wrong sentence” (choose the grammatically incorrect sentence, e.g. order of the words, misuse of a word, etc) part a bit confusing, as we had never officially learned Chinese grammar at school. 

For example, there was this sentence that said: 天凉了, 你要穿多点儿衣服 (it’s getting cold, you should put on more clothes). I know 你要多穿点儿衣服 sounds more natural, but in real life, people say 你要穿多点儿衣服, 你要衣服多穿点, even 衣服你要多穿点儿 all the time as well, so I wasn’t sure if the sentence was grammatically correct or wrong.

The other parts of reading, like choosing conjunctive words and particles were very easy, and I think any Chinese could answer the questions without trouble.

The writing wasn’t hard either. I got 89, which was not bad compared to my friend (also Japanese born in China). She only got 77, which was a shock to me, considering she was the best writer in my school. She got the first prize in many writing competitions and her essays were often published in magazines, and she always scored high marks in Chinese tests at school. Maybe she misunderstood the requirement in the HSK6 and added her point of view. (In the HSK6 writing test, you are required to shorten a passage from 1000 characters to 400 characters without adding your point of view)

Do you still think a Chinese kid in fifth grade can pass HSK6 after taking the test personally?

HSK6 vs Chinese kids

It’s still possible but will be very difficult.

It’s not really about language proficiency. I mean, Chinese kids learn hundreds of characters and speak Mandarin fluently already in kindergarten. By fifth grade, they definitely read and write Chinese better than most of the foreign learners that acquire Chinese as a second language. After all, they’ve been exposed to Chinese 24/7 for 10 plus years by fifth grade and it does not make sense to compare with them in terms of proficiency in Chinese.

I’ll just say that the HSK6, or any level of the HSK tests, is designed for testing adults. You have to have the logical thinking and test-taking skills of a grown-up to solve the questions in the test. Plus, the HSK6 test is 140 minutes in length and there are 50 questions to answer in 50 minutes in the reading section. I don’t think young kids have that long attention span. Besides, articles in HSK tests often touch on science and technology, or philosophy and abstract concepts, making comprehension more difficult for kids. It’s just not a proper measure of language for kids, Chinese or non-Chinese.

I agree. That’s why there is also the YCT test (Youth Chinese Test) for kids. What about the Chinese exams in local high school? Are they more difficult than HSK6?

Yes, the Chinese exams in my high school are more difficult than HSK6. They are quite different actually. The Chinese course we took in school is called 语文 (language and literature) instead of 中文 (Chinese language). We were tested on Chinese culture knowledge, reading and writing skills which were quite complex, such as the mastery of classical Chinese and poetry, and the ability to write well-knit, sophisticated essay, etc. You have to know a lot about Chinese history and literature, both the contemporary and the ancient, and be a good writer to do well in the exam, whereas in the HSK6, you just need to write correctly, not beautifully. After all, HSK6 only tests your language proficiency and nothing else. I think most Chinese high school students can pass the HSK6 without much effort.

Chinese exam in local middle school
an excerpt from a local Chinese exam for 9th graders

Do you think a foreign learner at HSK6 level can function in Chinese to the same ability as an educated native speaker in China?

It’s hard to say since technically you only need to score 180 out of 300 to obtain the HSK6 certificate. If you get high marks in the test, I think generally there is no problem being on a Chinese campus, listening to lectures and joining school activities, or in a work environment. If you barely pass the HSK6 test, it will be difficult. In terms of difficulty level, I think the HSK6 is roughly equal to 6 to 7th grade in a Chinese school, definitely not college or high school.

What do you suggest advanced learners do to further progress to total proficiency in Chinese?

There is a lot they can do. For example, reading Chinese novels, watching talk shows on TV, listening to podcasts, writing a thesis in Chinese, etc. One particularly effective way I can think of to increase vocabulary drastically is to download a Chinese news app like Netease and read news whenever you are free.

Thank you for your time!

It’s my pleasure.

Conclusion: HSK6 vs Native Fluency

The abilities of native speakers and second language learners just don’t match up in many ways.

HSK6 test is not hard for educated native Chinese speakers as it corresponds to a middle school (6 to 7th grade) Chinese exam in terms of difficulty level. While HSK6 is sufficient for general social, academic, and professional situations, there is still a gap from HSK6 to total proficiency in Chinese.

That said, if you keep on learning from that point, progressing further to total proficiency won’t be too hard.