Me listening to native Mandarin at natural speed: Uh, what? 慢说. 我说的不好。
Right now, I’m studying the vocabulary for the HSK 1 exam. A lot of Chinese-language learners are questioning whether HSK is just character memorization with no practical application. Some see it as fairly meaningless bit of paper that tests how well one studied for the HSK, rather than a real reflection of Mandarin ability. From the practice exams I’ve done, a large part of the HSK exam really is testing how well you take vocabulary tests, a bit like the verbal SATs, circa 1990s. So I can look for familiar radicals and make a smart guess, which is an entirely different skill from a real second-language conversation.
Mandarin ability is such a slippery concept. Is it ability to have a simple conversation in Chinese? What if I’m just listening for key words and not actually understanding all of it? Ability to read a menu? Read the paper? Follow a TV show? Write legibly? Type in Chinese? Gain enough fluency with standard Mandarin you can understand local dialects? Use a radical dictionary?
I don’t think exams and GPAs are necessarily good metrics of ability, but I recognize that other people do care about grades and stuff. My applied Mandarin got me through 2.5 years of second-language life, so now I think I want to increase my vocabulary from survival words and earn a more formal qualification. If I look for another job in China, I don’t think anyone will nearly as impressed with “successfully reordered drinking water” as they will be with a passed exam. I hope I get a certificate with a cool red stamp.