What is the HSK 1?
The HSK is the official Chinese fluency test for Mainland China and passing the HSK 1 indicates an amateur or beginner fluency in Chinese, equivalent to a semester or two of study. It is instituted and run by the Confucius Institute and is used by the Chinese government, universities, and businesses to judge the Chinese fluency of all foreigners.
As for the test itself, you should expect about 40 questions focused on listening and reading. Listening means listening to a short audio clip and then answering some kind of question about it; usually either a True/False question or a match the sentence you heard with the appropriate picture. There’s also a reading section with similar questions.
In terms of the difficulty, here are some sample reading questions:
Answer: 好的，谢谢 ！
If you’re looking to learn more about the HSK 1, I’d like to share what I’ve learned taking the HSK in terms of how to take it and how to study for it, including the vocabulary and practice tests.
How to take the HSK
Signing up for the test is easy once you get used to the website. It’s actually pretty good but obviously written by government bureaucrats who don’t speak English as a first language, so be ready to read a page 2-3 times before you get it. Once you get the hang of it, all you need to do is register at the website, find a nearby test center, pick the nearest date, and sign up for the test.
So to register, just go to the Hanban website. They don’t need a whole lot of information, just an email, a password for your account, your nationality, and a little information about how much Chinese you’ve studied so far.
Once you’ve registered an account, you need to find a testing center to take the HSK at. There’s a lot of testing locations all over the world, so you’ll need to look up some nearby facilities on Hanban’s official site. In all likelihood there’s a testing center at your nearest major university, although technically I think they can be anywhere.
Just a quick note, you might see references to an “online” test in your searches. Don’t get your hopes up. Online doesn’t mean you can take it at home, it just means you can use a computer to take the test at the testing center and the results are captured on the computer and sent electronically to be graded. The alternative, which I’ve never used, is apparently a pen and paper test.
Next you’ll need to choose a date for the test. Hanban writes the dates in Chinese but you can find a dates in English at the University of Nottingham. As a rule of thumb, there’s roughly one test a month and you need to register roughly one month in advance, so plan on signing up six to eight weeks before taking the test.
Once you’re registered, you just show up at the testing center at the right time and take the test. Typically this is held in a university classroom and run by the local professor of Chinese and a TA or two. I recommend showing up early because unfamiliar university campuses can be tough to navigate. Remember to bring ID.
Once you’re done you can log back into the Hanban website and look up your score. It typically takes them about a month to post the score and I never got an email from them so you have to go and check the site to get your score.
The HSK 1 expects you to have memorized 150 characters. At least that’s what Hanban says but it’s a complete lie. The writers of the HSK feel free to use any Chinese words they think are appropriate so while there is an official list, expect to see a lot of words on the test that aren’t on the list.
So, while you should definitely focus on the 150 “official” characters, make sure you study from a textbook or some other source that will introduce you to words appropriate for your level.
For my money, the best online vocabulary list is over at hsk.academy if you just want to see the words.
Before you take the test, you definitely want to take a practice test to see if you’ll pass and get used to the kind of questions on the HSK. While it’s a bit too big to post here, you can read my HSK 1 Practice Test post to take an abbreviated practice test online or download five full practice tests as pdfs. All these practice tests are official mock tests distributed by Hanban itself.
Best learning tools for the HSK 1
In general, there’s five kinds of learning tools for Chinese: Flashcards, Book, Podcasts, Videos, and Tutors. What kind of tools are best for you will change as your Chinese fluency increases. For the HSK 1, I think you’re best off focusing on Flashcards and Videos.
In a weird way, the HSK 1 has the best options for learning tools. A lot of people have built great free materials to help you learn beginner Chinese and it’s simple enough that you don’t need to worry about expensive options like tutors. While later on you’ll definitely want to look into books and tutors, for the HSK 1 all you really need is to memorize the characters and learn some basic phrases.
Flashcards at the HSK 1 level are less about the specific tool you use and more about getting used to using flashcards. If you haven’t used these before, it involves looking at a Chinese character on a card, maybe hearing it spoken aloud if you’re using a computer program, and then remembering the definition. It really is brute memorization training and it’s the bedrock of learning Chinese. There’s no way around it, to learn Chinese you need to memorize 3000+ Chinese characters and that requires a lot of memorization.
There’s two big reasons you want to use Anki: spaced repetition and longevity. Spaced repetition refers to why you want to use computer flashcards rather than paper flashcards. Back in the 80’s they designed a computer program to track which characters you remember and which you don’t and then alter the next lesson to focus on the characters you have trouble remembering. So, for example, if you remember 什么 with no difficulty, the program makes sure you don’t see that character for a week, while if you can’t remember 谢谢 the computer program will make sure you see it every day until you memorize it. This prevents you wasting time memorizing things you already know and focus on those characters you need help with. Longevity is why you use Anki instead of any of the other apps or websites. Basically, Anki is the oldest, the best, and the other with the best range of characters. If you use another app or website, you’ll probably have to switch away around HSK 4 or HSK 5 because they don’t have good flashcards for that level. If you get Anki, you can use it for your entire career studying Chinese. In my experience, if you use a different product, you’ll have to shift over to Anki at some later point,
There’s a couple HSK books but I wouldn’t really recommend them. Frankly, videos and podcasts are going to convey the information you want better than the book and they don’t cost you any money. Books are better for grammar and reading practice but neither of those are big concerns at this level.
If you still want a book, try Chinese Made Easy 1. I learned using this book and it’s perfectly fine.
In general, I think videos are better for learning than podcasts but if you want to practice Chinese on your commute or while you working out, then podcasts can work well.
Coffee Break Chinese has two fun hosts and they spend a lot of time explaining what’s going on. The episodes are on the longer side though, so set aside 20-30 minutes per episode.
And if you’re willing to pay for a podcast, the ChinesePod podcast is highly recommended. I recall there being some free episodes floating around, so if you can find some on your podcast app I strongly recommend it.
Videos are great for learning Chinese for the HSK 1. A lot of people make great materials for beginners and it’s much more engaging than books or podcasts. Not only do you get a great lesson, you usually get to see different parts of action and people using Chinese in real-life situations.
For a good overview of sentences and phrases, I like the playlist ChineseForUS put together. It’s 34 fairly short episodes going through common phrases and sentences. Sometimes they assume you already know some things they haven’t covered yet but it’s pretty easy to lookup anything you haven’t seen before.
Of course, sometimes you just want the straight vocabulary, in which case I recommend HSK Academy’s Vocabulary List. In 11 minutes they go through all 150 words on the HSK 1.
I strongly recommend getting a tutor…but not yet. See, tutors are critical for learning to actively listen and speak Chinese. At the HSK 1 level though, you don’t know enough Chinese to really be practicing these things. You’re basically stuck practicing travel basic like “Hi, how are you” and “Where’s the bathroom”.
And that can be valuable, even at the HSK 1 level, but a good tutor is going to cost $200 or more a month. I just can’t justify that expense for what they can provide at this level. It’s like driving a Ferrari to go grocery shopping: a really expensive solution to a very simple challenge.
Now, if time is critical or you’ve got plenty of spare money, a tutor can definitely help and I’d recommend:
eChineseLearning isn’t the best overall service I’ve seen but they do have specialized classes for learning the HSK 1 and they do offer classes for as little as $11 so they’re probably you’re best bet.
The team over at TutorMing is really solid, especially if you’re looking for someone to teach your young child. Expect to pay about $250 a month.
Finally, if you don’t want to work with a service, try looking through the classifieds at the Beijinger. It’s a magazine/website for foreigners living in Beijing and there’s always about 100 ads for tutors willing to teach foreigners. I’m sure they’d be willing to teach online. It’s more work to set up but you’ll know exactly who you’ll be working with.
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