What is the HSK 2?
The HSK is China’s official fluency test and passing the HSK 2 indicates an amateur fluency in Chinese, equivalent to about two semesters of study. It’s run by the Confucius Institute and used by Chinese universities, businesses, and government agencies to judge a foreigner’s Chinese fluency.
As for the test itself, you should expect about 40 (update) questions focused on listening and reading (update). Reading questions involve reading a short sentence and then answering a related questions, usually either a True/False question or choosing the most appropriate next line of dialogue. Listening is similar except it involves listening to audio recordings of short sentences and sometimes matching those sentences to pictures.
In terms of the difficulty, here’s a sample reading questions:
Question: 你 觉得 她怎么样?
Answer: 她 很高,也 很漂亮,我非常喜欢 她.
If you want to learn more about the HSK 2, I’d like to share some of 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, they basically just want 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 2 expects you to have memorized 300 characters. At least that’s what all the books, bloggers, and Hanban itself will tell you but between you and me 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 300-word list, you’ll see a lot of words not on the list because the writers of the HSK can and will use whatever characters they think are appropriate.
So, while you should definitely focus on the 300 “official” characters, make sure you study podcasts, textbooks, or some other source that will introduce you to words appropriate for your level.
The best online vocabulary list I’ve found 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 2 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 2
There’s basically five ways to study 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 2, I think you probably want flashcards, videos and podcasts. Towards the end when you’re getting ready to actually take the HSK 2, you should hire a tutor.
Most of the tools that worked for the HSK 1 will also work for the HSK 2. You should be comfortable using flashcards and there’s a lot of great videos and podcasts out there to teach you beginner Chinese. While a tutor isn’t really necessary for the HSK 2, it definitely will be for the HSK 3 so I recommend getting one towards the end so you can smoothly transition from using videos and podcasts to learn beginner Chinese to the textbooks and tutors you’ll need to study intermediate Chinese like the HSK 3.
I hope you’re familiar with flashcards by now. if not flashcards refer to either physical cards or computer programs which show you a Chinese character and maybe play a spoken clip of the word and then you have to remember the definition of the Chinese character. This is core to any study of Chinese because you need to memorize 3000+ characters and it’s basically brute memorization. Flashcards are just the best and easiest way to do this memorization and if you aren’t yet using them, this is a great time to start because it’ll be absolutely crucial later.
Of all the flashcard programs out there, I recommend Anki for two big reasons: 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,
I don’t think books are a great tool for learning Chinese at the HSK 2 level. They’re good for grammar and sentence structure but not much more. Videos and podcasts are better for the vocabulary and simple phrases you need for the HSK 2 and a lot more fun.
If you do want a book, I recommend the Chinese Made Easy series. It’s clear what you’re learning in each chapter, there’s a great exercises, and it spends a lot of time clarifying grammar and sentence structure. I recommend both the textbook and the workbook with extra exercises.
There’s a couple great podcasts at this level and this is one of the best levels for listening to podcasts. Podcasts are at their best for going through simple sentences and making sure you understand them, which is exactly what you want.
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.
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.
Videos have a lot of the same advantages as podcasts: they’re fun and can cover the relevant topic matter easily.
While the playlist is short, ChinesePod has a few “pre-intermediate” episodes that teach you a bit more about China, like the tiered cities, while also teaching you Chinese.
And then, if you just want the vocabulary, hsk.academy has a 10 minute video running through the entire HSK 2 vocabulary. Short and sweet.
Tutoring is absolutely necessary…but not quite yet. You really want to be able to practice speaking and listening to complete sentences and having back-and-forth conversations with a tutor and while this is technically possible at the HSK 2 level, your conversations are going to be really limited.
And it’s hard to justify the $200/month that most tutors cost when you really don’t need it yet. If you can afford a tutor, you can definitely get mileage out of it at this level, especially in learning tones and other elements not in the HSK but super important for speaking Mandarin. I just don’t think you’re getting $200/month value from a tutor quite yet.
I do recommend getting a tutor right before you take the HSK 2. They’ll be able to help you polish any problem areas before you take the test and then you can smoothly transition to the HSK 3, which is where you really start needing a tutor.
Make sure you test out two or three tutors. You’re going to be with the same tutor for awhile so it’s worth having 2-3 lessons with several different tutors and finding someone who you get along with and who is an effective teacher.
There’s a few tutors I can recommend in China. Just email me at Will@rulinmandarin.com at I’ll connect you. You should expect to pay about $20 a lesson which is standard.
eChineseLearning isn’t the best overall service I’ve seen but they do offer classes for as little as $11 and they do have teachers specializing in the HSK so if money is tight they’re probably you’re best bet.
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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