Whether to take the HSK or TOCFL depends on where you want to go. The HSK, or Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, is the official Mandarin fluency test of Mainland China; if you’re planning to work or study there, that’s the test you should take. The TOCFL, or Test of Chinese as a Foreign Language. Is the official Mandarin fluency test of Taiwan; so if you’re planning to work or study there, you should take that test. While there’s some more detailed differences between the two tests, that the core of the difference. An employer or university in Beijing wants the HSK and will not care in the slightest what level TOCFL test you’ve passed, and vice-versa in Taipei.
What’s the difference in the actual test?
Alright, the big difference is in the characters. The HSK uses simplified characters while the TOCFL uses traditional characters. This means that even when the spoken word and pinyin for the two tests might be identical, the Chinese characters will look different. For example:
Simplified Chinese: 总统
Traditional Chinese: 總統
So if you’ve learned simplified Chinese characters, you won’t really be able to read traditional Chinese unless you spend the time to learn those characters.
The other big difference is the speaking section. Both test have listening, reading, and writing sections but the TOCFL explicitly includes a speaking section where the HSK has a separate test just for speaking, the HSKK.
There’s a few other minor differences. The vocabulary is a bit different but you should be taking any vocabulary list as a starting point and learning a broader vocabulary; it’s not uncommon for the HSK and TOCFL to include words on the test not included in their listed vocabulary. Also, the TOCFL scoring system is really weird but I wouldn’t worry about it, just do your best and worry about passing or failing, rather than trying to understand the score.
How easy is it to learn traditional characters if you know simplified?
Not too hard, it just takes time that most people don’t want to spend. I mean, learning Chinese is already pretty tough; most people don’t want to add the difficulty of learning 500+ new characters unless they need to and most people don’t. It’s probably better to try to pick up traditional characters if you’re already pretty fluent but if you’re in the beginner or intermediate stage, it’s really not worth the additional work unless there’s a job or scholarship on the line.
HackingChinese had a great post going into more detail on this: https://www.hackingchinese.com/simplified-and-traditional-chinese/
How do the individual levels compare?
Very, very roughly, TOCFL tests are equivalent to HSK tests one level higher:
|Level 1||Level 1|
|Level 2||Level 4|
|Level 4||Level 5|
|Level 5||Level 6|
In terms of the difficulty of the questions, I haven’t noticed any major differences, as long as you adjust for levels. The TOCFL level 4 reading questions aren’t much more or less difficult than the HSK 5 reading questions, except that I think the HSK tends to use more pictures at the lower levels.
How do I take the HSK or TOCFL?
For the HSK, you need to go to the Hanban website, sign up for the next available test (held roughly once a month), and then travel to an official Confucius Institute, usually at a nearby university. If you want to learn more, read the guide.
As for the TOCFL, you’ll probably be taking that online. There’s just not a lot of good locations to take the TOCFL but it is relatively easy to take it from your home using their online testing system. We’ve got a guide for that as well if you want to learn more.
Looking for more resources? Check out all of our HSK tools and resources.