Information about the new HSK (2021)

In April 2021 was published the program of the new HSK, which will be effective in July 2021.

You can download the new HSK program by clicking here (the file is heavy, 51 MB): New HSK (2021) program

This caused a great stir in the community of Chinese language learners and teachers. Before looking at the new features of this program, it is important to clarify the following two points:

First point: when?

According to the official HSK QQ and Tweeter accounts, current HSK test is still the norm. New HSK tests will be phased in over the next 3-5 years (depending on countries and local situations). The certificates of the current HSK remain valid. So we have time. For at least the next 3 years, there is no need to prepare for the new HSK tests, especially since we do not yet know the nature and form of these tests.

For levels 7 to 9, there would be only one exam. The level will be awarded according to the results. For these levels, an experimental test will take place in December 2021. It should then be officially set up in March 2022. As these 3 levels do not exist in the current version of the HSK, we can understand that they are formalized more quickly .

I will gradually create Mandarin Chinese courses according to the program of the new HSK (2021) by adapting the current courses. When these courses will be ready and as long as the current HSK tests are not abandoned for the new HSK ones, both sets of courses will be available on this site with an attached registration. That is, an enrollment in a course of one HSK model will automatically create an enrollment in the equivalent level of the other HSK model, at no additional cost. Here's how the equivalences will work:

Current HSK New HSK (2021)
Level 1 (initiation)
Level 2 Level 1
Level 3 Level 2
Level 4 (first part) Level 3
Level 4 (second part) Level 4

Note that level 1 of the new HSK roughly corresponds to level 2 of the current HSK. In order to keep a very affordable price for those who want to get started in Chinese, I will divide level 1 of the new HSK into two parts:
Initiation which will correspond to the current level 1
Level 1 which will correspond to the current level 2.

Second point: vocabulary

There is some panic over the seemingly huge amount of vocabulary. Some training centers and ill-informed teachers are fueling this panic. "By increasing the threshold of words to know, students will have to work harder to acquire all this vocabulary." This is what you can find on the Internet.

But if we take a closer look at the vocabulary, we first see that a certain number of words should not be counted as such. For example, in level 1, the "words" composed with "above" (车上 ,地上) and expressions 请坐 ,是 不是, etc. should not be considered as words, but as grammatical constructions. Some characters (国,中 for example) are in word lists, yet they are not used alone in Mandarin Chinese and are not considered as words. In the courses of this site, I count them as characters and not as words. In short, the list of the new HSK is quite "inflated".
As we will see later in this article, the number of words actually used in the current HSK tests already exceeds the list of the program.
On the other hand, when you know the characters, the construction of words is quite easy. It is the same principle as knowing the Greco-Latin roots which makes it easier to understand and memorize our words. However, in Chinese, when we know the characters, we know all the roots of the words. Finally, building words from characters is an excellent exercise that sheds light on how Chinese thought works. But, I cannot expand on this point here.

In short, to make a level equivalence, it is better to focus on the list of characters and not the list of words.

WHAT'S NEW IN HSK 3.0 (2021)?

First, let's take a little step back to see previous versions of HSK.

HSK 1.0 became effective in 1990, after 6 years of research and experimentation. HSK 1.0 was divided into three parts and 11 levels in 1997. This was the first level exam of Chinese issued by mainland China for non-natives. More than 26,000 people took this test. 46 examination sites were active in 29 different countries.

HSK 2.0 is the current HSK. It became effective in 2009. It is based on 6 levels. Each level has specific vocabulary content. However, it should be noted that this content was not really respected for the reasons we will see later. From level 1 to 3, a content of grammar points was also specified. These 6 levels were put in parallel with those of the CEFR. But this parallel has often been criticized given the low content of level 1. Indeed, the main modification of HSK 2.0 is the simplification of the first levels. The goal was clearly stated: to encourage the learning of Chinese.

HSK 3.0. The program will be officially effective on July 1, 2021, but the tests for the first 6 levels will not be in place for 3 to 5 years. For the level 7 to 9 common test, for which there is no equivalent in the current HSK, a first exam will take place in December 2021 to "experience" the novelty. It should then be officially put in place in March 2022.

HSK 3.0 will be divided into 3 main parts and 9 levels:
Part 1 (Beginner 初等水平) level 1, 2 and 3.
Part 2 (Intermediate 中等水平) : level 4, 5 and 6.
Part 3 Advanced 高等水平): level 7, 8 and 9.

Levels 7 to 9 have a common program. There will be an unique exam and the level will be awarded based on the test results.

The 6 levels (+ part 3) have a very precise program in terms of syllables, characters, words and grammar point.

And this is the great and really interesting novelty of HSK 3.0: the program is not only based on vocabulary words lists but also on characters lists.

Before going any further, it should be noted that in Chinese, "word" and "character" are two very different things. A character can be one (or even more) word and a word can be composed of one, two, three or even four characters. Some characters have a meaning, for example guó "country", but are not used in isolation. The WORD "country" is 国家 guójiā in 2 characters. Each of these two characters are reused in a large number of words. Example: 中国 , 法国 , 外国 , 国外 / 家人 , 搬家 , 家里 人, etc.

It is a big mistake to confuse character and word in Chinese.

The big problem with HSK 1.0 and 2.0 is that the content is vocabulary-based, not character-based. However, as we have just said, the reuse of characters from the same level makes it possible to construct a much larger number of vocabulary words than that presented in the level concerned. These words are also found in the annals of HSK 2.0 even though they are not present in the vocabulary list of the program. It is for this reason that in the courses of this site we have more vocabulary words per level than those announced in the program. I called these words “variants.” For example, for HSK 2.0 level 1, the official list has 150 vocabulary words, whereas I have counted 211 in the annals, and this number can easily be increased even further. I only stuck to the variants of the annals.

One of the big changes of HSK 3.0 is that it incorporates character lists and this notion of reusing characters to form words. Vocabulary learning is optimized.

I welcome this because it is a principle that I was already using in the courses on, hence the higher number of vocabulary words than in the HSK program.

HSK 3.0 (2021) program

Levels Syllables Characters
Words Grammar
Advanced 7→9 202 / 1110 1200 / 3000 500 / 1200 5636 / 11092 148 / 572
Intermediate 6 86 / 908 300 / 1800 400 / 700 1140 / 5456 67 / 424
5 98 / 822 300 / 1500 1071 / 4316 71 / 357
4 116 / 724 300 / 1200 1000 / 3245 76 / 286
Beginner 3 140 / 608 300 / 900 300 973 / 2245 81 / 210
2 199 / 468 300 / 600 772 / 1272 81 / 129
1 269 300 500 48
Total 1110 3000 1200 11092 572

We can notice the column “Syllables”. This is the part of the program that makes the least sense to me. A “phonetics and phonology” part would have been very interesting, but I don't see what use can be made of giving a list of syllables. From an educational point of view, this is nonsense.

Then come the characters, words and grammar column with the additional number per level / total.

There was already a grammar program in HSK 2.0 up to level 3. It is much more detailed in HSK 3.0.

The main novelty is, as we saw above, the list of characters.

Another great innovation is the integration of skills by level with sometimes quite precise benchmarks.

This is some examples from level 1:
Listening: be able to understand a dialogue up to 80 characters at a rate of 100 syllables per minute minimum. Pictures or objects can help understanding.
Speaking: knowing how to use vocabulary and grammar points to express yourself simply.
Reading: be able to read a text of 100 characters maximum with a reading rate of 80 characters per minute minimum. Pictures or objects can help understanding.
Writting: be able to write 100 characters of the level (out of the 300) respecting the order and direction of writing as well as elementary punctuation, with a minimum speed of 10 characters per minute. Be able to write simple words or sentences on basic personal information.

Notice the difference in the amount of characters for reading (300) and for writing (100). This is inspired by Joël Bellassen's character threshold lists. It is pedagogically very interesting because we always know more characters in reading than in writing. The characters to know in writing are not presented by level (1 to 9), but by part (beginner, intermediate and advanced).

When I have more time and have progressed in upgrading the courses to the HSK 3.0 program, I will talk about the content of the program in more detail.

Last modified: Tuesday, 1 June 2021, 11:52 AM