The world's most recognized Chinese language proficiency exam is changing. We dove deep into the data so you know what to expect.
All the "New" HSK exam analyses and word lists that you see on the Internet (including this one!) are based on the recently-updated 'Chinese Proficiency Standards', which guide but do not define the requirements for the HSK exams. When official updates to the HSK requirements are published, we will update this article accordingly.
The most obvious change is the addition of three new levels: 7, 8, and 9:
Unlike Levels 1-6 which have their own exams, Levels 7-9 will be a single exam, where your performance will determine which Level you receive.
The new Level 7-9 exams are not just more granular testing; they are substantially more difficult.
On the "Old" HSK, Level 6 was considered "advanced". On the "New" HSK, Level 6 is considered "intermediate":
Of course, these are just labels. Chinese is not getting harder; rather, the criteria by which each proficiency title is applied are changing.
If you've passed HSK 6, your skills won't decrease simply because your level is now categorized differently.
You may have seen charts similar to this:
Charts like this can be misleading. While they do evaluate the total number of Chinese words you need to know, they ignore which words are found in each level.
Which is important, because it doesn't matter if you know 5,000 words if they aren't the words you will be tested on!
We've analyzed each Level from the new Chinese standards and compared them with the existing "Old" HSK exam. Pay attention to removals and additions:
Roughly speaking, about 10% of the HSK vocabulary (from the "old" exams) has been removed from Levels 1-4. In Level 5, about 15% was removed.
At HSK 6, a whopping 42% of the words were removed (2,076)!
If you thought you'd "only" have to learn 396 new words to go from the "old" HSK 6 to the "new" HSK 6, you're in for a surprise: you actually need to learn 2,472 new words!
Curious which words were removed from each level?
We were too! Here's what we found:
The New Standards document lists all the grammar requirements per level. Our team is at work analyzing this vs. the previous exams, and will update this section when we have more to share.
Looking at the number of patterns per level, it's safe to say each Level of the new exam will include more grammar patterns than were tested before.
Unlike with vocabulary, the new grammar patterns are unlikely to be "new" (not seen on the test before), but simply shifts from later levels to earlier levels.
The "New" Chinese Proficiency Standards list various forms of handwriting ability at every Level. If the HSK exams adopt these requirements, it will be even bigger news than the greatly expanded vocabulary requirements, as it will mean students not only need to recognize words, but know how to write them from memory.
We have some doubts that handwriting skill (as described in the standards document) will be tested on the New HSK exam. More on that below.
First, let's see what the standards say:
Emphasis is given on understanding stroke order and character construction, and there are speeds listed for how quickly you should be able to write:
Why we aren't convinced handwriting will be requiredDisclaimer: These are our opinions, not facts. We make a learning tool that helps students recognize characters, and have written at length why we think most students should probably not learn to handwrite characters.
The "New" HSK Exam requirements (which have not yet been released) will be based on the new Chinese Proficiency standards, but won't necessarily be the same.
Our understanding is that the remit of the bodies who constructed the standards was to create a document that detailed what a non-native learner of Chinese should be able to do at various levels of proficiency.
This is a separate process from creating the actual HSK requirements, as the latter must be pragmatic when designing an exam that will be administered in thousands of testing centers worldwide.
On the "Old" (current) HSK exams, handwriting was optional.
While students could choose to take a paper-based exam and handwrite their answers, most students chose to take the computer-based exam which allowed them to type answers in Pinyin (and then choose characters via recognition).
Requiring all test takers to engage in some form of handwriting would add considerable logistical costs to the exam administrators:
In the modern world, handwriting characters is not typically done outside the classroom; Pinyin + digital devices allow writing in Chinese (by recognition of characters).
If handwriting characters becomes an exam requirement, it may deter some students (who don't need the exam credential for work/school) from taking the exam at all.
If one was thinking of using the HSK as a way to benchmark their Chinese fluency, they might decide not to -- as spending a considerable amount of time learning a skill that you probably won't use after the exam has quite a large opportunity cost.
These factors lead us to have some doubts that a handwriting requirement will make the jump from the Standards to the actual HSK exam. Perhaps handwriting will be optional, like the "Old" (current) exam. Or perhaps it will be tested only at the highest levels of the exam.
Having said that, many Chinese language schools are convinced it will, so we will see!
Some online guides show charts of new character and even syllable requirements. We don't think these requirements are that important to focus on, as they are dominated by the vocabulary requirements. From our practical experience, by the time you know the vocabulary, you'll have learned these meta components anyway.
Put another way, given that the "New" Exam is attempting to more accurately measure language competency, we are confident that words (not individual characters or syllables) will be tested; not the meta components you'll learn along the way.
The dates below are our best estimates. We will update this as new information becomes available.
Until the "New" HSK Levels are given, you will still be able to register for the "Old" Exams, and the certificates you receive for passing will still be valid at institutions that require them (jobs, universities).
If you are just getting started with Mandarin, don't worry about the New HSK exams yet. Following the current HSK lists, or any textbook series that your tutors recommend, or the outstanding curriculums from LTL Mandarin School and ExcelMandarin, or apps like Domino Chinese, will all be worthwhile.
If you planned to take the HSK Level 1-4 exam in the next 24 months, stick to your current plan. The New HSK Exam Levels most likely won't be given until 2024, so you should feel confident sticking with your current study methods, resources, and goals.
If you're an intermediate/advanced student who plans to take HSK Exam Levels 5-9 in the future, start adding the New HSK vocabulary to your study plans. We have all the New HSK Level lists on Hack Chinese, so you can add those now and be ready when the exams can be taken.