Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Spoken Chinese straight from the book

"That's some great notes you've got there, dear!"

Yesterday I had my last, out of three exams (speaking, grammar and listening. We also had an essay writing exam some weeks ago. I am still having nightmares about that one), namely my 口语 (kou yu) exam.

口语 (kou yu) is spoken Chinese, so I was a bit surprised when I got the exam, that consisted of 2 different parts:

Part 1: Written test: including character writing, writing sentences, explaining typical Chinese expression phrases by using your own (written) words, and completing dialogues by using special (read: chosen) words/expressions. Not much room for creativity here, no.

Surprisingly, the written test went quite well. Or OK, at least I think so. The characters seem to have somehow stuck in my mind this semester (or, maybe it was just a temporary moment of luck, who knows? I guess I will find out in some days when I will allow myself to re-open my books to, ehum, rehearse... )

Moving on to part 2, which was supposed to be the more 'oral part' of the test. This test consisted of four parts:

1. Read characters that were written on a piece of paper.

2. Read a longer text that the teacher had chosen for us.

3. Get a piece of paper with a total of 7 words (only in Chinese characters of course) and use all of those words to answer a question she asked.

4. Give a small presentation (oral only, thank lord!) about a topic of your own choice.

Hm... Is is only me who is sensing that something is wrong here... like.. where is the SPEAKING test?! Except for the final, 3-4 minute presentation, there was very little room for speaking?! Reading characters and text from a piece of paper isn't speaking, or is it? Well, at least not every-day speaking anyways? Who's going to go though life with a piece of paper in his/her hand?!

I was also surprised when I spoke to one of my classmates afterwards and she told me that she had nailed her topic.

-Awesome! I said. What did you talk about?

-Well, I had this whole story written down about travelling in northern China. So I just read her that one! It was great! Since I had everything on paper I didn't forget any hard words!

-Eh... OK.. Sure. Awesome. Great!

Hm... I think this girl is indeed planning to go through life with a piece of paper in her hand!?

If there is one part missing from learning Chinese at a Chinese university, it is learning how to speak Chinese without holding on to your book/notes. Fortunately, I noticed this already when I was on level 2, so I have gotten myself several language partners (and friends at gyms....) to practice my spoken Chinese with. Still, I feel that it is kind of sad, not to mention weird, that there is a whole course called 'spoken Chinese' that should be called 'spoken Chinese from a book,' because really, that is what it is.


Geoff said...

I wish you well for your results from the exam, I trust you will pass.

Emil said...

That is exactly why I found it more useful to be with some friends than spending time at school. I wanted to learn how to speak chinese, not how to write perfect grammar.

I think the Chinese education system is wrong on a lot of fields. It is f.ex a lot of English undergraduates which barely can speak any english at all.

chicity said...

how can i email you? i have a few questions regarding shanghai. i'll be visiting there for the first time in a few weeks.

Jonna Wibelius said...

Geoff -thanks! I hope you are right. I'll get my results on Friday.

Emil -U are so right... when it comes to learning grammar/characters, however, the uni is great.

chicty -check my blogger's profile or email me at jonnawib at

flyingfish said...

Is it possible that by "oral Chinese" they meant pronunciation and things like that? I've noticed that the Chinese are about like the French in their passion for chic accents.

But I certainly agree there are weaknesses in the system!

Congrats on finishing anyway.

Jono said...

Glad this isn't just happening at my university then! My course last year was exactly like this, all oral tests involved preparing four or five answers to questions that the teacher had suggested might come up. These would then be 死记硬背 (learnt off by heart) by classmates during the week before the exam and then one of them would be recited in front of the teacher. It is totally unlike any other oral exam I have done (when I used to do French oral exams the teacher would make up questions on the spot so you couldn't prepare anything beforehand, the way things should be!). When oh when will the Chinese understand...?

Anonymous said...

I dont understand how anyone Westerner could speak Chinese without understanding grammatical constructions. From what I understand HSK testing just determines your proficiency for school course work not speaking. I think in the modern world email and text messaging is perhaps more important than verbal communication. Im practicing Wubi keyboard input based on radical/strokes versus pinyin. Im always on the lookout for a Chinese dictionary. I like the ones that might give a whole Chinese sentence based on the character. I bought one the other day and the Chinese owner said work here a month and you wont need that. I said Ive always considered working as a busboy in a Chinese restaurant. At best my spoken Mandarin is tourist colloquial. Id like to get to the point where this paragraph would make sense in Chinese.


PS Jonna I dont know how you do it. You seem to have a busy life but have time for this wonderful blog.


There is no doubt that China’s language education system has a lot of issues. It has a history of don’t-give-a-d***-about-speaking-test. During my entire English exams life, from elementary school to university, I never got a chance to have a speaking test. One of the reasons is that I have never made my CET-4(College English Test Band 4) and CET-6 pass 80 points. (The speaking test is only for the students who have more than 80 points in their written exam. Is that some kind of score discrimination? You don’t have the chance to attempt speaking test simply because your grammar and writing skill suck. I think that’s one of the reasons why Chinese youth don’t take their speaking skill serious.) Jonna, deep down inside my heart, I do envy you! At least you got your 3 minutes!

Here is real funny test. A Chinese college guy created a Revengeful Hanyu Test Band 6 after his terrible experience with CET6. Here is the post address:
There’s no offense to any laowais, that guy just want to mock the authors of CET6. The test is totally related to the culture of Chinese young netizen and the CET6 pattern. It’s hilarious. Anyone who is interested in Chinese netizen culture should give this test a try. But don’t take it too serious.
I am wondering when there will be a laowai who creates a “Revengeful English Test Band 6”. It looks like it’s coming soon.

Jiayou, jonna.

Anonymous said...

Time to test your Chinese. Can you please tell us the meaning of each character in the following?


Jonna Wibelius said...

flyingfish -yeah, they are really anal about pronunciation, and that they want us to practice that, but I think that comes through when you speak (normally) too? I don't know... all the teachers in every class keep telling us that 'being able to speak is the most important thing'... still.. I don't really feel that they are putting their words to practice.

Jono -sounds like every single uni has the same system. A bit sad, isn't it? I studied Spanish in high school and although we only had two, 1.5 hour lessons/week, I could have good conversations only after 2 years of studying. Most emphasis was on speaking... but well. I guess Chinese is far more complicated than Spanish anyways. Where are you studying?

Jim -Written Chinese and spoken Chinese are completely different. The more Chinese you learn, the more you learn how to distinguish the written and spoken language. For instance, written words like 如何 (ru he -how) and 如此 (ru ci -like that/like this) becomes 怎么 (zen me) and 这样 (zhe yang) when you speak.

Obviously your need to understand the Chinese grammar when you speak, but the vocabulary for written and spoken Chinese differs quite a lot.

As for keeping up this blog... I doesn't take me that long to post every day.. 30 min every morning unless I am writing something veeeery long and special.

斌 -That's so sad that they only give the 'best' students a chance to take the speaking test?! But at least there ARE a speaking test on that exam... HSK offers nothing?! Gosh, I hope this changes in China sooner rather than later.

boston blond said...

Out of curiosity... which Chinese university are you studying at? How do you like the program there?

Jonna Wibelius said...

boston blond -I am studying at Suzhou University, east campus. I am so-so happy with the program. Some of my teachers are fantastic meanwhile some are... not. But I guess that's what it is like everywhere. (also, it is obviously up to yourself to make something good out of your time there by being as active as possible during the lessons) I have also studied at Jiaotong uni and Shanghai uni and I have to say that I like Suzhou uni the best out of those 3.

Brook said...

I was an ESL teacher at a university in Jilin City in northern China 10 years ago now. My students were all post grads-many a bit older than me-and I ended up transforming my classes into conversational English because I figured if they didn't know grammer after 20+ years of English grammer classes I couldn't do it in a semester or two, but all of them lacked the confidence to actually speak aloud. Extemporaneous speaking became my goal and overcoming their fear of "not being perfect" was very difficult. The administration as it turns out was not very supportive of my efforts and actually made my students-unbeknownst to me-take an additional "traditional" English course alongside mine. But I am happy to say that all of my students were making excellent progress in overcoming their fears by the end of my class and most of them did quite well on their exams.

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