HSK a.k.a. 汉语水平考试


Seeing as it is the Chinese New Year I figured I ought to talk about something Chinese related. I am gearing up for another test. February 16 is an official testing day for the HSK, and I will attempt the level IV test.

What is this HSK you ask? I am so glad you asked! It is a standardized test us non native Chinese speakers can take to test our Chinese language skillz. We have a similar thing here in America for foreigners called the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language ).

The question I often get next from family and friends is, "Why?" For me personally it is a way to measure myself. See how far I have grown and how much farther I can grow. But, there are other reasons a person may want to take this test. One being the certificate earned is recognized in China. Looks good on Job and School applications. It's your Chinese language street creds. Another reason is that if you get high marks you maybe be able to get short term language study scholarships in China.

At this point they want me to explain the levels. You pick one of six tests. They correspond to six levels. Each harder than the previous. Each with more vocabulary. Here's a simple breakdown in my own words of where you should be before taking each test. Read the detailed outline if your actually gonna take the test.
  1. A very basic test with only listening and reading. Don't worry their reading has Pinyin.
  2. Similar to level one, but double the vocabulary. You're able to speak and respond to simple direct questions and answers. You're considered an advanced beginner.
  3. This is the first level to add a writing component. You got enough to get stuff done, and have basic conversations, but no debating or essays.
  4. I would dub this advanced intermediate.You are passable at communicating with natives, but can't yet fluently read the news.
  5. Even more words. You ar. expected to be able to write and give lengthy speeches. No speeches for the test thankfully. ^_^ 
  6. You are a smooth operator. I think about as fluent as someone born there.
For a detailed explanation of the levels check out the wikipedia page. When I first signed up for the HSK; I thought I would have to pass the first level to take the second, and so on. I was wrong! Thankfully the awesome staff at my testing center helped me fix my mistake. If you are following the Integrated Chinese books, here is how I would tell you to pick your level.
  1. IC book 1, Chapter 6.
  2. IC book 2, Chapter 15. 
  3. IC book 3, Chapter 2. 
  4. Where I am attempting the test at. IC book 3, Chapter 6.
  5. No idea, just a guess. IC book 4, Chapter 20.
  6. No idea.
The HSK vocabulary for III had a 10% chunk of words not covered in the IC books (up to the point I was at). As far as I can remember I knew all of the grammar patterns. With that being said I destroyed the HSK III before finishing the third book. It's possible with a little preparation you could do it before even starting book 3. My two preparation tips would be know the vocabulary, and make sure you can consistently pass the mock test. Here's a link for I - IV for the Anki users.

If you are also wanting to study for the HSK, here is a great blog article with study tips from a guy who has passed level six. If you are not into Chinese, or don't wanna test on the HSK, here's a list of language proficiency tests ordered by language, plenty of options to choose from.

Wish me luck, and Happy Chinese New Year!


Romanizing Chinese Characters From the Command Line

Often, I am reading some tidbit of Chinese on G+ or Facebook, and I come across a character I don't know. Since I'm such a great student, I first look at the various radicals it is made up of and try to guess what it means and sounds like. Using the surrounding context I can guess the meaning about 50% of the time and the correct sound about 25% of the time.

Since I have such dismal guessing rates I use various programs to check myself, before I wreck myself. If I am on the go, I draw the character with my finger in Pleco. Otherwise, I may try my guessed sound via pinyin. Both methods are slow and error prone. So instead, I often copy and paste the character into Google Translate. There are times when I do not have Internet, or I don't want to fire up a web browser. When that happens I utilize a nifty Perl module by Yusuke Kawasaki called Lingua::ZH::Romanize::Pinyin. I put the following one liner into my bashrc as an alias.

alias romanize="perl -MLingua::ZH::Romanize::Pinyin -E 'say Lingua::ZH::Romanize::Pinyin->new->chars(\$ARGV[0]);'"

This allows me to use the command line like below.
user@system:~$ romanize 骆驼
luo tuo

It is as simple as that! Not only does he have a module for Chinese, but also modules for Korean and Japanese.


Chinese Status Update

I'm gonna try and post these kind of reports every six months. These updates will consist of the usual stuff, goals past and present, things I think I'm doing good or bad, frustrations, and so on.

Why learn Chinese? 

I get asked this question a lot. Usually, I give a go to answer like "My wife is from Taiwan." That reply satisfies most people. In the last year I have learned I need to be careful with that answer. Many college students straight from the mainland feel strongly on that subject. To be honest, that answer is only part of why I am learning Chinese. Why I am learning Chinese changes as I change. Today, I am learning Chinese to better understand my wife, and to occasionally communicate with her. Also I want to have access and communicate with a whole 1/5 of the worlds population. I'm not just talking in the abstract someday sense, I'm talking, well every day. ^_^ 

Goals Completed In 2013

I have had some great experiences this last year, and some great opportunities to practice my Chinese. By being a part of the Mizzou classes I found out about Chinese Corner. Chinese Corner is a club where you can practice speaking and learning about Chinese. At Chinese Corner I made some friends, and learned a lot. The classes have been a help but not for the reason most people think. In class I rarely have questions I can't figure out myself, or look up. What classes give me is someone to be accountable to, and a schedule to keep me pushing forward. An added bonus is classes make me get out of the house. While I'm out of the house, I make it a point to stop by the Bubble Cup store and talk Chinese with them, or catch lunch at Jingo's and order in Chinese.

The intensive course was a blast. I spent about six weeks in Taiwan. Four of those weeks I took an intensive Chinese class at TMI language school. I was super busy. Most weekends I traveled with with my wife's family. Most weekdays I was working 8 hours and then doing school for 4 plus commute and homework. While there my traditional writing caught up with my simplified, and my speaking really leveled up. When I wasn't working or with family I hung out with a few new friends and I wandered the city.

I took the HSK III exam to independently evaluate myself. The HSK website said to pass level III I needed to be roughly where my class would end that semester in ability. But, I only needed to know 600 basic words. I already knew around 2000ish. Me being overconfident decided I was ready before class ended. A few days before the test I figured I should do some prep. Surprise, surprise! Those 600 most common words I was supposed to know, had about 80 words I did not know. So I did a cram session the night before and while my wife drove me up that morning. I guess luck and all that cramming payed off, because when I got my test results back a month later I had made ninety something percent in each category.

2014 Goals

I feel like I am at the point where as long as not too much new vocabulary and grammar is tossed out at me I am able to understand and converse with a native. Something that has been a bit frustrating recently, is conversing with my wife and roommates. If we talk in Chinese and I say "huh?", "什么", or take too long responding they will immediately switch to English. This year I am gonna talk to them about this, and help them break this habit.

I want to talk about all my different goals in detail but, some of them deserve to be their own posts. Wish me luck and I'll put another update of where I am at around the July.


Remove CatalystX::Controller::Sugar

I said on twitter "Removing CatalystX::Controller::Sugar from our website. Not so fun times. #perl" and Dean Hamstead @PerlDean replied "@peelle blog post with more details?" I said I would, but first I got busy, and then I switched from MT to blogger.

First things first I want to say thank you to Jan Henning Thorsen for writing the module in the first place. It made my life better.

So, here is some back story. Many moons ago back in 2008ish, the company I work for wanted to rewrite our website from an old C++ implementation into something more modern. I had taken over most of the development at that time.The IT department all 2 of us, had a big debate that lasted a week over what language we should use, and which framework had what, do we really need MVC, and so on. Eventually the Catalyst MVC on top of Perl won out and I started learning Catalyst while rewriting our website.

About halfway through writing the new website I came across a nifty module called CatalystX::Controller::Sugar. I really like it. It simplified several things, and it reduced LOC, which as we all know is super awesome. :-) So I implemented it, and life was better. Here's an example.

Fast forward to 2013. The site is still up, still using Catalyst and going strong. We did a major update that was released in September and we switched back to Maintenance mode. This maintenance run we decided to focus on memory and performance. Our site has gained a lot of bloat over the last couple of years and it was starting to show..

One of the first things I try to do when we tackle technical debt is update to the newer stable versions of Perl, modules, and whatever else we got under the hood. Sometimes these updates fix memory and performance issues for us. Everything goes as normal until I get to CatalystX::Controller::Sugar. cpanm can't find it. I figure I'm doing something wrong. Whatever it is, it is probably my fault. Anyway, after trying cpanm, and then cpan I went ahead and searched on cpan.org. After several searches I realized it was gone. I shot off an e-mail I searched the interwebs for answers but didn't really find the answers I wanted.

One thing we had noticed was a year ago in a previous profile was that CatalystX::Controller::Sugar was using more memory and time than we liked, but not so much that it was a deal breaker by itself. With this new development of the module being removed from cpan.org prompted me to have a talk with the rest of our large IT department, and it was decided to remove the module.

Removing the module was mostly straight forward, and tedious. A good portion of it was mostly some ack searches for "req->params" without the "$c->" and searches for "c" without the preceding "$", and so on. Another small headache that I had came from chaining. I didn't have to fully understand how chaining worked when I relied on CatalystX::Controller::Sugar because it forced me to chain a certain way. As a result of this when I converted the site back to vanilla Catalyst, I hit several bumps understanding chaining, and connecting my chains across files.

We have about 10 web pages that are extremely similar. Their URL paths go something like "/loads/results" and "trucks/results", or "loads/entry" and "trucks/entry" but they use the same templates and mostly the same validation code and their back end tables are the same format, etc. One of the cool things about CatalystX::Controller::Sugar was a sub module called CatalystX::Controller::Sugar::Plugin. What this module did was let you inject your controller methods into a controller file.We made a shared_locations.pm file and filled it with these common sub locations, and then injected it into loads.pm and trucks.pm. I spent some time pondering how to switch this section back to vanilla Perl without duplicating the code. After some thought I made it into a Moose::Role and it worked just fine.

TL;DR; We like CatalystX::Controller::Sugar but it was using too much resources and disappeared off of cpan.org so we removed it from our site. There was things bumps along the way but everybody lived happily ever after.


Reading Ender's Game in Chinese - 戰爭遊戲

Reading fiction is important to me. I think it helps me maintain and improve my native and foreign language skillz. In my opinion practicing all four areas, speak, write, listen, and read in that order give me the fastest overall gains. Reading and listening are at the bottom of that list because to me they are the easiest to do, and also any time you speak or write you automatically get a little listening and reading practice. This doesn't mean they are not important. There are many reasons to improve reading. For example experiencing joy of reading Harry Potter in Chinese, or maybe reading your religious text with a friend in their native tongue, or looking up information to debate someone.

I picked up several books from Taiwan when I visited over this last summer. One book being Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card. They translated the title as War Games ( 戰爭遊戲 ).  I will use this book to help me improve my Chinese reading. I picked this book because I have read it and also have the English version lying around for reference. Also I don't think I will get bored rereading it several times.

This year I'm going to read at least 1 page a day, with the goal of finishing before 2015.

 I have set myself some guidelines for reading this book to help me both enjoy it and use it as a learning tool. 

Read a page first thing in the morning.

There is 415 pages total so I will need to read two pages on a couple of days to make sure I finish it before 2015. I am reading first thing in the morning so nothing will get in my way. I won't be able to forget it, put it off, or make other excuses. An added bonus of reading in the morning is that I should be well rested and ready to tackle new knowledge. 

Add new vocabulary to Anki.

My biggest hurdles will be the first few chapters. The reason being that many new words, will be repeated throughout the book. Some of examples are subject matter related to this story and names of people and places. In this book I am excited to learn a bit of vocabulary about fighting, Internet, space, gravity, strategy, aliens, etc. Another book I got is a post apocalypse science fiction novel by a Chinese author. I think that reading Ender's Game first will help prepare me for this next novel.

After finishing a chapter do a read through without stopping.

There are a couple of reasons to do this. The first is I get to read, really read in Chinese, unlike stop and go that will take place on my first read. This will help me prove to myself I have mastered the vocabulary, and grammar. Also, I have heard it recommended as a way to increase reading speed. By reread the same passage multiple times each pass trying to increase your pace a little.

And some other stuff...

If I need it I may ask my roommates to illuminate a few bits here and there. I am going to hand write a summary at the end of each chapter in Chinese. I am thinking about doing a progress report every couple of chapters, but I'm not sure about that yet. I may also publish and update my anki list at the end. My hope is to finish this book in 2 - 3 months, but I have given myself plenty of wiggle room.

Do you have any suggestions, comments? Let me know!


Happy 2014!

Happy New Year!

We spent New Year's Eve in Las Vegas! It was the last day of our little winter vacation. The strip was full of people and fun. We met up with Mac and his family. We all counted down the new year next to the Bellagio Fountains, and watched the fireworks. Thank you Rosetta stone for having 喷泉 in the vocabulary. We spend most of the other days happily falling on our butt's learning to Ski and Snowboard. Snowboarding was a lotta fun, and we plan to do it again some day.

This year has been  a blast! For Fei and I this was a good travel year. We were able to travel around the USA some more. We got to see some places for the first time. Hello Nevada! We also got to spend almost a week with friends in New York which was amazing. Over the summer I was able to go back to Taiwan and practice and develop my Chinese skillz ( yes, with a z).

This next year is going to interesting. Several things in our lives are changing. Over the next couple of months our two roommates, who have become close friends will be moving out and away to other parts of the country. Fei and I will miss them, but the change will also help us ease into our own transition over the next year. We plan to move out of Columbia by January 2015. We are not sure where yet but we have some idea's. Another thing that is changing is if all goes to plan I will walk in May, and finish up one last class in the Summer. That's right I am finally graduating! From what I understand Mizzou rarely offers a fifth class in Chinese, so after this spring class I will be back to my own devices for skillz improvement.

I'm not that big on new year's resolutions, mostly because I think people should be setting resolutions all the time, both big and small, but here are a couple of mine that happen to match up.

  • Get back to the weight I had in the summer. Vacation and travel is not an excuse to be so excessive.
  • Get rid of some of the crap we have collected over the years. We are not our stuff.
  • Finish School. 
  • Prepare the house for sale. Why wouldn't people want ocean blue bedrooms?
  • Plan some more awesome trips. We have been promising for a while to visit China.

We hope you had a great year as well. Best of luck in the new year! Find your happiness.