Are there alternatives to the HSK? As much as Hanban would like you to believe otherwise: Yes, there absolutely are alternatives.

In fact, I just tried one of them today: The speaking section on the ACTFL. Much to my surprise, I received my certificate by email within 2 hours of the test. My even greater surprise was my score.

If you go to a site such as Middlebury’s Chinese program, you won’t even find a single reference to the HSK. They do their own evaluating, and also recognize scores from the ACTFL.

Unlike the HSK 6, which has two tests (one for reading, listening and writing, and a separate oral test hardly anyone bothers with), the ACTFL splits the 4 functions into 4 separate test, with 4 separate prices.

The speaking test is of course the most expensive, and it’s done remotely over the phone. But, of course, since fraud is a real thing, it’s actually a bit complicated. The process requires a computer with camera and microphone, a landline phone, and two separate people to administer the test. The way it works is this:

You schedule a time, and 20 minutes before the test begins, you log into the website. You turn control of your computer over to a “proctor” who turns on your camera and microphone. You answer a few questions, and you show your proctor your ID (which is photographed), and the proctor gives you a phone number. After you’ve called the phone number, the proctor gives you a code number. After you enter the code, the teacher answers the phone.

Of course, audio and video is recorded. The teacher asks you questions while the proctor watches everything you do. If fraud is suspected, you won’t get your score until you’ve been cleared of any suspicion.

As far as the actual conversation with the teacher that made up the substances of the test, it was similar to the kinds of tests I was trained to do at an English camp in northern China: Start with a simple, easy question. Move on to a slightly harder question. Then hit the poor student with a really hard question, and depending on how they do, push them even further with deeper discussion. End with an easy chit-chat question. The End.

The English version I did in China took about 3 minutes. This one, however, took about 20 minutes.

The good news? From reading the descriptions of the different levels, my guess was that I would be rated “Advanced Low.” To my great encouragement, I was rated “Advanced High.” There’s only one level above that: “Superior.”

The bad news? The step between Advanced High and Superior is a doozy. It requires conversing easily, without vocabulary limitations, on virtually any topic.

It would appear I have a lot of homework to do.

Photo: Shanxi History Museum (陕西历史博物馆) © 2006 Elijah Wilcott