For two years, I’ve been on iTalki almost daily, focusing on my reading and listening skills. My latest HSK 6 scores reflect that effort – and equally reflect neglect of writing.

My overall score has improved from 224 to 240, with listening shooting way beyond last time’s 77 to a satisfying 92. Reading drags somewhat behind at 85 (up from 73), but as long as the 病句 section remains on the test, I’m not sure how optimistic I am that I’ll ever break 90 points. (Seriously: How does spotting grammar errors in complex sentences qualify as “reading” anyway?)

The big disappointment was writing: Down from 74 to 63. I plan on improving this in the future, but I’m not sure how much hope I have.

For those who don’t know: In this part of the test, you read a 1,000 character article (no note-taking allowed), have the article taken away, and then write a 400 character summary.

As I read, I was careful to mentally note a number of highfalutin words and how they were used. This is one of the main things the people grading the test look for. A few minutes later when it was time for me to actually type these words into my summary, they were just completely gone.

Time and time again, I reached a portion in my writing when it was time to pull out one of those 4-character 成语: I had learned it before, and as I was reading I knew exactly how I planned to use it, but when the time came, the space in my brain where the word should be was empty.

There’s a reason studies have shown that once people reach middle age, their vocabulary skills simply stop growing – even in their native language. The brain just doesn’t squirrel away that kind of new information any more.