A while back, I decided to finally get my act together and study for the Test of Chinese as a Foreign Language (TOCFL) (see my Part 1). But after months of conversations, (attempts at) studying, and internet digging I’ve realized some things. The TOCFL definitely isn’t for everyone. First, you have to be pretty motivated to take this particular test. Second, not all motivations are created equal (some are better than others). But then again, at $30 a pop, it’s a cheap enough test that it doesn’t matter much why you’re taking it.
Being Tested Is Good for the Soul
As nerve racking as tests are, test taking can be really good for you. Tests, like that high school report card, prove to you that you’re able to master a subject; they also establish your credentials for other people. If you do well, it’s time to celebrate. If you don’t do well, it’s time to put in some more effort.
Of course, for the above paragraph to be true, you have to believe that the test measures something you actually care about. You also have to believe that the test rubric is fair.
TOCFL :: Who Cares?
There are four different types of TOCFL:
- Listening and Reading
- CCCC (Children’s Chinese Competency Certification)
The most widely available [the only?] exam outside of Taiwan is the “Listening and Reading” test. The main reason for people take this exam is because it is a pre-requisite for the Taiwan Scholarship (pursing a degree) and the Huayu Enrichment Scholarship (language learning in Taiwan).
My guess is, if you’re currently taking a Mandarin class at your high school, college, or elementary school (they have TOCFL for children too, remember), unless you’re looking forward to heading to Taiwan for a degree or a language program, you probably don’t care much about the TOCFL. You’re already testing regularly in class.
If you’re not in a formal class, here are some good/ decent reasons to take the TOCFL (in no particular order):
- You want to study in Taiwan and you want someone else to foot part of the bill.
- It’s been a while since you’ve taken a class and you have no idea what your (reading and listening) level is.
- You want prove to a potential employer or friend that you “know” Chinese
- Your current Mandarin tutor is having trouble assessing your strengths and weaknesses (in reading and listening) and you want some sort of outside measure*
- You write a blog about Taiwan or language learning and want to be a guinea pig for your readers
- Other reasons?
*As far as #4 is concerned, you don’t actually have to sit for the test. You could just do mock tests with your tutor and probably get the information you’re looking for.
TOCFL v. HSK :: Which One Should I Take?
Because the TOCFL offers a simplified version, this is a fair question. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about the HSK to give an educated answer about which one is better for anyone’s specific needs. From the little I do know about HSK, it probably depends on your level.
As a beginner both tests will be similar ~ basic vocabulary, foundational and high frequency grammar, pictures with stories, slower audio, and so on. At the advanced level, both tests are probably going to be somewhat similar as well ~ less common idioms, no pictures, longer passages, more complex grammar patterns, nuanced vocabulary, etc. On both ends, it’s like taking any other standardized (language) test.
TOCFL’s innovation is really at the intermediate level. Some parts of “Learner” (Level 3) and “Superior” (Level 4) look like your run-in-the-mill language proficiency test. However, other parts are cut outs from “real life” advertisements, schedules, notes, medical prescriptions, menus, etc. All these things make the test feel less stressful and more practical.
In my opinion, the TOCFL gets the job done in assessing your abilities with less stress — all while making you say “Oh right, I am actually going to use this stuff at some point.” Good for TOCFL. That’s the kind of test, I’d prefer to take.
The Good. The Bad. And the “You’re Kidding Me, Right?”
As someone who has taken a lot of tests (but designed none), I whole heartedly think that TOCFL is a well designed test. But it’s very imperfect in other ways.
Publicity: One big complaint I have as an oversees test taker is that the test is poorly publicized. The dates for the Midwest exams didn’t go up on the Steering Committee website until late February for the April test dates. And as of this writing, most of the Chicago dates still are not all up on the main website. The Midwest TECO Office (as wonderful as they are) also did a poor job of publicizing, especially considering that this is an exam for non-native speakers. I was very disappointed when I discovered that all of the dates were exclusively posted on the Chinese site until the public dates finally appeared on the English version of the site in March (?).
Study Materials: My other complaint is that studying for this test is kind of like an Easter egg hunt. Although this test dates back to 2003, there still isn’t a lot of readily available/ easily accessible study material (hence why you have to be motivated). It’s gotten better since the test first appeared overseas in 2007, but the Steering Committee and their partners still have a ways to go.
For example, some websites for Level 1 and 2 test takers are entirely in Mandarin. Who thought that was a good idea? [How can someone who’s just learning to read Mandarin navigate the resources of an entire website?] Plus, besides the two versions of Mock Exams, there isn’t much in the way of specifically targeted materials (outside of Taiwan).
However, all that being said, the Steering Committee recommends a few specific books (and methods?) most of which are easily available at CCBC (an online Taiwanese bookstore) and easily shipped from Taiwan:
- Textbooks: Practical Audio-Visual Chinese series (buy); Far East Everyday Chinese (review) (buy); Taiwan Today (buy); Advanced Chinese Reader (buy); Mini Radio Plays (buy) Speak Mandarin (buy); Reading Chinese News (buy), and other really great books.
- Read: Chinese folk tales (buy); stories from Chinese history (buy); Chinese idiom source stories; newspapers and magazines; Chinese fables (buy); practice reading or writing short letters, notes, cards, etc.
- Listen to: the radio and watch Taiwan TV news programs.
- Engage in: practical business conversation; speak Chinese.
- Learn about: Chinese customs and traditions (buy) and try to understand Chinese thought and society
How to Study (Jade’s Recommendations)
I think the methods suggested by the Steering Committee are great for a more long term study strategy. When it gets closer to cram time, however, here are some of my suggestions:
- Vocabulary: Review vocabulary with flashcards
- Grammar: Do Mock Tests for grammar and to get a feel for the format
- Audio: Listen to the practice audio with the mock tests
- Reading Comprehension: advanced ~ read newspaper/ magazine articles and short stories (see above); intermediate read advertisements, menus, nutrition labels, etc. and simpler (children/ young teen) short stories.
Some Wai-Taiwan Articles about each method ::
- Vocab Review with Flashcards and Software (Vocabulary)
- Catch Up on the News (Reading Comprehension)
- Go Shopping Online (Reading Comprehension)
- Grammar Practice with Mock Tests (Grammar) (coming soon)
- Audio Snippets: Mock Listening Practice (Audio)