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UK Chinese exams are too easy


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From the BBC website, so I've copied and pasted it. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/4756886.stm

Call for easier Chinese exams

GCSEs and A-levels in Chinese need to be easier for children who do not speak the language at home, the head of a leading independent school says.

Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College, said it was important to encourage the study of Chinese so the UK could trade effectively with China.

But he said Mandarin learning would not flourish unless pupils were able to attain the highest grades.

The standard needed to be in line with languages such as Spanish and French.

Wellington College is hosting a one-day conference on Tuesday entitled Why all UK schools should be teaching Mandarin.

21st Century demands

Dr Seldon argues that the teaching of Mandarin should now take equal precedence with traditional European languages in British schools if the UK is to respond to the demands of the 21st rather than the 20th Century.

"If current and future generations of children do not have access to lessons in the main Chinese language, this will disadvantage the UK economically and culturally," he said.

"One will never fully understand the Chinese without some understanding of the language. Some British schools, in both sectors, are offering Mandarin already, but not nearly enough."

'Very hard'

But he felt the current standards in public examinations had to be reduced.

He said they were set at a level for Chinese native speakers rather than British children learning the language.

"At the moment schools are finding it very hard to get an A* or even an A at GCSE because the exams are geared too much to native speakers," he told the BBC News website.

Chinese is currently offered only by the Edexcel exam board.

On the face if it, the argument is not borne out by its results statistics.

At GCSE level, the proportion of candidates awarded an A* last year in French was just 8.1%. In Chinese it was 75.4%.

But Dr Seldon said those figures probably just proved his point - the corollary being that Chinese exams were too easy for those who spoke the language at home.


The evidence from schools was that the exams were far too hard for non-native speakers, he insisted.

The head of modern languages at Eton, Gerard Evans, said: "It's not true of Russian or even Japanese that a non-native speaker has a real disadvantage, but for whatever reason the grade thresholds in Chinese have been set too high."

Chinese at Eton is an option outside the normal timetable, taken by about 90 or 100 boys.

They are in mixed classes based on ability, which might see 13-year-olds alongside 18-year-olds. And because they are doing it out of interest, they do not necessarily sit exams.

But Mr Evans said that when they did, those who might be predicted to get a top grade in another language would not be in the same position with Chinese.

It was noticeable that the exam board did seem to have eased the grades in recent years, but he felt more needed to be done.

There might even be a case for having different exams for native and non-native speakers, he said.

A spokeswoman for Edexcel said the Chinese syllabus had been revamped to take account of the fact that more non-native speakers were taking it as an option.

And she said the board had worked with the British Council on resources for teachers.

"We do have more schools wanting to deliver it, and not necessarily independent schools," she said.

*Having looked at a GCSE paper myself, they really are very easy. Well below the easiest HSK level (although with a greater writing element). Also the GCSEs are taken by students in international schools in HK and Singapore, and that will really skew the stats.

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i don't understand. we want more students to take chinese, but we don't want to test them

adequately? lower the standards now, so they all get A's and a corresponding high self-

esteem. unfortunately, they won't be fluent enough to get a job translating or transcribing.

those that do get hired will be fired for incompetance, with the result being few britons will

be hired to work in jobs requiring chinese language proficiency. at least they can feel

good about themselves whilst standing in the unemployment line.

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Standard UK memtality as far as education goes. Give students high grades to make them feel clever, even if they haven't actually learnt much.

The idea is, I assume, to encourage people to continue studying. That's a good thing. However, it can lead to a state whereby these children think they're much more qualified than they actully are and hence can't get decent jobs.

In this specific case, though, I think the complaint is fair. Other foreign language exams (mainly French, Spanish and German) are designed to test an English person's skills in a foreign language. The Chinese exams seem more designed to give chinese students an easy exam. If lots of mandarin speaking kids take these exams, then it means someone learning the language from scratch is going to get low marks. This doesn't happen in the European languages; we don't have loads of French kids studying in the UK and taking the French GCSE to bump up their totals.

Personally, I don't want loads of kids learning Mandarin. I'm really struggling with it myself and the last thing I want is all the 12 year olds speaking it better than me.

On a tangent, I also think it's a waste of time. "Oh, all our children should learn Mandarin so they can do business in China" - why? The chinese can speak some English, and if they want a Mandarin speaker they've got billions of locals to choose from rather than hiring some over-expensive teenager from the UK or the US.

Hey ho. The world's economy seems to move on without anyone asking me for advice, so the above could be totally wrong.

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Are the GCSE exams really that hard? I remember looking at one of the reading ones in the second year of my evening class and thinking it didn't seem too far beyond my level. (After maybe 90 hours of classroom study) Didn't see the listening or writing sections though. Especially as there seemed to be fairly strict word lists. I also talking to someone who was complaining that the Japanese GCSE was *way* too easy as they'd overcompensated far too much for the inherent difficulty of the language. Though I suppose Japanese doesn't have the same problem of many native-speakers / second-generation students taking it.

But setting a Chinese GCSE exam must be a major-headache for exam boards. Given that it's estimated that it takes 4 times longer to achieve the same proficiency with Chinese as it does with French, what are they to do. Make the exam 4 times easier and as Adrian says make the exam pointless employers, or make the exams equivalent difficulty and foist 4 times the work on the kids.

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I think teaching children in the UK foreign languages would be a lot easier if they taught them how to speak English first. I went to school in the UK and was not taught one bit of grammar. When I came to France I had to buy a book on English grammar and learn it before I could even start to understand French grammar.

The French learn languages faster and better at secondary school than the English, but when I see the quantity of grammar my children are learning in primary school I am not surprised.

I agree with the adrianlondon’s comment. The purpose of an A level is not to measure the standard of the child but to make money for the examination board (in the UK there are several examination boards all competing). The kids will take (and schools spend money on) the easy subjects from the examination boards that give them high grades for little effort so the examination board will reduce the standard to increase the “feel good” factor.

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I've never known a respectable university which offers Chinese language instruction which has not differentiated between "learners with family backgrounds" and "non-native speakers". Is anyone really criticizing the importance of this distinction? A major point of the article is that the current testing regime is dissuading non-native speakers from studying mandarin for fear of academic penalization.

I disagree with AdrianLondon and Johnmck as it hardly seems controversial to me that this distinction matters for evaluating student performance. If people are concerned about grade trolling or meaningless testing, one solution is presumably to prohibit students from taking standardized tests in languages they speak at home. And make English an optional test as well for non-native speakers. Or allow students to substitute TOEFL proficiency.

God only knows if any tests are too difficult or too easy, but it is hardly fair that students who do not speak a language are thrust into competition with relatively native speakers. At the very least, the curve for grading should be adjusted to standardize marks around a bell curve to make the gradings relative to other subjects.This would dissuade native speakers from taking the subject in order to get easy marks, at the least.

Apologies to Chinese learners with a family background, but as a student without one I don't have a great deal of sympathy.

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I think you've misinterpreted me.

I think the exams should be made easier so non native learners can get decent grades if they study hard. Yes, that means anyone already speaking Mandarin will just get an "A" but who cares? No one is going to be impressed if someone from Taiwan says he has a mandarin GCSE anyway :-)

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British Chinese have on average higher GCSE grades than other minorities, and this is generally attributed to family pressure to perform. Also the majority of British Chinese who take the GCSE exam, do so after spending most of their saturdays at Chinese school on top of normal school (for overseas Chinese taking the exam, then for them it is very easy).

If British Chinese are given harder Chinese exams because they speak Chinese at home, then shouldn't they be given easier English exams to make things fairer? The point about standardised testing, is that it should be standard for everyone.

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Well, the HSK, at least, is designed for non-native speakers. I could be wrong, but I don’t think Hans are allowed to take the exam. This makes sense.

Of course, the situation with the HSK in China is not 100% identical to the situation in Britain. For example, there might be an immigrant child whose parents are both professors from Beijing. This hypothetical child might speak perfect Putonghua at home, and he might have learned characters at a young age. On the other hand, another immigrant kid might have parents from Shantou, and thus they don’t speak Putonghua. Perhaps this kid hasn’t learned characters, and thus transferring his meta-Chinese linguistics skills into Putonghua isn’t easy. And perhaps yet another British-Chinese basically speaks only English at home, but has a few aunts and uncles who speak Chinese, and so she has been exposed to Putonghua to a very limited degree.

I’m absolutely in favor of drawing the line between native and non-native speakers in testing. But the problem is, how do you draw the line? Through what method can you determine who qualifies as a native speaker in an immigrant community. It's probably harder than it sounds.

Perhaps the problem is with the A Level system itself.

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Even the ancient Romans could distinguish between citizenship and tribal descent. I wonder what TV shows Caracalla watched (American Idol?)

Generally speaking language tests seem to be pretty useless to assess people's actual language skills, they more often serve as a sort of a stepping stone for students, to give them feasible but challenging tasks to complete and a sense of accomplishment at the end of it. If I'm hiring a translator in real life, I don't really need to see a certificate of 'proficiency'.

I've met a couple of American "army brats" who took the TOEFL before going to college stateside; 华侨 taking the HSK before coming to China are doing more or less the same thing (I'm not sure if Chinese citizenship automatically exempts you from taking the HSK even if you never went through the Chinese school system, somehow it doesn't seem likely). If resources allow, the UK could set up a two- or three-track system like Singapore.

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Back on the topic of Chinese language testing in a non-Chinese-language-medium education system :wall ...

In Australia, (generally speaking, since there are some variations amongst the states), there are three streams of Chinese at year 12 (final year of high school) level: accelerated/beginners, continuers and background speakers.

Accelerated/beginners is designed for those who only picked up the subject in year 11, whilst continuers is designed for those who are non-native speakers and who have studied Chinese throughout high school. Background speakers, as indicated by the name, is designed for native speakers who have had 1 or more years of formal education in a country where Chinese is a medium of instruction. Note also that all dialects of Chinese such as Cantonese, Hokkien etc were included in defining a background speaker.

Under the previous curriculum, students were not precluded from the continuers course unless they had completed primary school in such a country. Under the previous South Australian curriculum, for example, it was possible for a non-native speaker to be 'competing' (I use this word loosely) against someone who had 5 years of primary education in a Chinese-medium-of-instruction country.

While this inequity was rectified with the change in eligiblity criteria, it is arguable that there is still some degree of unfairness. For example, almost all the students taking year 12 continuers Chinese in my high school are Australian-born Chinese or Chinese who came to Australia at a fairly young age. Now, although most of us don't speak Mandarin at all fluently, many of us (although not all) speak a Chinese dialect with family members, ranging from anywhere between everyday use to infrequent use and from complete fluency to extremely limited fluency. Many of us also attended some form of weekend Chinese classes (run by ethnic associations). Perhaps it is of little surprise that the majority of those scoring the top marks are of Chinese ethnicity (although that by no means implies that all ethnic Chinese students will score well, or that non-Chinese students have not scored extremely well in the past or that they will not do so in future). (Also, it seems that there is more pressure on ethnic Chinese students to study Chinese, while non-Chinese students often perceive the subject as being too difficult or uninteresting.)

Even within the background speakers category, it is very difficult to achieve a level-playing field, when students range from those who completed primary school in Malaysia to those who have already finished 高三 in Beijing! Given that the curriculum is based on 普通话 as spoken in Mainland China, not only in terms of language, but also in terms of the content of the topics covered, and that written assessment must be written in simplified characters (at least that is the case in SA, it may be different in other states), those background speakers who come from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia etc are often disadvantaged.

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OK, back to the main topic...

The HSK explicity says it's for ethnic minorities within China, Overseas Chinese and foreign students.

Re: GCSEs. The role of exams is to differentiate and recognise the differing abilities of students. If students are all scoring "A"s, surely this just means that the majority of them have achieved the required standard. Rather than requests to make the exam harder for students with Chinese backgrounds and easier for students without a history of Chinese, what they should do is push for the higher ability students to also take the higher level exams, A and AS levels.

I have no issue with different education streams for people of different Chinese abilities etc, but I do feel that the final exam should be the same for all candidates.

Re: my insulting the Queen. Not sure how I did that exactly, but if she's reading, I'd like to apologise if she took any offence.

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I agree with geraldc. While exams recognise differing abilities, they're almost exclusively used to differentiate between people.

If the majority are achieving the top grade (as is being suggested by some, of all GCSEs) then there's an argument for making the exam more difficult to improve differentiation of the best, but of course it has to be harder for everyone. I suppose this is partly because the grades in the exam are being used as a yardstick to compare students of different ages so employers want consistency over time.

If just some are achieving much better results (dare I call them a minority?) then they should be considering higher level exams.

Maybe, they're just trying to make one exam do too much and demonstrate abilities at levels other than what the exam is designed to test.

I think most people (particularly British people who consider themselves as being not so good at learning other languages!) are impressed by someone born speaking English (white or not!!) who has mastered another language, however, we're not quite so impressed if that person grew up in an environment where they were exposed to that language - even though, thinking about it, it may be equally impressive.

Re: my insulting the Queen
- I'm disappointed, I can't find anything remotely insulting :cry:

I wonder if that comment demonstrates my inability to think for myself? Or maybe it's the fact that I disagree with every word haKKKaboy has posted in this thread.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Exams test proficiency. OK so a native Mandarin speaker will get an A at Chinese GCSE - if he is speaking his native language at home all the time he will not be speaking English. Therefore he will have to put a lot of effort into getting a good grade for English GCSE. It is swings and roundabouts. I would say that if a student fluent in Chinese wants to make good use of his / her education he / she should study other subjects rather than waste time taking a Chinese GCSE. An HSK certification would be much more useful to an employer and the classroom time could be better spent actually learning stuff.

Chinese exams in the UK should assume that students start courses as beginners otherwise there is no incentive for "ordinary" students to take such classes.

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  • 1 year later...

Erm... first of all, I wonder how a thread about GCSE Mandaring turned into a shouting match about something.... very off topic?

Ah, once again, the 'exams are all easy' argument. I am a student in Year 11 and have just finished my GCSEs and find it slightly insulting whenever anyone tries to disregard surviving 14 exams as "easy"!! No exam is easy, and an exam in a language as... complex as Chinese certainly isn't.

They shouldn't make them "easier" but there is a problem if a lot of people brought up speaking Chinese take it, because they grade depending on the people taking it - they make sure there are a certain number of A*s, As, Bs and so on. THIS is why it is impossible to give everyone an A - but also why it disadvantages non-native speakers. On the other hand, if I lived in a foreign country, *I* would take an exam in English if I thought it would help me - why not?

And anyway, the Chinese GCSE is not easy, particularly when quite a few students study it out of school or via a teacher who comes to there school once a week. I learn in by myself and am planning to take my GCSE next year, with my AS levels - I see my teacher once a month. Any GCSE under these circumstances would, I think, be challenging. But I enjoy it, which is why I'm doing it.

And yes, a language GCSE IS priceless for Oxbridge - Cambridge turn you away automatically from some courses if you don't have a GCSE foreign language.

Erm... someone else asked why English people feel the need to learn Mandarin. This is a Chinese-learning forum....? There is more to learning a language than getting a job with it! There is the pure love of learning for one thing!!!


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Erm... first of all, I wonder how a thread about GCSE Mandaring turned into a shouting match about something.... very off topic?

Have removed all the off-topic nonsense - including my own posts :oops:

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Is the GCSE exam the same as the GCE "A" Level Chinese exam that I took 30 years ago?

By that time, you needed GCE 2A3O to get into any university in UK. The GCE "A" Level Chinese exam was really a piece of cake. IMO any ninth grade student in Hong Kong could score a C Grade (which was not too bad since the grades were classified in A, C, E and Fail).

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