HSK Vocabulary Levels Added to MDBG

Keeping with dictionary review week, there’s a new feature on my favorite online dictionary that deserves some mention. MDBG has added the HSK vocabulary levels. While this isn’t exactly what everyone needs, it’s a step in the right direction.

Which Chinese Word Should I Use?

Even though the HSK info isn’t designed to be used like this, we can use this to help us know which Chinese synonym is more commonly used. I’m talking about “How do you say ____ in English?” when the answer could be multiple words.

For example, do a search for the English word “difference.” There are about 27 results, but only 6 have HSK ratings. Look for the lowest number and that’s probably the most common word. In this case, “fēnbié” 分别 and “qūbié” 区别 come in ahead of chābié 差别. In my experience, that’s pretty accurate. A Chinese person will use those two before chābié 差别 when asking a question like:

“What’s the difference?” = yǒu shénme qūbié? 有什么区别?


Just because a word has a lower rating, doesn’t mean it’s more commonly used. Here are a few ways the HSK info isn’t useful (to those of us not preparing to take the test):

1. HSK rating has nothing to do with spoken/written or formal/informal frequencies. For example, in my experience, computer is spoken much more frequently as “diànnǎo” 电脑 but is formally referred to (like if your major is computers in collge) as “jìsuànjī” 计算机. Both of these words appear on HSK list 3.

2. The difference between 1 and 2 is negligible. Vocabulary lists 1 and 2 are both covered by the Basic (lowest) test, so a word may appear on list 2 simply because they ran out of room on list 1. For example, “yǎnjing” 眼睛 gets an HSK rating of 1, but yǎn by itself is 2. Surely you’d know the single character before learning the two of them together.

The bottom line is: if a word has a HSK rating in the dictionary, it’s more likely to be a common word than one without a rating. Also, if I’ve got to choose between two synonyms (that really can be used interchangeably) I’m going to choose the one with the lower HSK number.

Now, if MDBG will only add a little “sort by column” feature, we’ll be in business.

Can anyone else think of a good way to use those HSK ratings?

7 Replies to “HSK Vocabulary Levels Added to MDBG”

  1. Albert, I think you’ve hit on something really important here: spoken word frequencies. Anybody who’s struggled with Mandarin in a native speaker setting could probably come up with a dozen words/phrases that are very common in spoken language but show up rarely if at all in the written language — and even more vice versa. I know this is true too in English as well, but reckon that in Mandarin it’s more pronounced, no pun intended.

    The problem this presents for dictionaries is that the “translation” of a word may be something that just sounds weird if spoken — and thus the Mandarin-learner totally misses the common and obvious word that everyone knows.

    I keep thinking that with all the gajillions of written words that match up to spoken language from TV captioning, it’d be pretty easy to do some really cool data mining that would start to give you an answer to that question (how common is this word in spoken language?) Add that data to a good dictionary and, voila! It’s the nugget of a business idea sure to make someone rich and revered among a generation of Zhonglish speakers.

  2. For example, “yǎnjing” 眼睛 gets an HSK rating of 1, but yǎn by itself is 2. Surely you’d know the single character before learning the two of them together.

    It depends on how you learn Chinese. I pay a lot more attention to reading than I do to handwriting (I’m lazy so I prefer to type pinyin and let my computer/phone handle the rest), and there are plenty of characters that I learned to recognise as part of a word before I knew them on their own.

  3. Many on-line dictionaries are Wikis, written by contributions from users. The quality of the translations thus varies greatly from word to word. When its important to get the “right” word, it’s a good idea to check three or four dictionaries to compare definitions.

  4. I’ve lived for two years in Shanghai and I know what is bad quality. I don’t trust any chinese person to be original or creative. In this way I don’t trust that anybody was thinking about anything when creating the HSK lists (or any other study material). Other than “lets make some serious money OK”.

    So I would say it’s useless to really think about HSK. I studied at Jiao Tong university and I know the words, characters and grammar of almost 8 language books by heart. But I can’t have even the most simple conversation with a cab driver or chinese girl in Chinese.

    I think we westerners must produce our own study material, because the way Chinese people think and work is just to different from our western thinking and quest for quality and efficiency.

  5. Hi,

    I put some HSK lists on my website. These are, as far I as can judge, the correct and complete hanzi and pinyin lists. English definitions are available for Levels 1-3 (and Lingomi & Popup Chinese’s on the restoring levels).

    You can also look at the TOCFL lists that are another (Taiwanese way) of vocabulary use.

    Good luck all


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