Zhuang Pinghui, in the South China Morning Post (1/18/17) has an article that is truly baffling: "US high school Chinese test stumps internet users in China".
A high school in New York has produced an exam paper for its pupils learning Chinese which features questions that have daunted internet users in China and even a college professor.
The final exam for pupils at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School’s Foreign Language Department comprises four sections, according to a photograph of the test paper shared on Chinese social media.
The first two focus on words and idioms not commonly used in conversational Chinese.
In one part pupils were asked to give synonyms for 10 words, but they are more often used in ancient Chinese writing than in everyday speech.
Many Chinese social media users admitted they struggled to read even the first word – jiu ju – which means to live in a rented apartment. Many didn’t even know what the word meant, let alone come up with a synonym for it.
“At first, I thought the question was to write down the pinyin, but after reading it I realised I didn’t even know how to read the word,” one internet user wrote on social media.
Another question in the first section requires a synonym for the word he, meaning to bite, which was also mainly used in ancient writing.
Pupils were also asked to give antonyms for 10 words and idioms in the test and were required to write a 300-word essay.
Topics ranged from “The Inspiration of Lotus”, a reference to the Song dynasty (960-1279) philosopher Zhou Dunyi’s essay Ode to the Lotus Flower, to Reflections on “Fat Rat”, referring to a piece of writing by the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) scholar Pu Songling.
“I felt uneasy while trying the test. Now I wonder if I might have learned fake Chinese,” one user wrote on social media.
Another agreed: “I might well be a fake Chinese!”
Wang Hongtu, a professor of Chinese language at Shanghai’s Fudan University, told the news website Thepaper.cn that the questions were “very difficult”.
The first question alone got him thinking for a while, he said.
Wang said most Chinese people knew 5,000 to 6,000 words, but some words used in the test were very uncommon.
Ohhhhh! This article raises so many thorny issues that I hardly know where to begin. So I'll just fire away.
Starting at the very end, Professor Wang Hongtu of Fudan University is wrong to say that most Chinese people know 5,000 to 6,000 words. In the first place, he's probably confusing "words" with "characters". Even if he has made the perennial mistake of mixing up zì 字 ("characters") and cí 詞 ("words"), there are exceedingly few people who "know" (i.e., are able to recognize, write, pronounce accurately, and define correctly) more than 4,500 characters. The average literate person knows about 3,000 characters. As for words, the vocabulary of most literate Chinese ranges somewhere between 15,000 and 25,000 items.
If you want to get an idea of the 10,000 most frequent Chinese words, they are listed here, with romanization and translation.
There are some useful comments on the matter of how many characters are required for literacy on Quora here: "How many characters does the average Chinese person know?". I especially recommend the fifth comment by Shawnxuande Li, posted on July 10, 2016, for its trenchant, informative, insightful remarks covering the rise and fall of Chinese characters from their beginning on the oracle bones more than three millennia ago to the present time. The final comment, by Anonymous on January 7, is also pertinent: "One of China's illiteracy standards is knowing less than 1500 characters." Despite what the Chinese government may tell us about there being near universal literacy in China, applying the 1,500 character standard, from my own experience in the field, I'd wager that well over half the people of China are illiterate, and the late and much lamented Zhou Youguang privately admitted the same thing to me.
Now, jumping back to the very top of Ms. Zhuang's article, there is an image of the opening part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School’s CLA Final Exam. I would like to know who is this teacher, Ms. Luo, who has come up with these fiendishly difficult exam questions for her students. Somebody needs to inform the head of the Foreign Language Department, Ms. Florio-Fintz, and the Principal of FDR HS, Ms. Katz, that Ms. Luo is teaching her students wildly impractical Chinese.
The first question on the exam is to give a synonym for jiùjū 僦居.
僦 is ranked #5438 in this list of the 10,000 most frequent characters and has a frequency of less than .05% in a large corpus of Chinese texts collected from online sources.
Jiù 僦 is not the sort of character that a student of Mandarin should be spending time to memorize, and jiùjū 僦居 ("rent a place to stay in") is not a term that a student of Mandarin needs to learn.
It should be pointed out that this is a "CLA Final Exam", where "CLA" means "Collegiate Learning Assessment". But I wouldn't expect high school students in Mandarin classes to be able to answer these questions, and I wouldn't expect graduate students in Mandarin classes to be able to answer them either. The ONLY way I would expect any students to perform adequately on this exam is if they had followed a syllabus of Literary Sinitic (Classical Chinese) specifically designed to prepare the students for these very questions.
"US school's Chinese-language exam leaves native speakers speechless" (CCTV.com, 1/17/17)
"US school's Chinese-language exam leaves native speakers speechless" (China Daily, 1/16/17)
These articles show the complete exam, the entirety of which is totally out of touch with MSM. It was supposedly for course FMS63 Chinese 3. The exam consists of four sections: 1. give synonyms for vocabulary items; 2. give antonyms for vocabulary items; 3. make sentences with vocabulary items; 4. write an essay of 300 or more characters on a literary theme from premodern times.
I didn't exhaustively check every single item on the test, but a quick scan of the whole gives the strong impression that it is made up of archaisms and classicisms that one would seldom, if ever, encounter in MSM conversation or even in typical reading.
If this material is being taught as Third-year Mandarin, as seems to be the case from the title ("Chinese 3"), it is a travesty. The contents are utterly inappropriate for a third-year high school Mandarin class. If it is being offered as a course in Literary Sinitic (Classical Chinese), that is an entirely different matter. But I still would question how many students at Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School are in need of such a course and will benefit from it.
[h.t. Mark Metcalf, Bill Holmes]