Thursday, November 19, 2015

Coursework at the HNC: Is my Chinese good enough?

Hi All,

Throughout the year, we receive many questions from prospective students. In today’s post, I’d like to address a frequently asked question: “Is my Chinese good enough?”

Let’s start by setting the premise: academic Chinese is different from colloquial Chinese. The vocabulary used in HNC classes includes words that even regular Chinese people are unfamiliar with (e.g. classes on Islamic Fundamentalism, Comparative US-China Foreign Investment Law). In other words, the level of a student’s language skill isn’t solely judged by their vocabulary base. Coursework at the HNC requires students to adapt and expand their vocabulary at a rapid pace. Thus, the admissions committee is looking for an ability to overcome a steep learning curve.

Now that we’ve set the premise, let’s move on to exactly what Chinese classroom instruction entails. 

Listening Comprehension: Unless at the request of the class, professors will not lecture at a pace lower than they would to Chinese students. This Microeconomics Lecture on Youtube reflects the ballpark level of HNC’s Chinese lectures. It’s normal, if not expected, that students are initially unable to understand the entire lecture. Students are encouraged to study the lecture slides to supplement and strengthen their understanding of lectures.

Reading Comprehension: A quick search on Google Scholar turns up a journal article by Professor Li Lifeng (affiliated with Nanjing University and the HNC). This article is a good example of the level of reading being assigned in classes. If you find this piece to be a piece of cake, great! However, it is not abnormal for a student to spend 30 minutes per page during their first week of classes. Once the vocabulary for each course has been established, the pace of reading increases dramatically (5~10 minutes/page). 

Oral Participation: Students are typically asked to contribute through class discussions and presentations. Professors will focus on what students are trying to convey, not on the language they use to convey it. For example:

Option 1: “…让中国和日本的关系越来越不好” = “… letting the relationship between China and Japan get worse and worse”


Option 2: “…使中日关系进一步恶化” = “… causing Sino-Japan relations to further deteriorate”

Both sentences deliver the same message. Professors will focus on what the student cites as the cause for deteriorating relations, not whether the state of deterioration is eloquently articulated. 

Writing Ability: Just as the emphasis in oral participation is on comprehension, not delivery, written assignments are also evaluated primarily by content. That being said, students are expected to deliver papers free of typos and grammatical errors. Resources such as a student-run writing center are available to aid in the writing process. In the beginning of the semester, a 1000-character essay will appear tough. By the end of the year, students will find themselves having to cut thousands of characters to fit their final papers within the 3000-character limits.

If this post has not alleviated anyone’s language-related anxiety, feel free to email us at, and we are happy to answer your questions!


Written by Nanfei Yan, HNC Certificate/SAIS MA Student