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Saturday, May 5, 2012

Reflecting on Taiwan's TOCFL Exam

On Saturday, May 5th 2012, after a grueling week of midterm exams, reports and 15 hours of regular classes, I went in to take Taiwan's TOCFL Exam, formerly known as the TOP. I was registered for the Master Level, also know as the fluency level.

I went into the exam with little hope of passing, but since I have to take (and pass) the exam before I graduate from my Master's program here in Taiwan, I wanted to see what this exam was all about so that I could better prepare myself for next time. I had bought a test booklet to prepare, but the prep booklet doesn't do much good in my opinion, since the material presented always feels about a step or two down from the actual level of material presented on the exam.

The exam is done on the computer, with your results processed instantaneously. Sure enough, after two hours of testing, split into listening and reading, I pressed send only to find those dreaded words "no pass" appear across the screen. However, much to my surprise I was only one point shy of grabbing the master level score, so where did I go wrong?

I would say that my largest problem was that I was simply not prepared for the scope of questions that appeared on the exam. The content was a mixture of news broadcasts, advertisements, business meeting conversations etc., and I simply didn't have enough background to fill in the gaps between the words I didn't know and what they were looking for in the questions provided. I fared a lot better on the reading section of the exam, but the speed at which I read was simply too slow for the allotted time given. With only one minute left in the test I had 10 questions left unanswered, that I hurriedly guess at without even reading the essay provided.

If I only had a little more time, or my reading ability was a little faster, I'm sure I could have made up that last final point and passed the exam, albeit with a poor score. However, instead of getting myself down about the results, I've taken it as a valuable lesson on the areas in which my Chinese needs to improve. Rather than sulk over that one point, I went out for a massive dinner of sushi and devised a plan for how I was going to gain 10 points before I take the exam again in June (just one month away)... and hear it is.

Step 1: Listening.
 My listening comprehension is lacking, there is no other way to put it. Put me on the street with strangers, put me in a classroom with lectures on Chinese syntax, grammar, or the origin of Chinese characters, and I'm perfectly fine. My problem isn't that I don't understand what is being said when I understand the context, my problem lies in my degree of listening comprehension. Quite simply, I need to spend a lot more time listening to things that I simply have know knowledge of. This means spending more time listing to radio broadcasts, news broadcasts, and TV programs that I have absolutely no interest in what-so-ever. So that is exactly what I'll do, I'm not going to like it, and I don't really know if I have the time to really make it happen over the next month, but I've got my radio adjusted to Chinese news, and whenever my TV is on, it is set to the local news... if this doesn't work, I'll adjust again after next month. 

Step 2: Reading:
I've got to read faster, so that is exactly what I'm going to do. Rather than look up words that I don't understand, or focus on blogs and news reports that catch my interest, I'm just going to open the newspaper and read whatever I can. Basically, I just need to make time in my day to read, something that might be easier said that done with 5 classes, 10 hours of teaching, and part-time work every week, but I'll do my best over the next month and see what happens.

Pretty boring post, but this is where I stand, and I'm just going to do what I can to do better next time. Since I don't really have time to "study" Chinese at this point, I'll just do my best over the next month and see what happens. If I don't pass it in June, then I get another year to prepare, and trust me, by that time I'll be ready!


  1. One little point? I bet if you stepped up three things that you like (rather than the things that you don't like) you'd gain that one little point in a month.

    If you think you're maxed out on things you like, I would recommend finding something new to like.

    I just don't subscribe to the idea that fluency necessarily comes from suffering.

    1. Sorry... "the" things that you like, not "three" things... auto correct.. .

  2. You're right, and after my first day I've already made an adjustment to the plan of attack. Rather that watch Chinese news or TV shows, I'm listening on the radio, in small segments that actually break down the content into smaller chunks of information (much like they do on the test) and then spend time talking about the implications or there opinions (giving you more insight into the content). As for reading, I'm going to hold off on the news papers and focus on reading bloggers and news that I'm actually interested in. I figure what I really need is just a bit more exposure to things outside of the classroom, while also being disconnected from my average life in Taiwan.

    Either way I agree, gotta focus on things I actually like otherwise I'll never stay motivated.

  3. Anyway, I agree that stuff that interests you should be the focus, but there's also something to be said (of course) for good learning materials, because they can introduce the more frequently encountered vocabulary and usage of serious Chinese prose and speech in a systematic way. I'm sure you've seen (or even used) these before, but here are some that I think look great:

    思想與社會/Thought and Society (might be too easy)
    新聞與觀點/News and Views
    從精讀到泛讀/The Independent Reader
    社會大學 (30 university lectures on various topics)

    The last one is a course at ICLP. I don't know if there's a book for it, but even if there was they wouldn't sell it to you since you're not an ICLP student. But I've got the audio for it (and the others). Shoot me an email or private tweet if you want it.

    I'm personally all for the fun stuff, but I'm also trying to keep at least one thing in rotation (be it aural or written) at all times that is outside my usual scope. I have to pass 流利 by early next year when I apply for the MA program I want to study at 台大, so we'll see how it goes.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I think I really just need to find some good learning materials geared toward advanced learners. I've heard of the 30 University Lectures on various topics, and would love to get my hands on that. Perhaps I could use some of my graduate student magic to get an actual copy of the book, if not I'll be contacting you about that audio.

      Best of luck preparing for 流利級, based on your blog I'd say you have all the motivation and drive you need to do well next year.


    2. In fact, now that I think of it I'd bet you know at least a few people in your department or elsewhere who have attended ICLP before. I'm told ICLP alumni are able to buy books from them at any time, so you could ask around to see if anyone can pick you up a copy. If not, definitely hit me up.

  4. For the listening, it feels like people are speaking in a very unnatural way because of the 流利 level of vocab they need to place in those conversations. But I'm with you with the radio/tv broadcasts, casual conversations with friends or found in TV 連續劇 is just not enough to prepare for the 流利 test.

    Did you actually read everything for the parts you were able to answer? I found that part so grueling, depressing, lol, still some work to do, with pretty much the same plan of attack as you devised, but adding reading short novels/stories where the writing is less 口語 than in blogs, but not as complex as newspapers, in my opinion.

  5. So, how did the exam go? Turns out I have to take (and pass with a 77) the 流利級 in November, so I've got less time than I thought. Looks like the next 3.5 months will be spent hitting the books hard.

    1. No better than the last time... actually listening went up but my reading score went down (I ran out of time again). Since I didn't really have any time to do any studying for the exam I figured the result would be about the same. Since I'm more familiar with the listening section I figure all of my energy will be going into reading (and trying to read fast). Updates to follow on how I'm going out doing that.

      Best of luck on preparing for your exam!


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