What I learned from failing a major placement exam

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As a student growing up in a highly competitive environment, failure was never an option for me. Social pressures made me think of failure as the dark recess of an endless pit, a place of doom and disappointment. I held myself to high standards and successfully avoided the label of “failure” — that is, until sophomore year of high school, when I took the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, or HSK.

The HSK is a standardized Chinese language proficiency test with six levels. When I took the HSK Level IV in summer 2016, it became the first test I had ever failed in my life. Seeing my results in the mail, my heart skipped a beat, and I expected despair and embarrassment to follow. However, to my surprise, I found myself laughing and patting myself on the back. That was when I realized failure is not the dark pit I imagined it to be — instead, it can be an opportunity for reflection and redirection. Here are the lessons I learned from failing the HSK.

Motivation needs to come from within you, not from others

Growing up, my parents never forced me to do anything. However, learning Chinese and taking the HSK were some one of the only things they strongly pushed me to do. They believed in the power of language, especially Chinese, a language spoken by more than a billion people in the world. I agree that it is a powerful language, and still wish that I could speak it fluently. However, as a sophomore in high school, studying for and taking the HSK was my last priority when I was slammed with more immediate matters such as school, extracurricular activities and friends; I had no motivation for the HSK. When I look back on the accomplishments I am most proud of, they all involved my own initiative. I believe that while not all motivation may lead to success, all success comes from self-motivation.

Repetition is key to learning a language

By the time I took the HSK, I had been learning Chinese for five years through school, studying for an hour four times a week. My five years of learning allowed me to engage in very basic conversation, but not enough to pass Level IV of the HSK. On the other hand, it took me less than a year to become fluent in English after I started learning at the age of eight. When I learned Chinese, I only spoke it during class, then never gave it a thought during the day unless I had required homework; however, when I learned English, I was immersed in an English-speaking environment for the majority of the day, every day. In order to learn a language, you need daily repetition and immersion, which is quite different from visiting the textbook a few times a week.

Chinese is hard

Grammar and syntax are one thing, but vocabulary is another huge component when it comes to understanding a language and taking tests such as the HSK. Chinese is known for being one of the hardest languages to learn, and I can confirm from experience. Although I only speak English and Korean, Chinese is different in that you cannot simply “learn to read.” Many languages have a set alphabet that is all that is required to read any word, but Chinese has tens of thousands of characters, each with their unique pronunciation and tone mark — to be able to fluently read, write, listen and speak means you need to know each word’s pronunciation, meaning and character. It’s important to be able to reflect on feeling like you weren’t properly prepared for an exam and that an exam is really hard. 

It’s OK to fail

Failure seems scary and unapproachable. But after actually failing a test, I realized that failure does not mean the end of the world. In fact, I learned the opposite is true — that failure means a beginning, a discovery that your previous direction may not be for you; a chance to find an opportunity, a step toward the correct path. Honestly, how different would my life be right now if I had passed and earned an HSK certificate? OK, maybe I could have ended up with a cool internship opportunity in China, but the fact that I didn’t pass does not change who I am, what I am worth, nor what I am capable of achieving. Failure is simply a chance to reflect and realign. Although I can’t say I loved the process of studying for the HSK, it taught me how to accept failure, and hey, I did learn some Chinese along the way.

After failing the HSK, I have “failed” numerous more times — on personal goals, social relationships, professional endeavors and everyday situations. However, I am thankful for every failure I’ve encountered as they’ve made me stronger and helped direct me to a better-fitting path. Don’t be afraid of failure — it means you’re learning and growing, that you’re taking a risk, challenging yourself and getting closer to the path you’re meant to take. After all, if you aren’t stumbling, are you really reaching your full potential?

Contact Eunkyo Jo at [email protected].