I had earlier written about the various tests you could do to assess your Chinese language proficiency. As I took part in the Business Chinese Test (BCT) this weekend, here’s some more background of the test and my own experience of taking it. What’s it meant for, who should take it, and what type of questions can you expect?
What’s the rationale?
The Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA) is the government agency that is trying to keep people employed. In the past decades, Singapore has gone from trade, agriculture and fishing to manufacturing and is now moving into service industries. You can imagine that is people move from one sector to the next, there is a great need for them to learn new skills to cope in their new jobs.
While Singapore’s ethnically Chinese very often speak Mandarin at home, their Mandarin is usually not on par with that of Mainland Chinese. Singapore’s education system is still more English centered, which means that while Mandarin may be used more in daily life, people generally find it hard to conduct a business conversation entirely in Chinese. Simply because they’ve been studying non-language subjects in English, they may not be aware of technical terms such as for example: profit margin, memorandum of understanding, requirement.
With the center of economic gravity in the world shifting to China, Singaporeans at all levels will likely deal with more Chinese clients and suppliers. There are however few Singaporeans that are 100% confident corresponding and speaking on the phone with Chinese. Many companies hire Mainland Chinese graduates (many of them to to Singapore to study) to do the dealing with China.
Now, if a Singaporean is certified to be able to speak Mandarin at business level, that would give this person an edge over anyone else who is applying for the same job. And taken together, Singapore would have an edge for companies and in trade, if it has a readily available workforce that is proficient in Mandarin.
So the BCT, and associated highly subsidized language lessons are a way to increase the abilities of Singapore’s workforce. Allowing individuals to stay competitive, and also helping Singapore’s international competitiveness.
Who should take the test?
This test is pretty high level and I believe it is mainly aimed at Singapore Chinese who may literally speak Mandarin 50% of the time, but may require some refinement in their use of the language to communicate on a business level with Chinese. I took 3 months of full time lessons followed by 2 years of intensive part-time lessons, and felt it was really tough.
Then again, the test includes assignments at various levels, and since it needs to classify exactly how good everyone is, you shouldn’t worry if you feel it’s really tough.
You should note that the test is heavily subsidized (90%) for Singaporeans and Singapore permanent residents (PRs) and even then the price is S$ 32.10. If you’re not a Singaporean or PR it’s probably not worth the cost of S$ 321.00 for all four tests. You might be better off taking the HSK, which is more recognized internationally.
If you are a Singaporean or PR and already have some knowledge of Mandarin, the test is mandatory before you can take part in even more heavily subsidized Chinese language training (95%). You’ll also have to take the BCT afterwards, presumably to see whether this subsidy program indeed helps to raise the level of Chinese of the workforce.
What does the test consist of?
The test consists of four components. With relatively long breaks, the test basically takes the whole day and is organized regularly at different locations in Singapore – see here for the next test dates.
1. The Chinese Numeracy Test (CNT)
This portion features graphs and tabulations of data and some geometrical forms which need to be interpreted. A question could feature, for example, a tabulation of different products in three months, and the question would be something like “how much more of product A was sold in month 1 as compared to product B in month 2?”. I found this section doable, because even if you don’t know all the words, you can still apply reasoning to come to your answer. Time was of the essence however; I only managed to complete 70% of the questions.
The questions are visible on your computer screen in Chinese script, but you can click a play button to hear the text read out on your headphone as many times as you want. So the idea is really to test the comprehension of tabulated / statistic data in Chinese and not particularly reading or writing skill.
2. BCT 1 (speaking and listening)
This section is split between a listening and a speaking part. The listening part contains several exercises, in my opinion going from easy to difficult. First there is an exercise where you hear one person speaking, and another person giving three possible replies, of which only one is suitable. A simplified example could be like this:
Could you please close the curtains?
A. The curtains are red
B. Mr. Jones is not coming today
C. Sure, no problem
(Where obviously C is the correct answer)
The more difficult listening comprehension questions are longer pieces of audio about which multiple (4-5) questions are asked. So you will need to listen carefully to extract the right information and fill out the questions while listening.
The speaking part consists of 2 questions. You are given a situation, usually business related, where you need to make a call and get certain points across. You get 1-2 minutes to prepare, after which you get to hear someone “on the phone”. Once that person stops talking, you have 1-2 minutes to make your points. Your spoken words are recorded digitally and listened back later by the examiner. They will be scored on what you were able to cover.
3. BCT 2 – Reading
This is the only segment in the text where you are solely dependent on your ability to read Chinese characters. Questions vary from simple reading of bus signs (“Where is this bus going to”) answered in multiple choice to newspaper-level articles that need to be replied to with a short text answer (max. 10 characters).
4. BCT 3 – Writing
This section will give you a relatively simple writing assignment. In the case of my test, it consisted of a business process flowchart which we were asked to explain in words, and we were asked to write an invitation letter to the mayor of Shanghai for an event in Singapore. The good thing is that with these writing assignments you should be able to at least write something even if you don’t fully understand the question, thus enabling you to score some points. Most people decided to use the computer to type, but for those not comfortable, it was also allowed to write on paper.
It should take several weeks before I get the result of the test and course recommendations. I personally think I should be in the intermediate category. I’ll keep you updated!