Being British about being rubbish

I found in my letterbox this week an advert for a language institute, with upbeat promises of imminent proficiency and the slogan A hablar se aprende hablando! Granted, but there’s a very British obstacle to learning to speak by speaking which was particularly evident during my course.

 

This is my third year of the Casa de Cultura course. Although there are – officially – four levels, students of any level are free to join the class at any point over the year. Despite the lack of structure and the fact that it’s only three hours a week, it has actually been an invaluable course which got me through the DELE exams (B1 and B2), along with websites like studyspanish.com and my trusty exam guide El Cronómetro.

 

Apart from it being cheap and very close to my home, two major pull factors for me, the other big selling point is that all nationalities are mixed together so the course is entirely in Spanish. Spanish taught through Spanish, not through your native tongue.

 

Murderous identities, or, In the Name of Identity

Murderous identities, or, In the Name of Identity

 

I noticed, however, in the lower levels where there are many Brits, lots of them group together and chat through class in English or murmur the English translation to each other at the first hesitation. They are choosing to learn through English. They would rather a quick translation than a Spanish explanation of a word, learning through context.

 

They also spend a lot of time insisting on how rubbish they are, in fact each one is adamant that they are more rubbish than the other. It’s all very self-deprecating, which breeds good feeling. Speaking well, you fear, would have the opposite effect, generating suspicion, mistrust. Someone who can pull it off, instead of inspiring admiration, would have broken ranks. In fact, in the face of class participation, the atmosphere is very much what it was when I was 14 and sitting in French class with Mrs Prowse. When called upon to talk, surrounded by their compatriots, the British say a few words in Spanish and then tail off in English. The teacher repeats what they were trying to say in Spanish, and they answer, “Yep, that’s what I meant”. Needless to say, the Finns in the class don’t talk to the teacher in Finnish, nor the Russians in Russian.

 

The embarrassment of attempting to speak or even passively learn a foreign language while among one’s compatriots is fearfully strong. Students seem both intimidated and discouraged by their self-applied label of “Rubbish at Languages.” Yet something in us fights against openly trying to improve. Somehow our skin crawls at the mere idea of pretending to talk Spanish, because after all it does feel like a pretence. Pretending to be foreign. Putting on an accent. Putting ourselves out there. Like trying to do improv in a crowded metro. Except this is a language course, attended by people who have all paid to learn a language.

 

The ubiquitousness of English has become a shield for these British who get out of bed for a class twice a week but revert to their own language as soon as possible. Not because of laziness but because of embarrassment.

 

Why is that? Are we just afraid of getting it wrong? If so it would apply to all subjects. I don’t know any other topic where the students go to learn but seem bent on failing. Is it altogether too earnest for us Brits (cf “earnestness” in Katie Fox’s Watching the English)? Do we fear we look like we are trying to be clever, to be posh, to …heaven forbid… better ourselves?

 

Although I have always liked languages, I do know this fear. I can’t separate it clearly from other forms of self-consciousness that clutter the landscape. But I remember when I threw it off for French, when I was 15 and visited my sister in France. I spent a lot of time on my own visiting Paris and somehow the walls dropped. French wasn’t “foreign” in Paris, it was natural, necessary. I didn’t think I would suffer from it again, not in a serious ability-cramping way, but I did. When I lived in Beirut and had made local friends using English, I found it really hard to begin using my very limited but improving Arabic in conversations. I felt like it meant saying Look at me! I’m speaking Arabic! I also wanted to have proper conversations, not ones that were dumbed down to my language level – that is, small talk! But I could have mixed languages. I should have mixed. After all, the real Lebanese always do.

 

Lebanese pastries

Lebanese pastries

 

I’m still angry at myself for living in Beirut for nearly four years and not coming away fluent. The upside is that this regret goads me on in Spanish. I refuse to leave Spain without learning the language. I refuse to be prevented from learning by the fact that I don’t know everything. And the words of Amin Maalouf ring true: ‘Linguistic diversity is the pivot of all diversity.’ If you can learn a man’s language, you can walk in his shoes.

 

The less sweet side of Beirut

The less sweet side of Beirut

 

To my relief, I found that in the class for the higher language levels, this gregarious linguistic suicide doesn’t happen. People are openly - dare I say earnestly – trying to learn. Even those with a sense of humour. I wonder why. Is it just chance that there are too few Brits in the higher classes to trigger any kind of herd behaviour?  Is it because those who are too crippled by the embarrassment just can’t progress any further? Does their self-assigned failure become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Do socially “normal” Brits keep themselves back to be socially acceptable? Is moving forward uncomeradely, disloyal? The British are the biggest foreign community in this town, yet in my class they are decidedly underrepresented. There are three Finns, two Russians, two Ukrainians, a Persian, two Italians, a Dane, a Belgian, a Bulgarian, a Chinese and a Moroccan.

 

I’m the lone Brit. With no-one to whisper the answers to me. No one to murmur jokes to. No one to make me embarrassed about trying to talk “foreign”.

Exam book review: El Cronómetro

El Cronómetro – Edición Nuevo DELE B2

I got this book about 2.5 months before the exam which, I have to be honest, is not enough. Unless, of course, you are studying Spanish full-time and are lucky enough to focus on one project at a time. I imagine this is highly unlikely if you are reading my blog (or rather, my hotchpotch of child education, multilingualism, parental stress and blank spaces) instead of one of those super-focused, determined, ambitious, successful blogs Linkedin keeps throwing in our faces.

To help you pass fast!

To help you pass fast

 

THE OBJECTIVE

El Cronómetro is not a book for learning Spanish; instead it aims to teach you how to squeeze your existing knowledge in to the shape of the DELE exam. The book cost me about 20 euros. Given that it is not the first edition, I was surprised to still find a few inaccuracies and typos which I thought ought to have been smoothed out by now. More on that later.

 

THE CONTENTS

This book includes 4 model exam papers, a CD, and the answers (claves). Four may not seem a lot. However, bear in mind that one of the writing exam tasks has two options, meaning you can try out a total of 12 writing tasks using this book. The CD provides the listening exams and the oral prompts. Private Spanish language schools will usually provide you with past exam papers (- ask before you sign up -) but if you are doing things on the cheap like me and taking municipal classes or no classes at all, you really need to get hold of some old papers along with the couple that can be found online.

Tracking your progress

Tracking your progress

Personally I find there is nothing better than sitting mock exams to prepare you for timing and content. You can correct yourself using the answers included in the book for the listening and reading tests. I liked the idea of the Resumen de la preparación, where you record your scores. Hopefully you should see an improvement as you work through both the exam papers and extra exercises, though I didn’t see much probably because of only spending two months with the book. I only filled in my overall scores for each of the reading and listening tests I did, as I couldn’t really grade my writing and oral prep. Having boxes for my grade in each exercise (tarea) of each test was overkill for me, and I noticed that the headings (Lectura, etc) were missing.

Of course there are no answers for the writing and oral tests but I paid a friend to correct my writing exam prep, and I figure it was a very worthwhile investment. Although I didn’t have actual grades for these parts, it was still helpful to tick off the exercises in the resumen table as I completed them.

Ticking off the writing tasks

Ticking off the writing tasks

After the old exam papers there’s an appendix of exercises. This section is practically the last half of the book, almost as long as the model exams. The exercises are divided into three sections linked to the reading, listening and writing tests. I genuinely found these helped to develop one skill or another for the exam, along with a fair amount of vocab and grammar reminders. Again, the answers are included so you can correct yourself, and isolate and eliminate your failings be that por vs para or Latin American accents or whatever. Some exercises were a bit bland. I also didn’t feel inclined to note my opinion down about all sorts of things, as encouraged by the book. The author recommends you do the exercises prior to and in between the model exams. I didn’t have time to do most of them before (reminder: two months of normal-commitments life is not enough!) and chose to focus on the test papers instead, but after the exam I did them as I’m sure I’d need these issues resolved before the C1 exam.

 

GOOD ORAL PROMPTS

I thought the book wouldn’t help much for the Oral, but fortunately I was wrong. I found that the simulated oral prompts on the CD were as good as you could expect in terms of a substitution for a living breathing native Spanish speaker with time on their hands to help you practise the oral exam. The book suggests you record your speaking, and I found this a really good idea. I used the app Easy Voice Recorder on my phone and it was dead simple. I couldn’t bear to listen to the recordings much, but just the fact that I was recording made me continue talking instead of trailing off, or starting over, which really isn’t an option in the real thing. With one hand I’d play and pause the CD to get the examiner’s questions, and with the other I’d record on my phone, and it resulted in a better simulation than I had thought.

So it wasn't just me...

So it wasn’t just me…

 

ANNOYING ERRORS

There were a few printing errors (typos, and more, eg p. 135) and also one of the recordings of the exercises was done with the wrong person speaking the wrong lines, but it was a practice exercise, not one of the exam tasks (pista 51, p. 158).

 

ALL IN ALL…

Overall this book was worth the money. It is good for when you feel you already have the knowledge for the exam but need to practise writing/talking with prompts and keeping to exam time; it helps you identify which of your weaknesses you need to improve to pass.

Disclaimer: I benefit in no way whether you buy the book through a link you find here or not. I write purely out of linguistic interest and unfortunately cannot be bothered to monetise.

Immersed or just paddling? – DELE B2 review part 3

You would think living in Spain would mean you could get fluent in Spanish quickly, even if your reading and writing skills trailed behind, right? I mean, this is immersion, isn’t it? My DELE B2 exam showed that the opposite is happening with me. Here’s what I learnt about the DELE B2 Oral during my preparation and actual exam.

For my notes on the reading comprehension and writing parts see Part 1. For the listening exam review see To Listen or Not to Listen Part 2.

 

Oral: Looking at the breakdown of my results, the oral was what I did worst on. With 67%, I passed without needing to compensate with points from the listening (they are grouped) but not by a lot. You need 60% overall in the Oral and Listening combined in order to pass the whole exam. When I sat the DELE B1 a year before I got a good score in the Oral (95%), so obviously this is the skill where I’ve made the least progress.

 

DELE B2 results

DELE B2 results

 

I can understand people thinking there’s something strange about living in Spain and not getting a fabulous grade in the oral! Other people in non-Spanish speaking countries around the world are slogging away for this same exam wondering how they can get the oral exposure they need, and here am I in jamón-land itself and still struggling.

 

I put it down to two things. Partly having other interests (including my kids!) so no time to join extra conversation classes or go to meet-ups. Actually, the fact that I passed at all shows how determined I was to squeeze half an hour of work out of a nap time or rare quiet moment when the kids actually played nicely together without involvement from me. I already had to pay for babysitting in order to attend my 3 hours of Spanish class each week.

 

Secondly, I’m in a strange paradox of language immersion, which is to say that my oldest is immersed in Spanish school all day, so I work hard to un-immerse her the rest of the time, and do activities with her like learning to read in French. At the same time the little one has been at home, building a solid basis in English and French, which he needed before jumping into Spanish school this September. So I haven’t had local radio or TV on at home the way I used to listen to French radio non-stop in Paris. So sometimes I feel like I am far, far from being immersed in Spanish. More like just paddling! While I try to keep the kids from being submerged to the detriment of their other languages.

 

So yes, there are many things I could do to improve more quickly, but I have chosen not to for other reasons. Real life is a bundle of priorities vying for attention, not a single neatly drawn set of goalposts. Still I feel much more fluent than last year, so I am happy that the progress is there, even if slow! I deeply believe in being around my kids and keeping their heritage languages alive, and despite being a perfectionist, I figure I can live with the fact that my main priorities must be reflected in my achievements.

 

Of course, now they have both started school, I need to get more exposure at the same time as they are getting it, and that side of things should be easier. But if you are out there learning Spanish while living in your home country, take heart! You can probably achieve things I can’t here in Spain.

 

So for what it’s worth, these were my views on the Oral exam:

 

You really have to throw yourself into whatever you choose quickly (a bit like the writing). You have to have opinions. I have plenty of opinions, believe me, but not necessarily on the topics that came up. I was asked a lot of questions that led to a similar answer. Perhaps the examiner was short on inspiration about the role of video surveillance in preventing street crime, like me, because she seemed to ask several variants of the same question. Or maybe there was something I was supposed to be saying but I didn’t get it. Fortunately, unlike during the B1, the examiner didn’t have her strident mobile phone alarm interrupt us every couple of minutes to mark the end of each section.

 

Oral Tarea 1 - proposals

Oral Tarea 1 – proposals

 

Prior to getting the book Cronómetro I didn’t think I could prepare the oral much. I felt either you can talk and adapt to new situations quickly enough, or you can’t. But I was wrong and I’m so glad I realised this (just) before the day of the exam. (Here’s my review of the book.) I would say that knowing the exact format of the Oral can help enormously. The key point I learnt was that Tarea 1 is usually a debate on a topic, with five or six proposed measures or solutions to a problem (be it street crime, pollution, waste management, unemployment, etc). You have to evaluate and compare the effectiveness of the solutions, agree, disagree, hypothesise on consequences and usually conclude by choosing the best solution. Firstly as a monologue and later responding to questions. There is very little time to actually analyse the content but the framework of your sentences is very similar regardless of the topic. So I worked on expressions like:

-A mi paracer / Desde mi punto de vista…

-Hay quienes dicen que…, sin embargo…

-No estoy convencida de que + subjunctive

-Aunque quisiera pensar de otra manera…

-una medida, una sugerencia, una propuesta

-Hay que tener en cuenta…

-La solución que se destaca…

It seemed to me these would work in any B2 Oral Task 1. As you can see there’s lots of scope for the subjunctives.

 

Oral Tarea 2 - picture

Oral Tarea 2 – picture

 

 

One thing I did find strange was that again, like in the DELE B1, I seemed to have to share the sheets with the examiner sitting opposite me. Whether this was because they could not manage a few more photocopies, or because she was trying to avoid candidates from reading text from the paper as that would result in a low grade, I don’t know. But it seems to me you cannot be asked to describe a picture or interpret a chart without a good view of it. Even if you looked at it during the 20mn prep time.

 

Oral Tarea 3 - stats

Oral Tarea 3 – stats

 

If I do decide to sit the next level up, I will start preparing the Oral earlier, now that I know it is possible (and my weakest point!).

 

Looking back, I feel the whole idea of points compensating within the two groups of tests helps to cover you if one nightmare comes true, for example if you blank in the oral, if you misread a key word in the pautas for the reading exam, or if you have a coughing fit in the listening, like the girl in with us did. But it won’t cover you if your skills are genuinely weak in listening and speaking or if you simply don’t know the grammar required for the reading and writing. So I’d say you need to know your stuff, but then you can mentally de-stress and allow yourself one disaster. Which is quite a luxury for an exam.

Next up my book review for Cronómetro in Part 4.

To listen or not to listen – DELE B2 review part 2

It might seem odd to say I made sure not to listen to some parts of the listening exam, but there it is. Incidentally, the prueba auditiva was the one in which I felt my technique (as opposed to my actual skills) played the biggest role in my grade. Also the five tasks always follow the same format, so familiarity helps a great deal.

 

Task 1 DELE B2

Task 1 DELE B2

 

The most important thing I learnt while preparing this part was how to deal with the speed. Some of the conversations are fast, but what’s worse is that you hardly have time to read all the text on the multiple choice exam paper. You need to keep up as there’s no chance to recapture lost audio. If you have windows open onto the street, now is the time to ask for them to be closed. Better to sweat for 40 minutes than miss a word here and there. One poor girl had a coughing fit in my exam room and briefly drowned out the audio until she very decently left the room.

Task 2 DELE B2

Task 2 DELE B2

 

What I learnt boils down to:

Read ahead whenever you can. In reality this means: From the moment the audio is started, only listen to the important bits, not to all the loud but useless blurb they play you intermittently. If you’ve prepared, you really don’t need to be listening passively while they tell you about copyright, who the examination board is, how many minutes it will last and when and where to fill in your answers. It’s a waste of time. Incidentally you can fill in your answers whenever you want. All the blurb is written down anyway, and the only instructions you might need to glance over during the exam are where it says next to each exercise (tarea) how many seconds you have to read it before the recording will begin (ranges from 20 to 30 seconds) and maybe the bit that says match five of the nine dialogues to five people, with four being left out.

 

You cannot read one thing and listen to something else at the same time, so trying to understand the multiple choice options on the paper and take in the audio conversations simultaneously is impossible. If you can do that then you have booked the wrong level and should be doing a harder exam!

 

So that’s what the reading time of 20 or 30 seconds per exercise is for, right? Well that’s enough time for the short tareas at the beginning, but the longer ones, well I couldn’t read those in my native tongue in just 30 seconds. To solve this conundrum, during the blurb, you need to read ahead and take on board the possible answers so you can easily choose the correct one when the recording is playing. So as soon as I had finished an exercise I immediately moved on to preparing the next one. You can prepare the first two (short) exercises during the initial blurb, and that gives you a head start.

Task 3 DELE B2

Task 3 DELE B2

 

If you get caught out and find yourself listening to a long radio interview only to realise you haven’t had time to read the latter questions at all… the best thing is to close your eyes and listen with your full concentration to the audio. Since you can’t read and listen without missing vital details, best try to take in all that is said, and you will be able to weigh the options at the end and choose the right one. You do get some time at the end of each to fill in answers, but not a lot.

Task 4 DELE B2

Task 4 DELE B2

 

The answer sheet is the only one that counts at pens-down, but you can write on the exam paper too if it helps. I underlined a few key words to look out for. I found it useful to cross out options that were definitely disproven to make it easier to see what options were left. If you mark your answers in on the exam paper before transferring to the hoja de respuestas, you reduce the chance of getting half way through an exercise and realising you were one column off and have filled in the wrong meaningless little multiple-choice boxes and no longer know what the right answers were to fix it. Still, be on guard against running out of time. I transferred my answers during the test when I could spare a few seconds, not only at the end since I didn’t want some slip to get in the way of completing the answer sheet. Always practice within the allotted time.

Task 5 DELE B2

Task 5 DELE B2

 

Some actors in the audio have full-on Argentinian or Columbian accents and the setting can be anywhere in the Spanish-speaking world, so it helps to be familiar with the accents and with the big city names of Latin America and associated adjectives.

 

My score for the prueba auditiva was 93%, meaning I got 28 out of 30 questions right. For me, having a technique for this part was crucial, and also acts as a back-up to the Oral, since that’s the highest stress part which – like a driving test – can go very wrong on the day itself. I realised that I could have done a fair bit worse in the Oral and still passed, thanks to a much better grade in its pair, the listening.

More on the grouping/compensating in Part 1. My notes on the Oral exam will follow in Part 3.

NB: Photos are from various test papers done in preparation, not the actual exam!

Double-tipped quill… and a DELE B2 review

As a kid your life is shaped by the academic cycle; the fuss of the new school start, rolling on to the stress of end-of-year exams and then falling into a pit of summer jobs and holidays. I feel like I only took a brief break from that cycle, mostly the years I was in Beirut, before finding myself caught up in it all over again. Spain, like France, makes even more of an ado about the vuelta al cole than the UK. Perhaps it’s because of the high proportion of people who opt for long studies. Maybe it’s because the 10-week summer break is so incredibly long that returning to school comes as a shock to the system. Or it could be because July and August are holy-months (holiday months, that is), sacrosanct vacation times for everyone even if they have no term restrictions, only a year-round office job.

So now we are all finally back at school, having succumbed to the magnetic draw of the stationer’s and ticked almost all the items off the ridiculously long list at the stationer’s for my 6 year old. I even dutifully bought and labelled three double-ended red and blue crayons. What for I do not know. After all the list already stipulated a set of colouring pencils, one of wax crayons and one of felt tips. Each containing a red and a blue option.

phony invention: red-blue crayons for all your underlining needs

phony invention: red-blue crayons for all your underlining needs

Surrounded by all those sharp new pencils and crisp folders, I nearly got overexcited and bought myself an italic pen for my budding interest in Arabic calligraphy. But then reflected on how investing in material for a hobby often sounds the death knell for said hobby, and resisted. Spanish, I told myself, pin down Spanish first. Urdu will still be there later.

So I’m back at Spanish lessons and beginning to think about whether to strike out for the next DELE certificate, the C1. I passed the B2 with the Instituto Cervantes in May with a score of 85% (60% required for a pass) and need the motivation to keep improving rather than just jog along making the same mistakes.

First of all though, a little review of the B2, because although I passed the level below last year (and got almost the same score!), I found the B2 required much more technique.

Here are a few pointers:

Marking: In the DELE tests, the four parts are split into two groups of two in terms of how they are marked. The reading and writing form one group and the listening and oral the other (though bear in mind the writing also includes a bit of listening, unlike the lower B1 level). You can get away with scoring a little less than the pass rate (60%) in one prueba if you compensate by scoring highly in its pair. Basically you need to score an overall minimum of 60% in each group to pass.

 

Reading comprehension: I found this easiest in my preparation, so much less stress than the Oral and Listening, but in the real exam it felt like a particularly hard paper. I had always learnt to ignore exam instructions to ‘read the text then answer the questions’. I’m used to reading the questions and then looking for answers. But different tasks in this test require a different approach.

It’s worth noting that unlike most exams I’ve ever taken, the five different tasks are not in order of increasing difficulty. Practicing old papers will help you time the exam right. I found I needed to leave extra time for Tarea 3 that requires you fill in the gaps of a text with some excerpts (fragmentos). There are always more excerpts than you need, so some should be left out at the end. Although at times I got full points on this, the difficulty is that one error leads to more. I knew if I had had one fallo then I probably had three or four wrong. I tried to go back at the end to read it with a clear head, as the answers need to be chosen based not only grammar but also subtle issues with meaning. Obviously the excerpt shouldn’t contradict other parts of the text, but neither should it cover something that is covered elsewhere in the text. Sometimes it’s a fine line between a supporting argument (good!) and a repeating argument or slightly contrasting argument (bad!). The argument of the entire text has to flow well.

fragmentos B2 reading exam

fragmentos, B2 model reading exam

The final tarea, number 4, is a multiple-choice one-word fill-in-the-gaps affair which takes very little time. However it holds a lot of points (14 out of 36, or 39% of the whole reading prueba). So you need to have your prepositions and tenses down, as well as ser vs estar, por vs para and which expressions/ situations trigger the subjunctive. I got 94% in the reading comprehension, my best grade of the exam.

Tarea 4, B2 reading exam

Tarea 4, B2 model reading exam

 

Writing: I’m glad I did plenty of prep for this exam, and very glad I had a patient friend to correct my texts. What I found out was that the word count was very restrictive whereas the guidelines stipulating what you had to include were very lengthy. These pautas can be very specific and are not only suggestions. I supposed this means you have to prove you can write a highly customised piece within a limited space and time frame (you can only write in the boxes of the answer sheet provided), rather than simply that you are able to write an essay or a rambling letter. You have to work hard to cover all the points that you are told to include within the space and time allowed. This also means that the focus is not on fitting in many different tenses and modes; of course that can help, but often the context doesn’t allow it unless you digress significantly from the guidelines, which will lose you precious time and space. Timing is also tight considering you have to make things up to fit the bill, so a quick imagination helps! (That’s probably where I lost points!)

wordy gráficos, writing exam B2

wordy gráficos – model writing exam B2

The second task offers two options to choose from. Often one includes graphs. Although I felt more than capable of discussing pie charts or population graphs or the like, I found that when writing about the different elements, I was having to copy up the labels each time I referred to a specific column on the chart (eg: reconocimiento de calificaciones de formación o profesionales – phew)  and it was not easy to think of synonymous labels for these that would still be accurate. I was afraid my text would not be understood, or that it would be too wordy, or that too much space would be taken up using the wording of the graph when in fact the candidate is supposed to be showing off language they have thought up. So in the exam I decided against the option with tables, although this means you are more likely to have to write about Bon Jovi’s cadillac or some other fiesta topic. According to the exam board, candidates are either nerds or partygoers!

I was pleased to get 86% in this part, and I know I needed every bit of prep I did.

the ditsy option, writing exam B2

the ditsy option – model writing exam B2

 

My breakdown of the Listening and Oral exams will be up next.