Countdown to the DELE C1

In my house, all worthwhile projects begin with… buying a new book. Because nothing says working hard like spreading lots of resources out on the dining table. With a tonne of papers out, and maybe a highlighter or two, it’s practically a given that I am going to accomplish something. At least I can’t forget I actually have work to get on with.

 

The countdown to the DELE exam has begun. I won’t sign up until I really feel capable of passing as I don’t relish the thought of paying twice and working myself up to it twice! But I have undertaken to prepare seriously in the hope I’ll be ready. Plus it would be good to justify six months of clutter on the table.

Books out, so I must be working, right?

Books out, so I must be working, right?

However, doing occasional Spanish mock exams is not going to be enough. I have a strong feeling I’m going to need an extra push to get to the lofty C1 level. So here is my action plan, including extras:

 

  • Work through my C1 preparation book of choiceEl Cronómetro, completing one of the four mock exams about every two weeks. This allows time to do all three writing options for each mock exam (only two are required in the actual exam) and get them corrected, as well as practising the mock orals. By spacing them out I’m hoping to actually see an improvement. When you are studying alone you need some kind of motivation!
  • Writing prompts, lots of them. When you struggle for vocabulary it can block your whole text. You have to express such specific things in such a short time. I was shocked to find out that the writing exam is the same duration as for B2, that is, 80 minutes, but you have to write more words (instead of 2 x 150-180, it’s 220-250 + 180-220, and there’s a 5 minute audio to listen to first for Task 1). It’s already cost me a fair amount of primetime, those rare quiet moments when the laundry is out, the dishwasher is sloshing away, the kids are at school, and I have that thing called FREE time. Since January I have churned out a dozen B2 writing prompts and I am now ready to begin El Cronómetro C1.
  • Read novels – a good way to use even a few quiet minutes. Following a recommendation, I brought La Sombra del Viento home from the library, I think the level is right (B2/C1) but it’s a lot longer than I had expected!

    La Sombra del Viento

    La Sombra del Viento

  • Read books about Spanish (or about Spain) in English – at the moment I have In the Garlic on my bedside shelf. It’s so easy to read a few entries at a time.
  • Watch a Spanish sitcom (or whatever takes your fancy). Documentaries and more serious telly would be good for the writing exam. But the listening includes a fair few colloquialisms, so lightweight watching is good for this, better even than reading dialogues perhaps, since you get the body language. It’s also a way to do some easy Spanish when you just can’t face all those great books you ordered off Amazon.
  • Talk more. I’m not someone who normally strikes up conversations with strangers, but drastic measures are required here, so you might find me chatting with old biddies in the park, with the librarian who thinks he has Irish roots because he likes whiskey, and with anyone else who crosses my path. Just one way that learning a language can alter your personality!
  • Listen to the radio. In France I had the radio on all the time because I was living on my own. But now I have my own family I barely ever turn it on. The house is rarely quiet enough, and if it is then I enjoy the fact that I can hear myself think for once! I got through the B2 listening by speed-reading the texts before the audio came on, but I won’t be able to do that with the C1 as the texts are longer as well as harder, and the options are much more subtle. These days at least you can choose a podcast on a topic you are interested in.
  • Get some professional help for the oral. I am considering going to the language centre where the exam takes place for a few private lessons in which I could practise the oral in the month or two before the exam. I could do with some guidance from accredited examiners as this is by far my weakest point.

 

La Sombra del Viento

La Sombra del Viento

 

Here are some of the expressions I’ve been learning to squeeze into writing pieces:

 

  • no obstante – nevertheless, however (makes a change from sin embargo)
  • ahora bien – however (less formal), that said
  • o sea – or rather, in other words
  • por lo tanto – therefore
  • a modo de ilustración – a variant of por ejemplo
  • en cuanto a – as for
  • no se puede negar que – it cannot be denied that
  • de toda evidencia – evidently
  • esto nos lleva a la conclusión inevitable que – this leads us to the inevitable conclusion that

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”.