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.

Spain according to Anno

We’d all like to learn a language by osmosis, with a gramar book under the pillow at night. I haven’t found a technique that works yet, but this is as close as I got.

 

I often feel I should be learning something Spanish-related but just can’t face irregular verbs. So when I collapse on the sofa in the evening after the kids’ bedtime “routine” of bribery and threats, I pick up this lovely wordless picture book by Mitsumasa Anno and ponder over his beautiful illustrations of Spain and all things Spanish:

 

Mitsumasa Anno's Spain

Mitsumasa Anno’s Spain

 

I love the way Anno ties in major cultural and historic events along with plain old life. And it’s a good start for understanding the cultural reference points that form the fabric of the Spanish common heritage. Context is everything, after all – remember the man named Maria? If you come to understand a people then you will understand what they are going on about and learn how to be understood by them. That’s my theory.

windmills in Anno's Spain

windmills in Anno’s Spain

In English it’s just titled Anno’s Spain and there’s a whole series. Highlights include the running of the bulls, Picasso’s Guernica, the olive harvest, Don Quijote tilting at windmills and cork extraction.

upside down in Anno's Spain

upside down in Anno’s Spain

 

Will it help me with the imperfect subjunctive? I doubt it. Will it make me feel less guilty for not digging my grammar book out from under my pillow? Definitely.

 


 

This wordless cuento has many stories hidden in the illustrations, including actual history, so it’s a lovely gentle way to introduce these concepts to kids. Remember that in Spain you buy books from your local librería but borrow them from la biblioteca. If you always have your nose in a book then you’re a ratón de biblioteca. Drawings are dibujos or ilustraciones, but if it’s a painting (una pintura) like those by famous artists shown in this book, then you can choose between un retrato, a portrait or un cuadro (even if it’s not cuadrado, square). Look out French-speakers, el cuadro is the picture, whereas the picture frame is un marco.

 

The voice in my head

The voice in my head has started speaking Spanish. I’m not talking about some personal revelation, my conscience, or an auditory hallucination. I’m talking about that internal monologue that tells and retells my life as I live it. I’ve always had an inner narrator. I don’t let it out that often. Still, that doesn’t stem the tide of narrative. In fact if anything it needs a release onto paper, onto the keyboard, or it gets a bit frenetic. My inner voice is what makes me write.

 

The monologue relates, but it also thinks ahead, prepares dialogues for upcoming situations, most of which never take place. Unbidden, my inner voice has switched to Spanish to script these hypothetical dialogues, in preparation for the day’s or week’s events. Pretty poor Spanish I might add. With a slim vocabulary. As if listening to oneself talk wasn’t bad enough. So that’s added motivation to steam ahead with my Spanish lessons since I am tired of communicating in such a limited fashion, both with the real world and with my inner chatterbox.

jacaranda in the evening sun

jacaranda in the evening sun

 

I finally got to the stage where my Spanish was at about the same level as my French was after 6 months in France. I can hold a conversation, read magazines and newspapers. On the other hand, normal conversation with two or more people is often too fast or idiomatic to understand, and films are the pits. I watched one the other night with a plot so obvious that I got the whole story, but despite that I hardly understood any of the dialogue. Kind of similar to a film I started watching in Gujarati. I can’t remember how many French films I saw before I started getting the dialogue. But I do remember a point a few months after moving to Paris when I stopped translating what I heard into English in my head. It was the point when I began to just hear and understand without thinking about it in English.

 

Now I feel the need to try and break through a barrier and understand normal-speed real-life Spanish, so I’ve begun watching the evening news. I’ve also put a Spanish news feed on my phone, that way I’ll see in print the names of felons, politicians and other headline personalities, to help me understand the news.

 

I am trying to keep the linguistic boundaries clear for the kids, so I don’t put on Spanish telly or radio when they are around, even though this limits how much exposure I can get. I do read them library books in Spanish. But in general I leave the Spanish to the Spaniards so we can maintain good levels of French and English in the home.

 

Until now I have learnt Spanish mostly via French, since they are so similar. I was constantly looking for the link with French. Now, though, I need to cut free and try to immerse myself in Spanish as much as possible, and shoo away thoughts in French and English that slow me down. The voice in my head needs consistency to make any sense. Real immersion. I’m unappreciative when teachers tell me the meaning of Spanish words in English. I prefer an incomplete understanding in the foreign language to an exact correspondence in my own, because it gets me thinking in Spanish, not converting to Spanish.

 

In the meantime I’m getting more interference when speaking French, with little Spanish words sneaking in here and there. It’s annoying, but I guess inevitable.

 

Even my mobile phone can hear the voice in my head. When I hit the space bar to change the language of the keyboard, it used to switch from English to French first, and then on a second tap, to Spanish, my third most used language. But clearly it has been eavesdropping; it now switches straight to Spanish, leaving French to drag behind in third place.

 


 

Teach your kid to read French

I last wrote about the DELE Spanish exams, which surprisingly I passed, and I’ll have more on that some other time. But today I want to talk about a lovely book for teaching your kid to read French. This has been just the thing for helping my five-year old learn to read in French, but I can imagine it being useful also for older kids who are not native speakers. I’ve included photos so you can judge the level for yourself.

 

Kids are sponges, but that works both ways. Easy in, easy out. Growing up with several languages may sound exotic, but the reality is you have to strike a balance. Sure kids CAN learn anything and everything, but there’s only so much time in the week. And like adults they will conveniently forget what they don’t use. I’m also not a fan of high-powered schedules for kids. I’m just not willing to sacrifice a lot of family time and farm them out to afterschool classes all week long just to make them trilingual.

 

Balthazar découvre la lecture

Balthazar découvre la lecture

 

There’s never time for everything, so you need to decide what is important and what level you want to achieve in each. I like to think I’ll see my kids speaking, reading and writing in English, French and Spanish with a good level of proficiency, and having an affinity with Arabic (spoken and written) even if they don’t learn to speak or read it as kids. I think we have enough language resources (ie relatives, friends, circumstances, travel and access to books!) to manage this, but of course life does throw surprises at you.

 

I think we have English nailed since I’m their main caregiver, and incurably pedagogical at that. Plus English will always hold its appeal when they are in their teens and wanting to watch blockbusters and other weapons of globalisation. And my daughter is already picking up Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to read to herself. So that’s English taken care of. As for Spanish, my little Beiruti is already in her second year at the local school, and my Paris baby starts in September. They’ll get ample practice at reading, writing and, of course, chatting in Spanish. French on the other hand risks falling behind. We already make sure they get plenty of stories and some one-on-one with dad. We haven’t ruled out returning to France at some point such as during secondary school.

 

But how to crack reading in French? Dad is at work all day and French is as hard to decipher as Spanish is easy. The orthographic depth of French is, well, deep. I found this out when I taught her to read. We began with easy three letter words which are read just as they are written, with no silent letters. That meant tonnes of household objects and animals in English, but scarcely a handful in French.

 

Enter Balthazar.

pain, train, bain...

pain, train, bain…

 

Each page takes a grouping of letters which produces a certain sound. The example words are beautifully illustrated.

 

bille, vanille, chenille...morille?

bille, vanille, chenille…morille?

 

Most of the words are simple, others are less common. Some of the sentences are frankly hilarious.

sound/word activity

sound/word activity

 

And at the end 30 little sound cards with the relevant word on the back to match with picture cards.

 

Result: my five and a half year old is suddenly reading pages of the P’tites Poules collection of stories, which Amazon has down as being from 6 years and up. To see her so engrossed in a book, actually reading silently to herself, is just a treat.

Balthazar reading activity

Balthazar reading activity

 

I see Balthazar also has a range of first readers for little ones. They are in cursive, which could be difficult if your kids are in an English or US school, which either doesn’t bother with cursive or teaches it much later. The Spanish feel as strongly about it as the French do and teach it from five years old, and kids are doing loopy b’s and z’s before they can write much more than their name. However, in these books apparently the silent letters are in grey so kids can read the words and get used to the spelling, which sounds like a smart approach to French for novice readers.

A fourth language in small doses

Arabic is now the family language my kids hear the least of. They overhear a bit from the grandparents and I still read occasional stories in Arabic which they love. We still use the phrases they have learnt. But Spanish has had a major boost recently in our family, with my four-year old starting school in Spanish and the two-year old getting occasional Spanish babysitting while I myself go off to Spanish lessons.

 

Fi shi? Looking for letters

Fi shi? Looking for letters

Since we already have three languages in our daily life, and since I am not a fluent Arabic speaker, it is only a small part of our life. In our current circumstances, there’s neither the exposure nor the need in place to get my kids to speak Arabic well.  All the same, I didn’t want to drop it entirely. And so we keep it alive in two very limited contexts: animals and the letter box. This might seem odd. But many multilingual families – whether it be in first world TCK multilingualism or third world nationwide multilingualism – work on the basis of one language for one place/situation/context.

 

So we use words they already know from our books like The Odd Egg, and from our animal alphabet cards and the conversational Arabic I learnt living in Lebanon to talk about animals we have seen, often on our regular trips to the local zoo. I don’t know if anyone ever got as much use out of their year pass as we have in the past 12 months!

 

As well, we talk Lebanese Arabic about the letter box. Yes, this is the weird bit. It usually starts with the guessing game “Fi shi ow ma fi shi?” Once we find out what is in the mail, if anything, we discuss that. A lot, a little, a letter, who for, who from, where from? Sometimes the conversation continues as we take the lift up home and open anything interesting. It’s two minutes of Arabic a day, most days. It is what it is. A thread, a connection. And they love it.

 


 

Stressing over stress

Recently, my Spanish teacher tried to teach us where to write acute accents in Spanish. The first rule was: Agudas: son las palabras cuya sílaba tónica es la última. Llevan tilde cuando terminan en vocal, n o s. The other rules applied to llanas and esdrújulasThese three categories refer to which syllable the stress falls on.

 

The problem is I usually don’t know where to put the stress (or tonic accent) in the first place before even asking myself what the final letter is, and if therefore it needs a written accent. So I decided I’d best turn the thing around and learn the stress rules first, since accents are usually used to show exceptions to the stress rules.

 

The rules of stress are roughly the following:

  1. In most cases the stress is on the last syllable;
  2. However, if the last letter of the word is a vowel (very common) or an s or an n, then the stress should be on the penultimate syllable. This gave me a starting point for pronouncing words I don’t know well in Spanish. The next stage is as follows:
  3. Words following these two rules don’t need accents. Words that don’t follow these rules need accents on their stressed syllables to show that they are exceptions;
  4. It follows that:
  • all words with the stress on the third-to-last or fourth-to-last syllable need an accent on that syllable (eg, el estómago, or the grouped form dándomelo)
  • any word ending with a vowel or s or n which doesn’t have the stress on the penultimate syllable needs an accent (el jardín)
  • any word ending with the other consonants which doesn’t have the stress on the last syllable needs an accent (fácil)

 

For me, learning the topic in this order was easier. You don’t need to memorise number 4 since you can deduce it from the rest. If you are already fluent and just need to learn how to write correctly, the other perspective probably works better.

Apart from showing stress, there are a couple of other reasons for using accents in Spanish, but that is enough for me for one night!