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.

 

Colour Factor in action

Today I have an update on using the Colour Factor set. For the rundown on how this maths teaching tool helps kids visualise numbers as something concrete and dynamic, have a look at my earlier post on these coloured rods. My daughter’s teacher at the local Spanish school has used them for learning addition and subtraction. But their wonder, for me, lies in how far you can take maths using them with even fairly young children. The author Máire Mullarney talks about overhearing her two boys aged around five and seven discussing whether or not 17 was a prime number, and when you actually play with the blocks, you can see how that would be possible, without your kids having to be child prodigies!

We haven’t had the blocks out much in the past six months so I was happy to take advantage of my littlest having a nap on a quiet rainy day to tip the box of blocks on the rug and get playing with his five-year old sister. We played at making patterns with them, and I laid out the following:

colour factor trains

colour factor trains

This prompted her to ask why some were similar colours. I decided to do the odd “stairs” and even “stairs” with her. I checked first that she already had a clear idea of odd and even numbers. She understood them as sequences of alternate numbers and also that evens were multiples of two. In other words, in colour factor terms, you can’t make a row of pink twos the same length as an odd number. To show the relationship of even numbers to each other, which is the role of the warm reddish colours, we grouped the even number blocks as stairs, noting that the difference in length of adjacent rods is equivalent to two, not one as in the full set of stairs, and noting the colours.

colour factor stairs

colour factor stairs

Then I asked her to match the length of various even rods using a row of rods of a different colour. Seaton Pollock called these single-colour rows “trains”. This shows tangibly the role of factors because of their physical size, and the colours underline the message. Next we set about laying out the factors of twelve. We began with a mauve rod representing twelve, alongside two sixes. I asked her to add another single-colour row which would be the same length and she chose six pink rods, or twos. Next she added four threes. Then I introduced the word “factor”. It clicked that the factors are represented by colours, hence the name Colour Factor Set! I can honestly say I would never have dreamt of discussing factors with a five year old just using pen and paper. But with the rods it comes easily.

starting the factors of twelve

starting the factors of twelve

Most of colour factor is about learning on the basis of what is physically visible in the blocks, which is why it works so well with little kids. However, since she has already done quite a lot of simple sums on paper at school I was ready to bring in a written format. I wrote out the following to show both ways of presenting the facts: 6 + 6 = 12 2 x 6 = 12 She digested that.

 

Then I wrote out the “trains” we had before us in the order we had made them: 1 x 12 = 12 2 x 6 = 12 6 x 2 = 12 4 x 3 = 12. Then I asked if she wanted to know a trick to find yet another factor, and we discussed how 2 x 6 (two violets) came to the same as 6 x 2 (six pinks). This made immediate sense to her. She quickly realised that above the row of four light blue rods (4 x 3) she could make a train showing 3 x 4 with the scarlet blocks, and finally a row of twelve whites (12 x 1 = 12). Then she decided to write these on paper herself, adding to our list with a triumphant flourish.

colour factor

factors of twelve

Finally, I returned to my original rows and told her one set was missing from the pattern. She immediately completed it like this:

full sequence

full sequence

You can get a secondhand copy of Máire Mullarney’s book Anything School Can Do, You Can Do Better for a song off Amazon, and Colour Factor Sets come up on eBay from time to time. Don’t worry if a few of the smaller blocks are missing from these vintage pieces, the set will still be perfectly usable.


las regletas – rods

números pares – even numbers

números impares – odd numbers

menos – minus

más – plus

dos veces cuatro igual a ocho – 2 x 4 = 8

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!

How I plan to learn Spanish fast

I’m really not very patient with languages. I do like them, but being bad at them is not a stage I enjoy. I have been on a plateau for the past year. Any improvement has been unnoticeable. Now, with one of my two little ones in school, I finally have time to learn properly, and I want to learn fast. So this is my plan. Feel free to share your language learning plan, too.

 

Step one: Enrol in classes

Technically I should be able to get my oral practice from the neighbours and my grammar from the books, but I find classes a real motivation, and you do learn from others’ mistakes as well as your own. I’ll be aiming to get my money’s worth by taking the teacher all the awkward questions that come into my head between lessons.

 

My faithful grammar guide

My faithful grammar guide

Step two: Use a good grammar guide

Not a textbook, just a go-to guide with an irregular verb table and the grammar rules spelt out. A guide like this keeps different tenses and other concepts in their places.

Step three: Use every opportunity to talk

Even though I am living in Spain, at my level of non-fluency, these opportunities arrive and then disappear very fast. Once you’ve greeted some acquaintance, like the other mums at my daughter’s school, the conversation can either tail off or get interesting. Most of my conversations tail off very quickly. Even in a shop, you can either get by with a few words and gestures, or you can find the accurate way to ask for what you want and include some details. To try to get more practice, I have started planning what to say in situations that I know are coming up – the doctor, teacher, shops, anything. Since you actually do use what you plan, it gets embedded in your memory; it’s way more effective than memorising vocabulary for some theoretical future use.

Jumping on opportunities also means accepting to use very, very basic language to start a conversation, or even asking a question you think you probably already know the answer to, just to get things started. Hey, at least if you’re right then there’s a fair chance you’ll understand the answer. It’s tough having to look stupid to all these new people you’re actually trying to make a good impression with, but I figure I’ll feel cleverer when I can actually speak Spanish.

 

Spanish in the park (with the toddler on the next swing)

Spanish in the park (with my toddler on the next swing)

Step four: Work at home

Or in a café. But on my own (that is, with the baby), going through the class notes, revising new vocabulary, looking up any words I wanted to say but couldn’t think of, checking my grammar guide for the right way to conjugate some verb, or to form some tense. Also talking with friends about my language questions, as well as things I’ve just learnt. Teaching others is one of the best forms of repetition for a learner, so make sure to tell someone the new stuff you come across. I try everything out on my husband, who fortunately also wants to learn. When I was learning French I would revise classes with a fellow student afterwards.

Step five: Read for pleasure

Roald Dahl, here I come again. The local library has a few translated Roald Dahl books marked 10 years and over. They are just the right level for me. You want to find books where you can understand the story without a dictionary, or else it’s too slow to be motivating. When you meet unknown words you can guess, look them up, or skip them. Dahl’s books are good because I have vague memories of the storyline from, um, about 20 years ago. But it would be better to have books originally written in Spanish, I just haven’t had time to scour the library shelves and find the right level along with a good read. Reading isn’t just about books; packaging labels, newspaper headlines, adverts, posters and graffiti – they all count. I still remember the satisfaction of finally understanding the cultural references and bad puns in slogans on the billboards in the Paris metro stations.

Step six: Pay attention to culture

This comes in conjunction with all the other steps (that’s why Roald Dahl isn’t as good as native Spanish options, but it’s better than nothing). This is more than knowing the stereotypes. There’s a difference between knowing that the Spanish have a late lunch and knowing that the builders are going to disappear at 12 noon for something they call desayuno. See below for more.

 


Men called Maria

I already knew that all Spanish women of a certain age seem to have Maria as part of their name. When I had to find which parent was collecting the school supplies fee, and asked one of the other mums, I didn’t get all of her response. I understood it was “Maria” who was standing over there wearing a “camiseta gris”. I couldn’t see a mum in a grey top at all. “Con las gafas?” I asked, but she said no, dark hair, no sunglasses. The only one I could see with dark hair and no sunglasses had a pale blue top on. I wondered if the mum helping me was colour blind since she was definitely pointing that way. So tentatively I approached the blue top lady. Only to have a guy come over and introduce himself as José Maria and offer me a receipt for the fee. The penny finally dropped. Thinking of Maria as a woman had blinded me to his grey T-shirt. I should have known this, as France has its own share of men called Jean-Marie and the like, but they are usually not the same generation as me (think: Le Pen). The moral of the tale? Knowing what to expect is half the hard work.

First impressions of Spanish school

My daughter has now been at school for a fortnight. I wish I had more feedback on it, but trying to get information out of her is no easy task. So far she has done a fair amount of dancing to music and colouring in, has played a great deal, and has watched Peppa Pig twice. They eat their 11 o’clock snack sitting in the classroom before the break rather than during. The school day runs from 9am to 2pm with a half hour break. There isn’t any half-day option. When I was five, back in the UK, we had a break in the morning and the afternoon, as well as a lunch break. In comparison, the Spanish hours make for quite a long day at four years old (and a few kids in her class will still be three). I guess it explains the Peppa Pig, though I’d prefer some kind of free choice activity/play instead of television. We parents are supposed to send a pack of wipes, a spare outfit and 50 euros’ worth of books along with her for the year. The school provides the other supplies, and parents pay a 30 euro fee. The books are colourful workbooks, full of illustrations and stickers! Not like in my day…

 

curriculum for a four year old?

curriculum for a four year old?

As for my first week at school, ie my Spanish classes, I’m relieved to be finally doing something about my Spanish deficit. Having taught a fair amount of English, I know that being able to read and write a language doesn’t mean you can speak it. Although Spanish looks understandable to me on paper, I still struggle forming very basic accurate sentences in real life. So when I went to the A2 level Spanish class (beginner II) and found it fairly straightforward, I was not sure whether to ask to move up or not. The teacher told me to go ahead and try the class above, and I’m glad I did. The course will definitely be harder, but I’m willing to be stretched.

 

One major advantage is that the harder class is half the size, so that means twice as much practice in class. It seems at least half of the students doing the lower level don’t bother continuing to the intermediary stage. There is also less disparity in levels in my new class. In the A2 level, there were 20 students, of very varying abilities, even though many had been there the year before for A1. Interestingly, just over half were British, whereas in the B1 class I am the only Brit. There are a couple of North Africans, a couple of Iranians, a Frenchman, and a couple of Scandinavians. Of course, different ones have different strengths, especially those who are working and are therefore quite integrated and know a lot of vocab and expressions related to their jobs. The primary school vocab I’m learning isn’t that useful in other contexts. My only strength is my impatience – I should use that on some job interview question about my failings. Actually, the Instituto Cervantes, which devised the standardised DELE levels describes A1 as Breakthrough (acceso), A2 as Waystage (plataforma) and B1 as Threshold (umbral). I definitely don’t want to be on the plataforma any more, and I can’t wait to get past the umbral.

Check out their site if you want to try past exam papers and the like.


 

A few words from my week:

AMPA – parents’ and teachers’ association, pronounced “ampa”.

asistir – to attend

ausentarse, yo me ausenté – to be absent, I was away

la rutina diaria – the daily routine

ama de casa – housewife/homemaker/stay at home mum; careful - the Spanish say el ama, just like el agua and el aula (classroom) even though these nouns are feminine. That’s because they start with a stressed ‘a’. If it helps you to swallow this phrase, the ama is not from amar (to love) meaning someone who loves housework so much that it’s all they want to do in life, but actually from amo, owner.

soy perfeccionisto/a – I’m a perfectionist (somebody else said this, not me, believe it or not.)