My language journey
I have been learning Spanish on and off for about three years, but with serious intention for the past year and a half. The moment that changed everything for me was when I was travelling through Brazil last year and had to use basic Spanish structures with substituted Portuguese words in order to get around and communicate as English usage in South America isn’t as wide spread as Europe. I remember having to get two back to back taxis in a rush to make it to the airport in time for a flight at the end of my trip and having broken, but full Portuguese conversations explaining my intentions then talking about myself and what I had done in Brazil. Essentially I had learned by comprehensible input and after this positive experience of using language in a practical way I became hooked on learning Spanish, the feeling of speaking in a non-native language and have people understand you is truly addictive and seeing how your fluency develops with effort and dedication feels simply amazing. Benny Lewis the famous polyglot who runs Fluent in Three Months has always preached this philosophy, but nerves and embarrassment always prevented me from speaking. Getting over the hurdle of feeling confident to speak in Spanish was very tough for me. I had tried intercambios (group language exchanges) a couple of times and for me personally they were not productive. I discovered I learn best with someone one to one who I feel comfortable and relaxed with.
With this in mind I joined Italki a site where people can connect from different countries and practice their target language. You can message people and Skype, book lessons with teachers that you pay for through a credit system and write pieces in your target language for checking by native speakers. Honestly the exchanging with people is very hit and miss and like dating, it can take a few go’s and failed attempts before you connect with someone who is the right fit for you. I remember having three or four failed conversations with different people and was feeling like the whole thing was a waste of time, but then I met Fernando. Unlike my other exchanges despite my speaking level being low at the time he insisted we spend half the time speaking in English then switch to speaking Spanish. I told him I couldn’t speak Spanish for more than a few minutes, but he encouraged me that I could and we ended up speaking for half an hour. Fernando has been instrumental in assisting me with my speaking confidence and learning journey in Spanish and I am so grateful to him. Although I must be clear it is not a one sided process I have helped him in accelerating his advanced English skills such as going through work presentations with him and explaining about strange British idioms.
Due to this heavy investment in learning Spanish I decided to register for the DELE official test level A2 a few months ago. The Diploma de español como lengua extranjera (DELE) is the standard of Spanish competency tests. The test is run three times a year and you go to an official test centre and are examined in reading, writing, listening, and speaking. The test lasts over three hours, takes three months to be marked as it’s sent to Spain and generally you have to score 70% in each section to pass. It’s an official recognition of Spanish and can be used for visa and job applications. Personally I am taking it as I like to work towards a goal and set myself a challenge outside of my current level that I can be motivated to work towards.
A lot of passing the DELE is familiarity with the test format. Knowing the instructions, rubric of the exam and having a sense of the time you need to spend on each section is a key part of the preparation process. When I was practicing past papers I found the writing section of the test the hardest and felt it was my biggest weakness. In order to strengthen this skills I decided to go through past tests and write down commonalities and skills required for each task (Spanish DELE writing skills). This made the writing section much more manageable and less overwhelming for me.
Ten days before the test I forced myself to only listen to Spanish films, TV and music. I wanted to have ingrained in my head natural and native formations of phrases and sentences and not just translate what I wanted to express from English to Spanish. Many Spanish expressions are phrased different to in English for example in Spanish you say ‘tengo hambre’ which directly translated means ‘I have hunger’ so it’s important to assimilate this innate logic. This included watching loads of youtube videos, TED talks in Spanish and listening to Spotify playlists I read online newspapers both from Spain and South America so I got a sense of the different ways Spanish is used in each country.
Tips for the DELE exam
My tips are Spanish focused, but generally can be applied for the tests in other languages:
- Buy a good sample test book. For Spanish I used El Cronómetro based on recommendation from multiple people this contains five sample tests with answers and it’s great for giving you a baseline of what is expected of you for the test if you are unsure of the level to take.
- Make a list of Spanish connecting expressions and learn these by heart, you only need 4/5 but know them well so you can use them fluidly.
- Proofread, from a Spanish perspective look especially at masculine and feminine and accent usage.
- Practice where you can, I’m lucky that where I live there are many native Spanish speakers and yes it’s easier to order your coffee and buy your shopping in English, but you have to take advantage of all opportunities. Once you start doing this I promise it gets easier and you get more comfortable and confident.
- Identify your weaknesses so you can work on them. For me it’s preterite past tense and direct and indirect object pronoun usage.
- Find good language forums and seek advice on the specific questions you have.
- Finally DON’T PANIC, remember for A2 they are not looking for you to be perfect so keep that in your frame of reference.
How I found the exam
When the exam eventually came round I was ending one of the busiest weeks of the year so far for me, due to this my main focus was on making sure I was rested, relaxed and calm. A couple of days before the exam I reduced the amount and intensity of study and concentrated og getting into the right frame of mind.
The exam is extremely formal, you have to arrive at the test centre at 8:30am which is early to get to a central London location if you live in a different city. You have to wait for your exam to be called out then go to the assigned classroom and present your ID where you will be told which desk to sit at. You take the reading and listening exam back to back then are given a twenty five minute break before coming back for the writing test then there is another break before the speaking test.
Surprisingly the parts of the exam I thought I would find easier I found hard and visa versa. This is part is probably due to the fact I prepared more for those sections. I thought I had adequately prepared for the speaking section and did seven one to one sessions with native speakers the week leading to the exam, but just having a conversation isn’t a sufficient way to prepare. In the future I will prepare for the different speaking tasks as opposed to just speaking on random topics and practice with a range of people ranging from strangers to colleagues and friends in order to recreate an exam scenario.
After doing the exam I feel I have a better sense of what is required for future tests and know how to prepare effectively. If I’m honest I don’t feel I have passed the test and haven’t scored highly enough on the speaking and listening sections, but we shall see… I have learned so about how to prepare for a formal language exam and am happy I pushed myself to do it and a number isn’t going to deter me from continuing on this journey. At this point my ultimate aim is to get to B2 proficiency.
Understanding more about how we learn languages
I think understanding about the foundation of language learning and motivations and psychology behind it are really useful in the process of acquiring a new language. The following TED talks are worth a watch; Luis Von Ahn, founder of Duolingo talking about the development of Duolingo, Chris Lonsdale giving advice on how to learn any language in six months and Benny Lewis’ talk on language hacking. I find the concept of neural machine translation very interesting and equally difficult to get my head round, but this New Scientist Article on using neural networks to translate summarises it well.
I truly believe that anyone can learn a language at any age. The key is belief, practice and dedication. Living in a country or taking a class once a week just doesn’t work. For me learning a language is a daily activity utilising multiple methods and essentially making it social and enjoyable while setting regular challenges to assure progress and development.