After slightly more than two weeks since sitting my third CEFRL exam (German this time), I have just gotten the results of it today! I have to say, I am very pleased with the results and happy to share them with you all!
One unique thing about my language learning projects is complete transparency of the good and the bad aspects of how these missions pan out, so I will continue that in this post and share full details of my results, what I did right and what I did wrong. I know several readers are considering sitting a similar exam, so hopefully my recommendations will come in useful.
There were five different aspects to the exam. Based on four of these aspects I “passed” the exam and have a C2 level in German in these parts, doing better in certain sections than I originally thought I would!
However, I did not pass one aspect: Listening comprehension. Because you must pass all of the five sections, the overall result is not a pass and I will not be awarded the C2 diploma.
If I needed this diploma for professional reasons or to study then this would be a huge disappointment, but my purpose for sitting this test was always to do my best and to aim ‘impossibly‘ high in the very tight deadline of three months. When you see the results I got in individual parts, you will understand why I am very proud of how I did. I have also learned a lot about improving my study approach and this will be crucial in future missions (when combined with the priority of social-based learning).
I’ll give the results of each section and elaborate more on it below. There are 5 different possible grades: sehr gut (very good), gut (good), befriedigend (satisfactory), ausgleichbar durch mindestens “gut”…. (pass pending gut or higher mark in certain other sections) and nicht bestanden (not passed). I will also mention what I remember as a comparison in my Spanish DELE from several years ago.
One difference with the Spanish C2, for example, is that the overall pass is way less complex than in German. There are also 5 sections, but (when I did it) you need 80% or more in each section to pass. There are no levels – just a pass or fail. I did pass that and can mention why I did better than the equivalent in German in certain cases.
The results are presented in marks per section (marks achieved / (slash) total possible marks), followed by a representing percentage and the actual grade.
Result: 60/80 (75%: ‘good’ grade)
Believe it or not, this was the one I was most nervous about.
I have been way less social in Berlin than usual, so I have not had the chance to focus on constantly improving my conversational level as I normally would. Despite this, even with way less conversational time, I have plenty of language hacks to improve spoken level under tight conditions. So not only did I pass, but I got the good grade!
This was even more of a challenge when I saw the theme I had to discuss (for 5 minutes before the theme I had prepared in advance): deforestation! I can’t even discuss this in English, so I’m glad I have lots of tricks up my sleeve (yes, the language hacks I wrote about work great in oral exams) that eventually got me into a nice flowing conversation and ultimately gave me a grade to be proud of.
Having said that, the grade I got in my Spanish oral was a much more impressive 96%. You may think that this was due to simply having put more time into immersion in Spanish (about a year before exam compared to three months in German), but I am sure that it is actually because I focused on speaking Spanish first and then worked on more academic study methods that make up the rest of the exam. I didn’t really focus on the DELE exam until the weeks before it, when I was already speaking Spanish confidently.
I still remember that Spanish oral exam and how I immediately abandoned the “usted” form, used lots of casual language, and even flirted with the madrileña examiner a little. While German requires you to use Sie in such a situation (Spanish from Spain is way more restrictive), I still “worked the room” to keep the atmosphere informal in the exam and I am sure this worked to my advantage.
I never say people shouldn’t study to speak a language well (for example, I always have grammar and vocabulary books to help me in each mission), but as you can tell by the theme in certain posts recently, study must be put in its place and the focus must be on what a language exists for: communication. I am absolutely convinced that I would have gotten a similar result to my Spanish exam (95% or more) in the German oral if I studied less during those three months and focused entirely on speaking, using the techniques that I know work well but full time instead of just occasionally.
From a purely oral perspective I will always recommend people make studying a minor focus of their time to improve their level, and spend more time conversing. The only reason I did indeed study so much in Berlin was because I was sitting an examination, with other aspects as outlined below. Study works for examinations, but it’s a mistake making it the priority for real life. This also applies to oral exams, which are as close to the real life use of languages as you can get.
In future I will (of course) not be studying so much, but I will also only aim for sitting another C2 (or similar) exam when I already speak the language fluently. I will not likely be doing this again any time soon though.
Result: 52/70 (74%: ‘good’ grade)
This nice result was a bit of a surprise as writing is usually not something I focus much on. However, I had some tricks up my sleeve (read: not cheating, it was just me, a pen and no “bathroom breaks”) that I will discuss at a later time.
Apart from my usual hacks for spoken production that can be somewhat transferred to written production, I’d simply recommend that people write as much as possible for similar themes as in the target exam and have a very critical native correct them.
I don’t remember exactly what I got in the Spanish DELE for this, but it would have been 80-90%. If you can speak confidently and correctly, then you simply transfer it to written format. This is easy in phonetic languages like Spanish and German. To me its logical that my oral and written results were pretty much the same. The only difference is that I removed casual empty-softeners (like, you know, isn’t it?) and conversational connectors, which would make speech sound more natural, but not work in written form.
The only aspect of this that was hard for me was the actual writing - I had a cramp in my wrist as I haven’t used a pen to do more than fill out forms, sign my name, or write a quick postcard since… well since the Spanish DELE exam in 2006! This to me is a dark-ages aspect of CEFRL exams and I wish they would just let me use a computer (obviously with spell-check and Internet etc. disabled), or at least give me a feather to dip in ink so I can do this backward “writing” thing with some style.
Result: 43/70 (61%: ‘satisfactory’ grade)
I just barely got within the safe pass grade both in German and in Spanish. I still remember the Spanish result was precisely 80%. One tiny slip up and I would have failed the entire exam!
I don’t like to focus so much on grammar and the rules of a language: speaking ‘perfectly’ is definitely way less important than speaking confidently. People who focus on this perfection will never actually reach it since they still aren’t confident enough to speak. When you do speak, improvements come naturally: as I said I got 96% in the Spanish oral by simply applying what works for improving spoken level.
So, it’s no surprise that I didn’t ace this section. I don’t like this part as it presents the questions sometimes in a way I feel is quite artificial for how you would need to apply the rules in real life. However, they do indeed test your understanding of the technical aspects of the language. It’s not my place to tell the Goethe Institut or Instituto de Cervantes how to run their exams, but I would personally do it differently.
Another frustrating thing is that you have to study for the exam layout. The way I passed this was to simply look at pass papers, see what they asked and study as many possible iterations of the answers that could come up as my main non-vocabulary SRS based study. I definitely improved my actual grammar in doing this, but I still think it’s restrictive.
I actually initially thought that I may have failed the exam because of this section. Rather than language abilities, I think just recognising patterns and studying those patterns gave me a pass in this part and it doesn’t (in my opinion) particularly reflect much on my actual language skills.
Result: 25/50 (50%: would just be ‘pass’ grade due to ‘good’ in written)
This part was the only surprise for me, as I thought I had passed it safely, but I actually did quite poorly.
After a text with questions (that I believe I answered satisfactorily, but not perfectly), there was a part to check your level of vocabulary by giving synonyms to words in the text. Precise synonyms are required (there are only one or two right answers), so I think mine were too general and I may have gotten no points at all in this part because of that. There is no half-points system – you are either right or wrong.
What I would have done differently: more focus on vocabulary study, to be more precise. My answers were likely ‘correct’, but not good enough. Also, I would recommend answering more questions on texts and running answers through a native. It’s likely that I wasn’t phrasing the answers in a satisfactory way, or presumed I gave enough information but didn’t.
What I wouldn’t have done differently: Despite the title, reading a lot does not necessarily help. I read enough for the purposes of this exam and I wouldn’t have increased my focus on reading if I were to resit it. Even ‘passive’ exam sections like reading and listening (see below) are actually active in these exams in that they require you to prove your deep understanding. This is not required of people who normally listen to podcasts/radio or read a lot. See more on this below in the same tune, but for listening.
If you enjoy reading in a foreign language, then go for it. But this section in a C2 exam requires you to rephrase answers, extrapolate slightly, search through text for certain information and be able to produce vocabulary – not just recognise it. This is not the same as generally summarising a chapter of a book for example. You need to answer questions on texts for sample exams, not just read a lot.
Despite this, I did (just about) pass the reading section due to the higher marks elsewhere bringing me up. In the Spanish exam I got 80-90% in this, and that was likely simply due to more exposure to the language.
Result: 15/40 (37%: not a pass)
The listening part is what determined the overall result. This result wasn’t a surprise and I had said that this section may determine if I pass or fail. It’s actually comforting that I failed by several points, as I would have hated being a point away from the entire exam counting as a pass. Although I’m frustrated with this result, unlike in the grammar part, I think this was very fairly tested. I would not change this part of the exam if I was designing it myself and I deserved the result I was given.
There’s no use (other than for ego) being a cry baby and blaming the questions I was asked or saying this particular audio was too hard etc. I was tested fairly and I am not currently at the level required to pass this part of the test at C2 level.
My biggest mistake here was (as mentioned above), presuming that to prepare for the listening exam, I simply had to listen to a lot of German. Ever since I arrived, I have had the radio on almost constantly, mostly on news and discussion stations. I somewhat paid attention and definitely got the general gist most of the time, and all of the time in the last month.
This did not actually help me for my listening exam.
Other learners swear by passive listening all day long as a means of learning a language. I was already sceptical about it, but now I’m convinced that it’s not a practical use of time (at least for me). If you like listening to the foreign language, then listen away, but don’t think that you are actually learning much. Listening while washing the dishes or driving a car will give you important exposure, and this is important to get a ‘feel’ for the language to make it sound less strange. But it is not necessarily improving your actual level of the language; definitely not your ability to produce, and not even so much for your ability to understand.
Unless you are actively involved in the audio, you can only improve your level if you give it all of your attention, or if you have the ability to efficiently split your attention so that it is getting crucial focus. I cannot do this myself.
What I would do differently if I were to sit this again: be 100% focused on listening when preparing (not doing anything else at the same time) and try my best to get as many details as possible out of the audio, rather than just feeling good about myself that I got the ‘gist’ of it.
I definitely understood the text read to me, and could summarise it satisfactorily if requested, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to give very specific information that you only pick up if you are focused and making notes. I realised just a few days before the exam that I was very much unprepared for the aural part after doing an example exercise. My main mistake was presuming that this part of the exam would be easy because listening is easy.
It’s a pity because my ability to understand German is good, but in conversations (which is always my ultimate end-goal) you do not have to remember very specific details. For example, talking to a friend and knowing that they went to Spain for the summer is easy, but remembering exactly how many days they spent in each town and listing what they had for dinner each evening requires a level of focus I usually don’t give (even in English). In these exams you can listen to the audio twice, but efficient and fast note taking is crucial and something I would have to work on if I did a similar exam in future.
Despite this I got 85-90% in my Spanish exam – this was likely simply due to greater exposure. With greater exposure you would naturally improve your abilities to pass all parts of these exams, but the point of my experiment was to see which ones I could hack in three months.
With a different approach, and taking what I said here into consideration, I still think it’s possible in three months from my starting point (vague familiarity). However it has been a stressful and anti-social three months for me so I won’t be doing it this way in future and I’d recommend people give themselves more time because of that
The point of this experiment was never the end goal of definitely passing the exam. It was always to try my best, force myself to improve the academic side of my German in a short time and investigate and improve my study/learning approach. In all of these aspects the mission has been a success for me!
As well as this, I fully passed 3/5 of the exam (and could theoretically pass 1/5 from the balance points), 2 of these parts by a very safe margin. This is not something people would usually achieve in three months, so I will be very happy to refer back to this in future as another success.
What about the accent part of the mission? Well, since I was focused so much on the exam, my spoken German suffered and, despite speaking very well, I still definitely have an accent. I could actually eliminate the main foreign aspects of my accent in my last two weeks with some intensive work, but I have worked very hard recently and need a break – so I will not be pursuing the accent reduction part of the mission. In future I will aim for just one crazy 3-month objective at a time!
Either passing the C2 exam or passing off as a German is definitely possible, but trying both at the same time requires focusing on unrelated parts of the language and I’m glad that I focused mostly on just one in the end.
Having said that, my German level is now fluent, and I will officially add it to my list of fluent languages spoken! I have not added a language to my permanent list for a while (I just reached pretty good level of Czech, dabbled in Thai and otherwise have just been improving my other languages for a few years) so this is a great achievement and I will continue to improve my German over time.
Although I will officially begin the next mission later this week, I will still be in Berlin for a few weeks, so I will continue to improve my German here and will be making an interesting video or two entirely in German too.
I hope you’ve enjoyed joining me in another exciting mission! Many more on the way of course
Let me know what you think of the final results of these exams in the comments below!
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This article was written by Benny Lewis
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