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Taking CEFRL tests for quality European language certificates with no classes

| 49 comments | Category: learning languages, mission

Now that I’ve sat three of these diploma examinations (French, Spanish and German), I feel like I can give a useful summary for those curious!

When I introduced my current mission, I only quickly mentioned some details about the exam and what it exists for. They do indeed serve much more of a purpose than just for crazy Irish guys to sit them for ambitious 3 month missions! In today’s post I’ll describe the A1-C2 certificate process in much more detail.

Why sit them?

These certificates can be very useful to have on your CV/résumé, and they generally have no expiry date.

Self-evaluation of your language level may not be taken seriously by employers who truly require language skills, such as in the tourism and translation industry. A lot of companies in Europe are familiar with the CEFRL grading system and may even require recognised certification in the languages you claim to speak well.

Certain levels of these certificates are also pre-requisites to study at universities full time in those countries. This is by far the most common reason for young people to sit these exams. Most of those I met at the French, Spanish and German exams needed the certificates to be able to start studying a Masters locally, or even to begin a 4 year degree programme if they are not nationals of the country in question.

One other reason however, which is why I have always sat them, is to have a target to aim for to force myself to improve my language skills quicker than if I was just vaguely aiming to “improve”.

This has advantages and disadvantages though. I generally don’t place much importance on my writing skills or ability to analyse and discuss printed text in a foreign language, and these are requirements for all exams. Nearly all advice I give on this blog is linked directly to my focus in learning languages: to speak fluently with natives. The oral aspect of the exam tests this quite well, but this can contribute only 20% to your chances of passing in many cases.

Having said that, for many people writing and reading are just as important as speaking so it’s good for them to have everything tested. I will personally not be sitting a test like this again for a while as I have little patience for studying for long periods of time due to how little that contributes to actual ability to converse.

I have some interesting ideas to make it easier to pass these tests (language exam hacking if you will, but definitely not cheating!) and I will find out in 2 weeks if the work I put in to this ridiculously tight 3 month challenge to C2 was enough to get an overall pass in German. Even if it wasn’t, the work I put in to improve all aspects of my German has worked for my purposes and I’m very happy with the progress I’ve made in the last months!

What organisations provide the certification?

The Common European Framework of References for Languages (CEFRL) is a language level evaluation system, which is used as a standard in Europe. Some Universities may use it, but the exams that I discuss here are for examination members of the ALTE group (see bullet list below) and are implemented by several major European language institutions. When used by these institutions it is not just any old university with a lazy language course or “Micky Mouse” certification that you can buy online – in many cases it is administered by the organisations that govern official modern usage of the language itself and is the most recognised certification in the world for many languages.

Being the organisation that promotes the language worldwide also means that they take pride in the levels expected of speakers and passing the highest level is no easy task. However, since they are indeed promotional, they attempt to make the exam as human as possible, while keeping it academic and following a standard exam layout. If the Alliance Française say you speak French at the level you passed then few people can ever doubt it.

Certification of this kind exists for almost every official European language. The best part is that you can sit them in many countries (depending on the language), not just where the language is spoken. In many cases no travel is required - most major capital cities have branches of the first three institutes mentioned below, as well as many others. In some cases they may only allow you to sit the highest level exam in the country itself. I think this is a good idea, as you would very likely need full time exposure to realistically attempt to pass them. For lower levels, you can just sit them at home though!

To be more specific, here are some examples and links to more information about these certificates. Read these websites for information regarding fees, testing locations, test dates, requirements, example tests etc.

How does it work?

The layout of exams are somewhat different to one another and some have particular requirements that others do not. For example, in the German exam I had to read two (small) novels in advance that I could choose to answer questions on in the written part of the test, and in the French exam you have to choose a specialisation subject in the DALF level exams. Neither of these were a requirement in my Spanish DELE however.

What they do have in common is the European standard grading system of A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2, (A1 is the lowest, C2 is the highest) although what each of these actually means is debatable. Here (PDF link) is a vague self-assessment guideline of what these levels may mean. Some Universities may only require a B2 to attend their courses, which means that you can indeed communicate in the language, but still not very confidently. But a lot of universities do require a C1 or C2 to attend particular courses, which are very hard to pass.

The C2 level does not imply that you would be mistaken for a native – you can still make mistakes, have an accent, and stumble a little, but otherwise you must be able to confidently express yourself and understand in many normal situations, without the use of any dictionaries etc. I decided to aim for C2 in German and Spanish simply because it would force me to attempt to reach this level or very near it, as long as I take it seriously of course. My first attempt at a CEFRL test was the French B2 and I did not find it enough of a challenge to push me to improve my French quickly. Going for a more ‘realistic’ lower level may not be a problem for most people though, as the pressure of a looming C2 when you are far from ready can be quite stressful.

The basic components of the exams also tend to be quite similar: they usually have five sections: Oral (spoken), Aural (listening), Reading, Writing and Grammar. Grammar may be counted as within the “reading” section, but you will almost always find complex questions to test your technical understanding of the language.

If I needed these exams for the purposes of studying then I would have aimed for the minimum level required to be more sure of passing it. One other issue is that the higher levels are always more expensive. The price varies considerably – between €30 and almost €300 depending on the language and the level.

As suggested in the post title, one thing that sets these certificates apart from simply studying the language at university is that you do not need to attend classes. With this in mind, the couple of hundred Euro seems a lot cheaper than the thousands of Euro required for expensive courses or years at university. You still need to do a lot of preparation, and private lessons would not go astray if combined with studying past exams and books made specifically for that exam. The language institutes themselves will almost always provide courses tailor-made for the exams, but they tend to be quite expensive so I have never attended these.

Since you don’t need to attend any classes, you really can just sign up for the exam (a few weeks in advance), show up on the written test day and oral test day, and then get the certificate after the time it takes for correction. No messy bureaucracy involved!

My most recent C2 exam attempt

It turns out that the German ZOP (C2) exam requires just over two weeks for correction. So on July 12th I’ll get my results!

I had been learning Spanish for about a year (from scratch) when I sat and passed the DELE Superior (C2), so I might be pushing it too far this time to attempt to get a C2 in just 3 months. Of course, I’ll be disappointed if I don’t pass, but my main purpose for this exam was always to force myself to learn as much as possible in a short time, by seriously attempting to reach the minimum pass grade, and that aspect of the mission has been a great success!

I’m very pleased with the progress I made and the realistic attempt I gave in the exam, even if I miss the pass just by a few percent. Aiming so high and reaching what I did means that I am confident that I would definitely pass the C1 (one level below) if I were to sit it.

As far as the contents of the exam itself go, I am confident that I passed several parts (most likely written, reading and oral), but the aural part had some tricky questions that I may not have answered satisfactorily and the grammar part requires skills that I found frustrating (and frankly, unnatural) to have to work on (such as taking a pre-made sentence starting with a preposition + noun and reforming it to start with a conjunction + verb while keeping the meaning exactly the same – yes it is as much fun as it sounds…)

Despite certain questions, I did find the exam overall to be a very fair and challenging evaluation of level, just as other ones I have sat have been. Rather than be a big cry baby and blaming the exam, if I don’t pass it will simply be because I haven’t reached C2 level yet, and there’s nothing wrong with that. :) However, I still believe I may have a chance of passing (it’s quite hard to tell) so I will reserve any judgement until July 12th.

Sitting an exam that tests all aspects of a language has required me to stay indoors and study a lot, so I think I will focus just on my conversational fluency for the next while in German and other languages. Being forced to study so much has helped me refine and improve my study technique, and this will ultimately help me to help others learn languages, and give me an edge for short study bursts. However, I will definitely not be studying so intensively for quite a while, as that only takes away from time that I could be actually conversing in the language.

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I usually start speaking a new language from day one, but I’ll attempt to do some focused study for two weeks before I start speaking my next 3-month-mission language! Let’s see if these study techniques make a difference, or I if I stick to the belief that you should dive in immediately and stop waiting so much. For me 2 weeks is already a long time to be focused on a language and not be practising it!

But first, I need a break and a chance to appreciate Berlin! In the mornings I can get the Language Hacking Guide version 2.0 ready – next week the entire contents of the guide will be in seven languages in one download (free upgrade for all those that bought it already), translated laboriously by natives. Hopefully I’ll have the time to redesign a few things on the site too. But in the afternoons/evenings, I will be out and enjoying this amazing city!

I’ll announce the next 3-month mission on the blog just after I get the results of the German exam – otherwise I’ll continue attempting to improve my German for the rest of my stay here. If you missed the announcement in the Language Hacking League, then don’t forget to ‘like’ FI3M’s Facebook page to see it announced there this weekend!

Since I have done practically no work at all in reducing my accent (this was not a requirement of the oral exam other than for the purposes of being easy to understand), it will be hard to achieve that aspect of my initial goals in just a few weeks, but I will certainly try! Nothing is impossible if you keep trying! Although in future, I think I’ll just have one ridiculously ambitious goal per 3-month mission :P

Have any of you sat CEFRL tests? What have your experiences been? Share them with us below!

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  • http://twitter.com/jkthos Guillaume Danielou

    Well done for your work on this mission. Even if you don't pass the exam, just doing a C2 level (proficiency) and being satisfied with yourself is a great achievement in such a short time.

    I had the opportunity when I was studying German 10 years ago to do the Goethe Institut exam. I should have done it back then. Now I can hardly remember anything.
    However I do have a C1 certification for both Spanish (DELE) and English (CAE). For both of them I took classes and was living in the country. C1 is not an easy level and you have to study quite a lot. I spent most of my time reviewing old exams and working on all its different parts (listening, speaking, writing, reading and grammar) with the teacher. It worked quite well. Today if I had to change something I would try to prepare it by myself but going to a class is also a good motivation.
    My next mission is to prepare for the JPLT (Japanese) exam in December!

  • APL

    Well done, that is one hell of an achievement, even if you don't pass, it is certainly something to be proud of.

    I'm currently working towards level B1, and even though I feel pretty confident with it, I pretty sure that the most of the time spent studying this material is not really helping me speak. Although I won't argue, it is helping me watch TV and read newspapers, etc..

    Also, I would add that I know several people who speak foreign languages (Including English as a foreign language) and can quite confidently live and communicate in that language, but can only just manage to get by on a B2 exam. I'm also curious whether an actual native speaker of English could pass the C2 exam in English :)

  • Lorenzo

    Hi Benny! As far as (Continental) Portuguese is concerned, the institution administering CEFRL tests is Instituto Camões (website: http://www.instituto-camoes.pt). I myself sat the DIPLE (Diploma Intermédio de Português Língua Estrangeira) exam in Rome back in 2001 and even though I got the highest grade (muito b0m), I believe it would have made definitely more sense to take the DAPLE (Diploma Avançado de Português Língua Estrangeira) exam as I felt confident enough in Portuguese to take the C1 or even the C2 exam. Talking about CERFL tests, when I was 19 I also sat the examination for the Cambridge First Certificate exam, which I passed with an A. I must confess, however, that neither of the CEFRL certificates I hold has apparently ever been of any use to me, given that even at interviews for jobs which involved being able to speak and write in one or more foreign languages recruiters would ask me to speak (and sometimes even write) in the languages concerned rather than assuming that I already spoke these well enough based simply on the fact that I had passed the corresponding CEFRL exams! Grüße aus Italien

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks Guillaume!
    Good luck in the JPLT!! :D

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    You need to get used to the layout of these exams, a native with no focused academic background may not actually pass a C2 exam! This would also be true for English!

    • http://twitter.com/rcsmit Rene Smit

      I think there should be two types of C2: C2M and C2A. With C2M you are able to speak at mothertongue level, so you know typical expressions, know a lot of the ‘collective culture memory’ etc. C2A is the current C2, which is very acedemic

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    I had heard about the Camões exam! I'd have to do a lot of work for that though, since Brazilian Portuguese rules are quite different. There is a Brazilian proficiency exam, but it doesn't follow the CEFRL system.
    The use of the certificates depends on the jobs etc. – as a translator my Spanish diploma definitely made an important difference. I think for general jobs, English speaking employers wouldn't have a clue what it means and it's usefulness is restricted to university course applications.
    Thanks for the comment!

  • Dominick

    For Italian, the CILS exam http://cils.unistrasi.it/index.asp?lng=1 is actually more commonly asked for by institutions than the CELI. It also happens to be a bit less expensive!

  • mariposa

    wow, you're amazing !! I'm really impressed by your posts, achievements and advices. I study Spanish philology. This language seems to be easy to learn but surprisingly I have serious problems with it ;/ I have to pass my exams one more time in september ;/ They look similar to those dele you've mentioned.
    What would u advise me? My level should be B2. I have serious problems with creating a speech. You know what I mean? During the oral exams we have to discuss several topics f.e violence in tv, plastic surgery etc.

    Hope you've passed your German test ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    My preference for examinations is always those that are members of the ALTE group. Only the CELI certificate is a member for Italian. Any others may be less expensive for many reasons…

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks butterfly! ;)
    Spanish can be trickier than people give it credit for indeed, once you get past the basics. The spoken level required for a B2 exam will not be extremely demanding, and at the start of an oral test the examiners will ease you in with some chit-chat to get you feeling comfortable ;)
    I seriously doubt plastic surgery and other complicated speciality subjects would ever appear on a B2 exam…
    Thanks for the well wishes!

  • Dominick

    Indeed only CELI is a member of the ALTE group, but when I went to the Italian Cultural Institute of Chicago http://www.iicbelgrado.esteri.it/IIC_Chicago/Me… to sign up for the CELI, the advised me to take the CILS instead stating it was preferred by Italian Academic Institutions..

  • http://mavericktraveler.com mavtraveler

    I wonder if majority of NATIVE speakers can actually pass a C2 exam? I don't know if I'll be able in my native Russian.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Without preparation I'm quite sure that even natives would fail certain exams. They would have to familiarise themselves with the exam layout and make sure they give themselves the right amount of time. Anyone with academic familiarity in languages would find them easy enough though.

  • http://faoiseamh.blogspot.com/ oranje68

    Great post Benny and good luck on the Glorious 12th ;-)
    I have taken DALF, DELE, ZDF and NT2 exams. I definitely think it is good to have these type of certificates to prove your competence. I get annoyed interviewing people who class their level in a language as 'Good' but then cannot answer a question in the language. These exams give a reasonably accurate benchmark of a person's level.
    University level language study is good for learning about literature and culture but no guarantee that somebody is very competent in using the language.

  • Sctld

    The highest test level on offer for Norwegian is only B1, and according to the online assessment, I'm already way above that level (C1). I'm not sure I would take the test, even if it was on offer. I have a pretty good idea of how good my Norwegian is, and employers will see how good my Norwegian is from the fluency of my covering letter and my interactions with them (on the phone, at the interview, etc).

    Interestingly, I took the English test as well. I'm a native speaker and got only level C1!

  • http://www.MyBeautifulAdventures.com/ GlobalButterfly

    CONGRATS on yet another mission accomplished!!! You rock!

    PS Liking the facial hair…

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/FluentCzech FluentCzech

    That was a good explanation of the exams and reasons to take them. Your determination and drive are very impressive. I am sure I would never have enough of either to tackle a language in three months and sit C2. I take my hat off to you.

  • Scott

    Hey Benny,

    Love the blog.
    I have a quick question re: the DELE.
    I learned Spanish in Latin America and was never really taught, nor have I used the vosotros form.
    Is it necessary to know this form to write the exam?

    Thanks,

    Looking forward to reading about your next mission in H.

    Scott

  • Mareike

    I am German native speaker myself and I tried a “German for Foreigners” exam once when I was working as a student's adivsor. At the Technical University Berlin we have a lot of foreigners who apply for studying and they have to pass a DAF test (abbreviation for “Deutsch als Fremdsprache”, i.e. German as Foreign Language). This test has many texts with blanks in them which you have to fill in. And this is quite hard – even for native speakers. First of all, I felt that there were more blanks than text, so the sentences didn't really make sense to me. Certain key words were missing. So I could make the sentence work, but could'nt judge if the sentence would fit in the overall meaning of the text. In the end, I passed, but only with 85% or so.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Great to see I'm not the only ALTE certificate collector :D
    Agree with you that this is a good standard to go on. Universities can claim to teach you any level, but just packing your head full of literature isn't going to help you so much in the real world!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    How can you take the test and “only get” a C1? It doesn't work like that – you take individual tests already, B1, C2 or whatever and usually pass that particular grade with a particular mark. Did you sit the Cambridge exams mentioned? If you sat a test that assigned you the level of C1 I'm afraid it's not quite what I'm talking about here!

    • Sctld

      Maybe you’re not talking about that, but close reading will reveal that I segued into assessment tests in order to justify why I’m not too desperate to take the “real” tests.

      I took the English assessment for both fun and to calibrate my results in the Norwegian assessment.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks!! :D I hear they have the exam in Czech – but it really does involve a lot of work for a certificate that might not be so useful to people in many situations. No matter which way the results go, I think I'll take an exam break for a good while :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    If your level of Spanish is good then it won't take you long to learn the vosotros form – in many cases it is simply the tu form with an 'i' added. You won't have to use it yourself (ustedes is quite fine for the oral and written aspects) but it will be important to recognise it.

    The DELE attempts to test international Spanish, with a preference towards Spain. In my aural exam I remember listening to a South American accent as part of one of the recordings. Since the exam tests formal Spanish, you will unlikely have to learn European Spanish slang and the like.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/FluentCzech FluentCzech

    I believe in Czech the exam is only available up to B2, which is a pity because I would be interested in seeing C1 and C2 sample papers just to see how much hard work lies ahead for me.

  • http://heleninwales.livejournal.com/ Margaret

    One of the problems with Welsh classes is that once you get to a certain point, to continue to advanced levels, you have to start studying literature and dissecting poetry! Not surprisingly, this results in a huge drop out rate and only a certain type of person continuing to higher levels.

    Thankfully, my tutor is busy devising classes that will focus on spoken fluency and that cover more complex constructions and more difficult topics without shifting into the literary form of the language.

    Having said that, I'm beginning to think that it might not be a bad idea to take the Use of Welsh exam (GCSE level). For one thing, having a particular goal to aim for is not bad thing.

  • Brian

    Hey Benny,

    It was crazy meeting you randomly in Berlin. It's good to know you do exist :P

    Best of luck with your results, ill be keeping an eye out. I hope your enjoying the good weather now that you can relax after all your hard work.

    Kind regards
    Brian

  • Steve

    I took and passed the Czech B2 exam and unfortunately there isn't a higher one. However I believe the Czech B2 is more respected then some other B2s purely because it is the highest. Speaking, writing, reading and listening are pretty easy in this exam (but you still have to study hard for them) but the grammar part tests the most complicated grammar and is more like maybe what a C1 or C2 grammar test would be in Czech.
    Benny, you've inspired me to take the Spanish C2, although I'll be giving it more time than 3 months and I already speak to at least B2 level!

    • Patrick Jones

      To je bajecne. Muzete trochu popsat obsah zkousky ?

  • Cainntear

    Very true, and every couple of years a newspaper proves that. Google News isn't giving any references sadly.

  • Cainntear

    This is that much-fabled post that I agree with almost entirely.

    These exams are useful and in many cases necessary, but they take a fairly abstract view to language.

    I hated teaching my one exam-prep class, because I would rather have taught them the language and then crammed exam-skills in at the end. Instead I was forced to bore them with exam-skills and watch them make slow progress in mock tests and no progress in the language.

    In fact, I wouldn't advise anyone to do anything less than a B2 exam — possibly even not below C1.

    Why? Because the exams at the lower levels get you into bad habits. You can get generally through the reading papers without actually “reading”, but rather by analysing. You can only pass the higher levels by reading, because they don't give you enough time to analyse. The analysing habit can become a sticking point that blocks later progress.

  • Eduardo Marques

    Thanks a lot for this post, you really read my thoughts! I have been looking for these CEFRL exams for months to evaluate and testify my skills in French, English and Spanish — German, maybe, in the future. I have never take lessons of French or extra classes of English and Spanish (all I “officially” know of these two last is from school, ou seja, almost nothing), so I'm a bit insecure.

    Well that is not a reason to give up. I'll dive deep in books, radios and podcasts (you read my thoughts twice with the former post). Hope I haven't made many mistakes in English here.

  • Chris

    I hope I'm not being too cheeky asking this (I probably am), but is it likely that there will be any audio for the foreign language translations? I recall a mention about a Bulgarian translation. Having the recording of the text would be a huge benefit for a language so scant in resources. If not, it'll still be a hugely helpful resource. Looking forward to it!

    Chris

  • http://www.tuisligh.com Claire

    Great post!
    I've only done the Spanish B1, but I've taught all levels of the Irish TEG exam. Think I'm going to start collecting now. I'm going to try and compile a list of exams in global languages.
    Good luck on the 12th! I can't believe how fast you're getting results, I was waiting months for DELE.

  • Eduardo Marques

    *following post, not former

  • http://joop.kiefte.eu/ LaPingvino

    I have done Esperanto C1 (as C2 is not available yet) and for sure even for Esperanto it's hard. It was a worthwhile experience though, and even while it's “only” Esperanto, it sure is a good fit for a CV :).

    I am thinking about trying to study and sit the English language exams though, and I am pretty sure it will be hard work for me to get that one straight. What do you think should be my priority to pass English C2?

  • aperkot

    Assessment tests are aimed at customers of language schools and are really only calibrated either in the A1-B1 or the B1-C1 ranges. Consequently, if you score 100%, they will tell you to take a C1 class firstly, so that you feel empowered by your good language skills, and secondly so they are not turning another customer away…

  • http://aspirantpolyglot.wordpress.com Kate

    I studied German for 2 years at Uni and then passed B1. Did pretty well in all sections except oral, where I barely scraped by.
    Congratulations on passing most of the C2 after three months – that is an achievement of incredible proportions, and you are now officially my idol.

  • http://www.tonguetales.com Tyeisha

    Are these tests available in the United States or do you recommend another similar test for U.S folks?

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Many of these tests are available in the states. There are A.F. Goethe and Instituto de Cervantes there too. You just need to search for them depending on the language you need to be tested in.

  • Brian

    Hey, a question for anyone who knows. If you sit, say, the B1 exam but you don’t pass it, do you still get a cert saying you’re at A2 level?

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Certainly not. If that were true then everyone would sit a C2 exam to get the C1 diploma!! I JUST failed my C2 German exam, but have no qualification to go with it. You don’t get a certificate of failure, sorry!

  • Kris Baughman

    Hello, I have recently stumbled on this page and have to say that I am in love! I am a native of the united states (something that I find VERY unfortunate) I am currently learning German and Russian. I have been studying German for three years on and off, Russian I have just started last year. I am definitely going to look about your page if you can help me learn them both with in 6 months I am all eyes, and ears!!!
    Yours truly,
    The future EXPAT,
    Kristen.

  • Chuck

    Hi Benny. Thanks for a useful post. I can find no information online about where in the USA you might take CEFRL tests for Italian. The link you provided within the post for CELI appears to be broken. Thanks, and good luck in your continuing language adventures.

  • Patrick Jones

    Dear Benny, can you describe for us how the listening portion of the DELE exam works ? Is there a short audio conversation followed by questions or what ?

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      The questions are printed and you get to hear the audio 2 or 3 times. In the C2 exams the questions can be quite complex, so it’s more than just hearing a key word, but understanding the entire context.

      You should be able to find example tests online to see for yourself!

  • Patrick Jones

    I am curious if there if anyone knows the holder of the largest number of C2 exams ? I would think that more than four would be rather extraordinary .

  • Tekopp

    links in this post are unfortunatly broken. the links to italian and other languages were at least.