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Taking CEFRL tests for quality European language certificates with no classes

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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.

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 😛

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Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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