Due to the world-wide COVID-19 pandemic, Spain’s Instituto Cervantes published revised 2020 DELE exam dates (as seen in the header image).
Extra exam days have been added for late in July and October, to make up for those that needed to be cancelled in April and May.
It is important to keep in mind that registrations close well before the examdates – make sure that you have completed, submitted and paid yours before the final registration dates as set out in the table.
The written exams are always held on a Friday morning, except for the double sessions scheduled for Friday 13 and Saturday 14 November. Exam centers may schedule the oral expression part of the exam for the day before the written session, or for the afternoon of exam day – check with your center on which day/ at what time you will be up to meet with the oral examiners. The results are typically available three months after the exam.
Given the ever-changing health risks that the pandemic may in future pose, at different times and in different locations, it is important to check and regularly re-check with your exam center, in case new restrictions may affect their particular ability to offer a scheduled exam.
Unlike the DELE with its periodic group exams, the SIELE (the online twin of the DELE) and the American OPIc – both being exams of individuals done online, on dates of your choice – are essentially not impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. LTI, who administer the OPIc, have however made in-home proctored exams possible in certain cases. In the case of the SIELE, local restrictions applying at specific exam centers at different points in time, may however have a bearing, so remember to check.
Good news for all who need to pass the DELE A2 exam! From the February 2020 sitting the new DELE A2 exam has an improved, updated format. The (slight) changes don’t affect the core curriculum and the assessment criteria. These still conform to the CEFR (the common European framework for languages). The format, however, has been streamlined and somewhat shortened. The topics covered in the exam tasks are now also more relevant to the everyday life experiences and needs of a prospective immigrant to Spain.
The Instituto Cervantes (which administers the exam) has said that, whereas in the past the exam was aimed mostly at people studying Spanish for academic or professional reasons, the fact that the DELE A2 “has been established as a requirement for applicants of Spanish nationality who do not have Spanish as their mother tongue, it was necessary to review and update the functioning of the exam for this new profile of candidates”.
The exam still tests the four communication skills, namely reading and listening comprehension, plus written and oral expression. However, there are now fewer tasks in each of the four components, with fewer questions per task, which are all now more focused on “familiar everyday topics”. The new DELE A2 exam includes some of the features of other CEFR exams such as the Cambridge English – for example, in having sample questions & answers at the beginning of sections to help candidates better understand what is required.
The new exam still starts of with reading comprehension, with a duration of 60 minutes. This now consists of four tasks (previously 5) containing 25 questions (instead of the 30 of the old exam format). Thematically, it’s built around “everyday topics familiar to a broader profile of users”. (Once we’ve briefly covered the general exam framework for the four skills in this initial overview, we will go into detail about the new specifications for each skill section, showing illustrative extracts from a new model A2 exam).
The listening comprehension test lasts 40 minutes,
and also has seen its tasks reduced to four (from 5) with 25 questions. The
pauses between audio clips have been lengthened, and each task is illustrated
with a sample question & answer at its start. Thematically, the questions
now also cover familiar everyday topics.
The written expression test has been reduced from
three to two tasks, with the time reduced from 50 to 45 minutes. The first task
is to write a replying e-mail. The second requires writing a descriptive text
of 70 to 80 words, for which a choice is given between two topics related to
The oral expression test has been reduced from four
to three tasks, with an overall duration of 12 minutes of talking (plus 12
minutes preparation time allowed). Here as well, the questions relate to
familiar everyday topics. The first task is still a brief monologue, relating to
a personal circumstance (chosen from two options, and prepared beforehand). The
second task involves describing a photo reflective of a common public situation.
The 3rd task is a conversation between the candidate and the
examiner, about the photograph in task two.
From the above, you can see that the improved exam is now
shorter, as well as being better illustrated (to make it easier to understand
what to do), plus being focused more on familiar everyday topics than on
academic or professional language needs.
The standards have not been lowered, but because the exam has been better
targeted with more relevant questions, it should actually prove easier.
The same “can do” skills have to be mastered as before, with the focus strongly on truly understanding the message of what you read and hear, plus being able to express yourself understandably: with coherence, accuracy, fluency and with an ample lexis (vocabulary, as well as cohesive link phrases, plus expressions / collocations).
Even more than before, this exam is about you can DO, much more than about what you may abstractly know in the academic sense (in other words, it is very different from your typical school or college language exam!).
We will now look more closely at how each of the four communicative
skills are being tested, illustrating with extracts from the official exam
specifications (translated for your convenience) and with screen grabs of the
new model exam which the Instituto Cervantes has now posted on its website. You
can access the complete model exam (including answer keys and transcripts of
the audio clips) via this link:
The new DELE A2 exam Prueba 1 – the Reading Comprehension Test:
The first task of Prueba 1 of the new DELE A2 consists of 5 questions. It has as goal to test your ability to capture the central idea and to identify specific information of an uncomplicated and evident nature, in short texts such as e-mails, letters and the like. The format is multiple choice, selecting the right answer to each question from three options.
Task 2 of Prueba 1 tests, with 8 questions, whether you can identify and understand key ideas and information of a descriptive nature contained in brief informative texts such as notices, adverts, instructions, advisories and the like, each 50 – 60 words in length. Again the format is 3-option multiple choice. Here’s what the illustrative example in the model exam looks like:
The third reading task has 6 questions. It builds on the theme of task 2, namely of identifying relevant information from texts, this time of 100 – 120 words in length, lifted from newspaper articles, blogs, job offers and such. Three texts are provided, and six statements or questions must be paired with their corresponding texts.
The fourth task of 6 questions involves identifying essential ideas and theme changes contained in narrative texts of 375 – 425 words. The texts are lifted from biographies, articles and stories and contain narrations about persons, places and events. The right answer must be chosen from three options given for each of the 6 questions.
The new DELE A2 exam Prueba 2 – the Listening Comprehension Test:
The first listening task consists of 6 questions (each with three multiple choice options) which test your ability to understand key ideas in informal face-to-face type conversations about everyday activities such as hobbies, tastes and interests plus transactional exchanges in shops, restaurants and the like. Here’s the illustrative sample from the model exam, plus its transcript:
The 2nd listening task (6 multiple choice questions) tests whether you can capture the general idea from broadcasts that are articulated slowly and clearly. The clips are informative in nature, such as news, announcements, adverts etc.
The 3rd task tests whether you can correctly identify information from everyday conversations. It also consists of 6 questions, but requires pairing of statements with the person who uttered them. Here’s the illustrative sample question:
The fourth listening task of 7 questions tests whether you can understand public announcements (emitted over P.A. systems or radio) regarding everyday situations. There are seven audio clips to listen to (eight with the sample question), and you must pair the correct announcement to 7 of the ten options given. Here’s the sample question:
SPECIAL OFFER – FREE DELE EXAM PREP WORKBOOK: For guidance on how to ace the DELE exam’s comprehension tests (such as the examiners’ use of “distractors”), ask for our gratis, no obligation sample DELEhelp e-book of 96 pages WB#9.2: “DELE / SIELE exam Orientation and Acing Tips“. It is a comprehensive guide to understanding the exam’s goals, curriculum, format and assessment criteria. You can ask for it by using our quick contact info form, which you can access by clicking on the image below:
The new DELE A2 exam Prueba 3 – The Expression in Writing Test:
The new DELE A2 exam writing test consists of two tasks. The first task is to write a personal missive, in the form of an e-mail, letter or card of 60 – 70 words in length, about everyday situations. The task is in reality to draft a response to such a missive that you’ve received from someone else, as can be seen from the illustrative sample:
The 2nd task entails writing a narrative text of 70 – 80 words, chosen from two options. It tests ability to express yourself coherently in cohesive (i.e., flowing and interconnected) writing, with sufficiently ample linguistic scope and accurate language use. The topics are of an everyday nature related to the candidate’s personal sphere of knowledge. Here’s the sample question:
The new DELE A2 exam Prueba 4 – the Oral Expression Test:
The new DELE A2 oral exam (i.e., testing your ability to actually speak Spanish) now consists of three tasks. The objective is to demonstrate that you can be understood: that you are coherent and fluent (able to use cohesive devices and link phrases), that you possess a sufficiently broad lexis of vocabulary and expressions and that you can use Spanish accurately, i.t.o. pronunciation and grammar.
The first task is a short monologue of 2 – 3 minutes, for which you are given time to prepare beforehand. You must choose between two options, both of which will relate to topics within your personal sphere of knowledge or experience. You can make notes as you prepare and can use these as memory joggers during your presentation, but you may not read verbatim from your notes, complete phrases that you have written down. During your monologue you will not be interrupted. Here’s an example of a typical monologue option:
The second task in the new DELE A2 exam involves another short uninterrupted monologue of 2 – 3 minutes, consisting of describing a photograph elected from two offered. The candidate is again provided time to prepare beforehand, and can make & use notes, but not read verbatim from them. This is what the task typically looks like:
As can be seen, the 3rd oral task follows on and is related to the photograph described in task two. It consists of a conversation of 3 – 4 minutes with the interviewing examiner (in the example above, a role-play where the examiner simulates being your brother, and the two of you discussing how to plan the family celebration). Here’s an example of the type of questions that the examiner can ask, to trigger the conversation:
Conclusion – better targeted (thus “easier”) but requires lots of practiced, real-world “can do” ability.
The improved new DELE A2 exam format has better focused the exam on the everyday reference sphere of the typical immigrant. It is relevant and easier to understand (considering that the exam paper is entirely in Spanish).
The emphasis is even more on testing your actual communicative competency (which is the key issue for the CEFR) rather than merely testing what you abstractly know about the Spanish language. Can you effectively use it in real life situations, to understand what you read and hear, and to make yourself understood when you speak or write?
It is a proven fact that communicative ability is first and foremost a SKILL, not just a knowledge set. In addition to what you have to learn (such as new lexis and the patterns or grammar of Spanish), like any other skill, coherent and fluent communication is mastered only through practice, practice and more PRACTICE. To be optimally efficient, this practice needs to be expertly guided.
This is especially true for the expression testing. For writing practice, you need expert feed-back. Also keep in mind that, statistically, 70% of those who fail the DELE, do so because of having failed the oral. Speaking practice is the one thing that’s truly difficult to do effectively on your own, at home. You need an expert coach, 1-on-1, who can engage with and guide you.
Fortunately modern tech such as Skype and Zoom makes it possible to prepare for all aspects of your new DELE A2 exam with your experienced DELEhelp coach, from the comfort of your own home, at only US$14 per hour, all inclusive. Please look at our website: https://edele.org for more details – you will see that we are official coordinators of our local accredited SIELE exam center (the DELE’s new online twin) as well as being proctors for its American equivalent, the OPIc.
I myself have “been there, done it” in the sense that I hold the DELE C2 diploma – so, our experience of the DELE is from both the candidate’s and the supervisor’s angle.
Remember that we offer a free, no-obligation exploratory Skype session of one hour, during which I explain the new DELE A2 exam’s format, goals and assessment criteria in English, and answer all your questions. You can ask to have this free session set up by using the short contact info form accessed by clicking the image offering the free workbook, above.
I look forward to speaking with you soon!
Buena suerte with your exam prep.
FREE DELE/SIELE EXAM PREPARATION BOOK IN ENGLISH
The DELE/SIELE – a different kind of exam
The DELE exam (of Spanish language competency) is very different to the typical school or college foreign language exam. If you want to prepare correctly, then from the very start you need to be well informed about these differences – the unique goals of the DELE system, the assessment criteria that the examiners will use to score you, and the curriculum content. If you do not know and understand these key characteristics of the DELE – if you do not have a proper DELE exam preparation book explaining them – then you simply won’t be prepared to give the examiners what they are actually looking for. This applies as well to the DELE exam’s new online twin, the SIELE, which shares the goals, curriculum and assessment criteria of the DELE, as well as to the American OPI (Oral Proficiency Interview).
Unfortunately, what little material exists about the DELE’s
desired outcomes, assessment criteria and what the curriculum contains, is not
easily accessible. The curriculum and assessment protocols are only available
in high academic Spanish – policy documents written by academics for academics.
Very few Spanish tutors know much about how the exam actually functions i.t.o.
the assessment, as distinct from describing
the simple format. This means that many candidates enter the exam poorly
prepared, expecting something similar to school or college. More often than
not, their preparation has consisted essentially of grammar revision – but
grammar is just one of the nine chapters of the official DELE curriculum describing
the prescribed exam content for the exam.
Astute students, when they first encounter a DELE exam
paper, immediately sense that this is a very different kind of challenge. Because
the DELE tests what you can actually DO, in terms of really communicating in
Spanish – it doesn’t set out to test merely what you KNOW. It is no surprise,
therefore, that one of the highest-frequency search terms on the internet
regarding the DELE exam, is “DELE exam preparation book”. Which hitherto has
not existed, in English.
About this DELE exam preparation book
Having myself prepared for (and passed) the DELE C2 exam, I have lived these frustrations. When I started preparing, I did so with a personal background that had made me aware of the importance of understanding assessment criteria. I had been sensitized to the science of didactics and assessment methodology during the time that I served as head of the South African diplomatic academy. This was during the transition to democracy in South Africa. I had to completely overhaul the training to make it suited to the needs of the New South Africa (after my stint at the academy, I had the great honour and privilege of representing i.a. President Nelson Mandela as ambassador).
In preparing for my DELE C2, I therefore quite naturally
wanted to know what the curriculum entails, and with what criteria the
examiners will use to assess my efforts at speaking and writing Spanish. Nobody could really tell me, in any detail. Yes,
I could get acquainted with the format, in the form of model exam books. But I
could find no DELE exam preparation book that explains the assessment criteria,
the actual deliverables or “outcomes” that the DELE system wants candidates to
be able to produce, and which defines the content prescribed in the curriculum.
Because of my experience heading the academy, I knew how
vital understanding such “targeting” is, if one is to do well in any exam. I therefore
set out digging and eventually got hold of the scoring matrixes, the
instruction protocols for the examiners, and the massive, complex curriculum
document. Taken together, what an eye-opener! I saw, for example, that three of
the ten chapters of the curriculum dealt with history, geography, culture and
tradition – to ensure a sufficient level of inter-cultural sensitivity that
would, for example, enable one to correctly contextualize the meaning of many common
Spanish expressions. I also saw that entire chapters are dedicated to
identifying the “can do” statements or
actual communicative tasks that candidates must be able to perform at each
level, the “intercultural dexterities” that candidates must have developed, and
the “genres of discourse and textual products” that the candidates must master –
to name just some.
Do you know the “can do” statements?
DIn the curriculum omnibus, I was particularly struck by the chapter “functional language use” (what the Americans call the “can do” statements) which lists all the communicative tasks that you are expected to be able to perform at each level. This ranges from basics for beginners such as asking directions, to – at the higher levels – such sophisticated tasks as introducing a toast at a formal reception. These “can do” statements encapsulate the true scope of the prescribed curriculum for each level – but how many students know about this, and are ever prepared to be able to produce these essential deliverables?
The goals of the DELE / SIELE system
What I found even more important than the curriculum as such, was the policy material explaining the goals of the Common European Framework of Reference for Language (of which the DELE / SIELE is the Spanish iteration) and the four assessment criteria that examiners use to score your efforts.
The CEFRL came about because of the abolition of the
internal borders in the European Union. This allowed EU citizens to live, work
or study in any country of their choosing. This borderless new union made it
essential for the likes of employers and post-grad schools at universities, to
have access to reliable certification of the actual ability of an applicant to
truly understand the new target language and to make him/herself understood in
it. And it was apparent that school and
college certification simply didn’t reflect a candidate’s actual communicative
ability. For example, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages
recently found, in a survey, that only 0.5% of students at high school and
college who majored in a foreign language, could actually maintain a
conversation in that language. The authors of the CEFRL set out to try and correct
this with their new policy, and the first thing they did was to change
completely the focal point and goals of language tuition.
No longer would the language as such be the focal point, as it is in the academic study of Spanish in high school or college. In academic study of Spanish, the language is dissected and analysed, as one would dissect frogs in Biology – without yourself becoming a frog. The CEFRL threw this approach overboard. Instead, it takes the student as focal point: the student as “social agent” who must be able to perform real-world communicative tasks in a foreign-language environment. The objective is thus not to fill the student’s head with abstract academic knowledge about the language as subject matter, but to equip the student to be able to DO – to actually use the language in real-world communication. To understand what you read or hear, and make yourself understood when you speak or write. This means, to master the four communicative competencies of listening and reading comprehension plus written and oral expression (which form the four units that the DELE exam consists of).
The four DELE assessment criteria
So, if the examiners aren’t primarily intent on checking eagle-eyed what you know about conjugating Spanish verbs, but are assessing whether you are actually communicating effectively when you speak or write: what criteria do they use to score your effort? This, clearly, you simply HAVE TO KNOW if you are going to be able to give them what they are looking for.
There are four assessment criteria, which at first glance
seem very generic and woolly, if you don’t have a proper DELE exam preparation
book that can clarify what is meant with each. Most students are quite
surprised when they first learn that, for the oral expression for example,
these four equally weighted assessment criteria are: coherence, fluency,
sufficiency of linguistic scope, and correctness. In other words, 50% of your
score will be assessed on coherence and fluency – but what does that actually
mean, in terms of what is expected of you? What is understood under each of
these criteria, and how are they applied to assess an individual’s performance,
so as to arrive at a final score of pass or fail?
Our free DELE exam preparation book
Because being totally familiar with each of these assessment criteria is so very evidently of utmost importance to students who want to prepare correctly for the DELE, I felt that this was a gap that simply had to be filled. Therefore, I wrote a succinct, practical DELE exam preparation book for English-speaking students. This is truly the product of having “been there, done it”. Our in-house DELEhelp Workbook #9 of 96 pages is written from the student perspective. Its aim is to help you understand the goals, format, assessment criteria and prescribed curriculum content for the DELE, and also to share with you, practical tips for acing the exam – both in terms of how to prepare, and what to do on exam day.
The best news is: DELEhelp’s DELE exam preparation
book is available to you, entirely free and with absolutely no obligation to
sign up with us for classes. Of course, we hope that it will help convince you
of our ability to add value to your DELE exam preparation. But the decision whether
you want to use our expert 1-on-1 tuition via Skype at only US$12 per hour, is
yours and yours alone.
Also serves for SIELE exam preparation
If you are preparing to do the new online twin of the DELE exam, called the SIELE, you should also use this same DELE / SIELE exam preparation
book, since the goals, criteria and curriculum are shared (it is the same
official who signs both the DELE and the SIELE certification, namely the
Director of Studies of the Instituto Cervantes). As you can imagine, we have
also developed an additional workbook about acing the equivalent American OPI
test (the Oral Proficiency Interview). You can ask for this as well, if you are
preparing for the OPIc.
Since you are currently reading this blog post, you may
already be aware of the many valuable articles guiding SIELE and DELE exam
preparation that are available free in our DELEhelp blog. If, however, this is
your first “landing” on our blog, check out the content list – you will see the
dozens of posts with useful tips about how to ace the oral and the written
expression tests, how to plan and what to focus on in your DELE exam
preparation, how the DELE exam final score is calculated, and many more topics.
We are pleased to offer you all this material free in our blog, in the hope
that it, too, will show you what our expertise can mean to you, for improving
your chances of doing well in the exam. Of course, once you do sign up with us
(if that is your choice) then you will receive the rest of our series of
one-of-a-kind in-house DELE exam preparation books, again entirely for free, as
part of the resources that we provide to every one of our students.
At a minimum, though, we hope that by reading this free
sample DELE exam preparation book (number 9.2: DELE / SIELE Exam Orientation and Acing
Tips), you will understand how different the DELE is. We hope that you
will start to sense that extra confidence that comes from knowing precisely
what you are up against. Also, that you
will understand how you should best prepare yourself to meet the unique
challenges presented by the DELE / SIELE exam, or the OPI.
Seamlessly ties in with our 1-on-1 tuition via Skype
Properly planned and personalised preparation firstly
requires such understanding as foundation, but also needs a proper initial diagnostic of your strengths and
weaknesses as basis. Plus expert, experienced guidance that will provide you
with feed-back and correction when you invest your time and mental energy in
the essential practice, practice, practice required to become fluent, coherent
and correct in your oral and written expression.
Such expert guidance is best provided one-on-one, not in group classes dominated by the lowest common denominator. And why not use modern online tech to have expert tuition in the comfort of your own home, with flexible scheduling, and at low-low rates that reflect Central American overhead costs, not those of North America or Europe…?
To ask for your free copy of our DELE exam preparation book, simply click on the image below and send us the completed contact information form so we can e-mail you the download link (it is available as a .pdf e-book).
Buena suerte with
your Spanish exam preparation!
Sefardi ties to the Spanish language run deep…
Here at DELEhelp we’ve had the singular privilege over the past two years to have helped a large number of descendants of Sefardi (Sephardim) Jews (whose ancestors were expelled from Spain in 1492), to prepare for the DELE A2 Spanish language exam. This test forms part of the requirements for making use of Spain’s “right of return” law, which allows for expedited Spanish citizenship and passport for those with Sephardic ancestry.
One of our Sefardi students, Deborah, has written a moving blog post about her personal motivation for mastering Spanish. It is a beautifully-written piece that brings into focus the emotional and sentimental motivators that are often much more powerful than the merely legal one of gaining Spanish nationality. Deb’s blog post shares insights that will benefit Jew and Gentile alike – to read it, click on the image above.
Here is a photo of Deb and her daughter, together with Mónica (Deb’s DELEhelp tutor) taken recently at a restaurant here in La Antigua Guatemala.
For Sephardim who want to make use of the Spanish law: you better move quickly to register for the DELE A2 exam, because time is running out fast…
Thank you Deborah for allowing us to link to your excellent blog post.
16 TOP BLOG POSTS ON ACING DELE EXAM
Our DELEhelp blog has established itself as THE authoritative resource, in English, for students preparing for the Spanish DELE exam (and for its new online twin, the SIELE, as well as for the American equivalent, the OPI). To give you a bird’s eye overview of what is available and make access easier, we’ve copied below the blog banners for each of our top posts. To be taken directly to a particular post, all you need to do is click on a banner.
Buena suerte with your exam prep!
TOP DELE EXAM TIPS 1 min VLOG
Check out our one minute video blog with quick, key tips for acing the different DELE exam components, such as the ORAL, the multiple choice COMPREHENSION TESTS and the EXPRESSION IN WRITING tasks. We also tell you what to focus on in the last week of prepping, plus what to look out for on exam day itself. ¡Buena suerte!
SPANISH EXAM PREP: THREE TOP TIPS
There are three things that, above all else, you should do in your Spanish exam prep. Doing these will help you ace your exam, whether it is the DELE, the SIELE or the OPI. The three things are: (1) get to know your “enemy”, (2) have a large “linguistic scope”, and (3) practice speaking and writing in Spanish, 1-on-1, with an expert tutor. (If you don’t yet know what the DELE, the SIELE and the OPI are, please go to this blogpost: https://www.delehelp.org/dele-siele-opi-spanish-exams-compared/ ).
Students often say to me: “You are an official SIELE exam center manager, and an OPI proctor. You’ve passed the DELE C2. You have been helping hundreds of students to successfully prepare for these exams. What are the top three practical, ‘been there, done it’ tips you can give a student i.t.o. effective Spanish exam prep?”
The first thing I say to students who are planning their Spanish exam prep, is that they have to really “know the enemy” to be able to beat it. Find out about your particular exam’s assessment goals, its format, curriculum and scoring criteria. Make sure that you understand exactly what the examiners will be expecting of you. Without knowing this, you cannot develop a proper study plan. Nor will you have the right mind-set for going into exam day. Because without a proper understanding of how different these exams are to school or college exams (they are focused on “communicative competency”, not academic competency) you will likely still think that they are marked like the language exams you knew in school or college. Which they definitely are NOT – they test your ability to USE the language, to actually COMMUNICATE, instead of just having academic knowledge about it. For example, i.t.o. the scoring method used: do you know that, for the speaking and writing tests, your COHERENCE, your FLUENCY and the extent of your VOCABULARY count for three times more of your overall score than does your CORRECTNESS? (of pronunciation, spelling, grammar etc.).
The second important thing to do in your Spanish exam prep, is to focus most of your self-study time on learning the lexis of the Spanish language – in other words, its vocabulary plus expressions. This is hugely important for both the comprehension and speaking/writing tests. In the writing and speaking, the “amplitude of your linguistic scope” (i.e., your knowledge of vocabulary and expressions) count for 25% of the total test score. In the comprehension tests it is even more important, because it is obvious that if you don’t know what key words in the text or audio clip mean, you’ll be unlikely to comprehend the message and equally unlikely to get the answers right.
Thirdly, get an experienced, knowledgeable tutor with whom you can practice, 1-on-1, to express yourself in Spanish, whether it be in writing or speaking. Because the one thing that you clearly cannot do by yourself at home, is practicing conversation by yourself. Nor will your writing practice have full value if you don’t have an expert to review it and guide you. Prepping for these exams is all about PRACTICE. Which is why one-on-one tuition is streets ahead of wasting time in group classes where you are held back by the lowest common denominator and where you have to share your part of precious prep time with how many others.
Let’s get into some more detail now, and also point you to resources that will help you get to grips with these three keys to success with your Spanish exam prep.
GETTING TO KNOW THE GOALS, CURRICULA AND SCORING CRITERIA:
To really get to know what will be required of you, you will need to do two things. One is to read up about these exams from a source describing them in plain English and from the student perspective – from the point of view of explaining what skills these exams are actually set up to test, and how. The second is to do as many model exams as possible, to gain first-hand insight through practice, doing so with an expert tutor who can explain to you where you fall short and why (and how to remedy that).
You have to understand what the goals are that these exams are devised to accomplish (in brief, to test and certify your practical, real-world ability to actually communicate in Spanish – i.e., to understand what you hear and read, and to be understandable when you write or speak). Get familiar with the exam format, which is structured to test your real-life “can do” ability with regard to the four communicative competencies (listening and reading comprehension, plus written and oral expression). Obviously, you have to know what content you will be tested on, so you have to familiar with your level’s curriculum (for example, in the DELE / SIELE the Subjunctive Mood isn’t tested at levels A1 and A2). The most important part of the DELE / SIELE curriculum is the “functional language use” chapter – what is called in the OPI system the “can do” statements. These identify the actual tasks that you must be able to perform at your level, and about which you will be tested. (Grammar constitutes just one of the 12 chapters of the DELE / SIELE curriculum).
And finally, you have to be very clear about the scoring criteria that the examiners
will apply to assess your written and spoken expression (they will evaluate,
with equal weight, four things: your coherence, linguistic scope, fluency and
correctness – which we will come to in a moment). The best sources for getting
this information, in English, written from the perspective of the students’
needs, are our FREE in-house Workbook #9, as well as the detailed posts in this DELEhelp
If you click on the image above for the Workbook, you will
be taken to a contact info form that will enable us to send you the download
link FREE, without any obligation. By clicking on the image of a particular
post, such as how the final pass/fail is calculated (below), you will be taken
to that post in this blog – or you can look in the “archives” column on the
right and select for yourself.
I know that most students, when they ask me for my top three tips, probably expect me to refer them to aspects of grammar to study. Like asking the teacher at school what content to “spot” for an upcoming test. Things of the kind that your school teacher would have identified – like mastering the Subjunctive Mood (if you aim for a middle or upper level pass). Or to get clarity on when to use “ser” and when “estar” (for the lower levels – and beyond). Of course, these certainly are useful things to master, and you must definitely get around to them. But you can already see that they are nowhere near the top three priorities for these communicative exams (even though they may be in school or college-style exams).
Once you know what the four equally-weighted scoring criteria are, and how they are applied, you will clearly understand how differently you will have to prepare yourself for these exams. In essence, these exams test your ability to convey a clear message, and whether you understand the messages that you receive. This they do by testing whether you can maintain a coherent and fluent conversation, plus: can you express yourself correctly, and with a sufficiently ample linguistic scope? (i.e., have command of the words and expressions needed, with which to clearly formulate your message). The fundamental difference in objective between school-style exams and these “can do” tests, speak from the results that the ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) encountered when they did a survey about ability to actually maintain a conversation. They tested students at senior school and college level, who majored in a foreign language. The result was: only 0.5% could – proof enough that if you prep for the DELE / SIELE & OPI like you would have approached a Spanish exam in college, you would stand a 99,5% chance of failing. It’s not merely about what you KNOW, it’s all about what you CAN DO.
When it comes to format, the DELE/SIELE/OPI exams vary but slightly (mostly due to different technologies used – the DELE being an old-style “pen & paper” exam, and the SIELE / OPI using computers with online technology). However, the goals and the approach to assessment stay the same for all of them. In the case of the DELE, there is no flexibility – all four the communicative competencies (i.e., reading and listening comprehension, as well as oral and written expression) are tested in sequence, in one exam. In the case of the SIELE and OPI, because of the modern technology they use, there is much more flexibility. You can choose which competencies to be tested on – either just speaking, or all four, or any combinations in between – and one which days you want each tested (if you have selected more than one competency to be tested on).
Make sure that you know which of these exam formats would best suit your own goals or accreditation needs, so that you can choose wisely between the DELE, the SIELE and the OPI (they are all of equal international standing, with the OPI being USA-based, and the DELE / SIELE offered under the auspices of the Instituto Cervantes of Spain). You will find an up-to-date blogpost comparing these three exams, by clicking on this link: https://www.delehelp.org/dele-siele-opi-spanish-exams-compared/
Next I’ll will give you pointers about the most important (and rewarding) traditional learning (i.e., memorizing) challenge that you must take on, in order to do well in these exams – which is: expanding your lexis.
THE IMPORTANCE OF VOCABULARY & HOW TO MASTER IT:
As I’ve indicated earlier, your “linguistic scope” is one of the four equally-weighted scoring criteria used in assessing oral and written expression in these communication-based Spanish language exams. For the comprehension tests, a broad knowledge of lexis is actually even more important, because if you don’t know the meaning of key words and expressions used in the reading texts or audio clips, you won’t be able to understand what is truly meant in the particular piece.
There is no way around it – vocabulary and idiomatic expressions (and their meanings) simply need to be memorized. This is the hard learning part of prepping for these exams. There are, however, proven methods of making this more effective and less boring. The one such method is using flashcards; in particular the modern digital ones, such as Cram.com. The other, complimentary method is to master the twelve conversion patterns for the so-called cognate words (i.e., those with common roots and similar meaning) in both languages. They constitute the 38% of vocabulary that is common between Spanish and English. To give an example of such a conversion pattern – words that end in English on “…ce” will in Spanish end on”…cia”, such as police / policia and ambulance / ambulancia. If you know these patterns, you will have a huge instant vocabulary and will know how to spell and pronounce them correctly.
At DELEhelp we have developed two in-house workbooks, specifically to help you expand your linguistic scope. The first of these (DELEhelp Workbook #4), helps you master the use of flashcards and the art of cognate conversion. It also provides you with a list of the thousand most frequently used words in Spanish (culled by supercomputers from hundreds of telenovela episodes, so this is real-world Spanish). The second (Workbook #5) introduces you to the most commonly used Spanish expressions – particularly the very important “link phrases” or “connectors” that the examiners are so keen to see you use, because they help ensure coherence and fluency.
The modern digital flashcard systems undoubtedly are the key
to effective learning of lexis. You can use flashcards to memorize words and expressions
– not only i.t.o. meaning, but you can (and should) add the gender of nouns,
and the conjugation rules applicable to individual verbs (whether they are
regular / irregular etc.). The beauty of the modern flashcards is that they help
you escape the soul-deadening boredom of trying to memorize printed lists of
words. It is like playing chess against the computer – systems like Cram.com (which
is free) make the learning process interesting by playing games with you,
whilst all the time sorting the words that you already know from those that
still challenge you, and keeping you focused on the latter.
When you have set up your flashcard system, it is very
important to be diligent in maintaining and expanding it. Every new word you
encounter, whether reading or listening, must
be jotted down, looked up in a good dictionary (like the free online dictionary
by Farlex) and then incorporated into your flashcards. The more you read
Spanish, listen to Spanish talk radio or watch telenovelas, the bigger and better
your linguistic scope will get – if you discipline yourself to note new words on
flashcards and then actively learn them, as your most important self-study
THE IMPORTANCE OF
1-on-1 PRACTICE GUIDED BY AN EXPERT TUTOR
We know today, thanks to neuroscience, that our brains process the acquisition of language in the same way, using the same brain circuit that we employ to acquire the skill to dance, to play the piano, or to play golf – any skill that we perform. In the case of sport, we talk about building up “muscle memory”, which is the ability to reflexively play that tennis backhand shot because we’ve internalized – through much practice – the patterns of the movement. Knowing what to do isn’t equivalent to being able to actually DO: as a total golf hacker, I can go out and buy every book ever written about the sport and study them exhaustively – but that won’t help me beat Tiger Woods.
We know that this is true also for language: speaking our
mother tongue, we don’t for a moment consciously think about grammar – we do it
reflexively, on the basis of the lexis and patterns of the language that we’ve
internalized through constant practice. It is probably fair to say that the
vast majority of any population don’t have even the most basic idea about the formal
grammar of their mother tongue – yet they all speak it correctly (mostly). We know
that nobody sits down toddlers to actively teach them language in a formal,
grammatical way like in school – they observe and practice (and unlike us
adults, they don’t have ego hang-ups about making mistakes, which keeps us from
opening our mouths, and thus from practicing). By trial and error toddlers internalize what the
right words are for describing particular things or actions. Constantly they practice
the correct pronunciation, and stringing words together in the correct
patterns. And lo and behold, after five-six years they speak with confidence
and clarity, before they’ve received one day of schooling.
Although language handbooks are very valuable tools that are available to us adults when we aim to acquire a new language, they aren’t a substitute for actually practicing to speak and to write. Practicing writing one can (and should) do by oneself at home, but to gain full value, you need an expert to review your written assignments and to guide you i.t.o. necessary corrections. However, practicing conversation is simply impossible to do effectively in front of the mirror, on your own. Even the best interactive computer program isn’t going to help you with practicing true conversation either. You need an expert interlocutor, who can correct and guide you, 1-on-1. Earlier, I mentioned the 0.5% result that the ACTFL found when they assessed how well traditional foreign language schooling actually equips students to maintain conversations. This statistic also explains why enrolling for group classes to prepare for exams such as these, is usually a waste of time and money – you need opportunity to practice, not just to sit there and listen, and that can best be achieved 1-on-1 with an expert tutor who not only knows Spanish, but also the ins and outs of the particular exam for which you are prepping.
Such conversation practice with a tutor isn’t just idle chatter – it needs to be structured, simulating the exam itself (for example, using appropriate photographs as conversation triggers, such as the DELE and SIELE interviewers typically use). The practice conversations should ideally be recorded, for subsequent review and so as not to interrupt you in mid-stream to correct a word or phrase here and there – particularly when practicing for gaining fluency and coherence is so important i.t.o. the scoring criteria that will be employed in the exam. It speaks for itself that, in the normal course of such conversation practice, any problems that you have with correctness of pronunciation, grammar, choice of words and the like, will naturally come to the surface and will be attended to. This means that such conversation practice isn’t just preparation for the oral test, but for all of the elements of the exam.
So, there you have it. My three top tips for your Spanish exam prep. How to best prepare for exams that test your “communicative competency”, such as the DELE / SIELE or the ACTFL’s package of tests, most prominent of which is the OPIc – the Oral Proficiency Interview by computer
Please take note that you can ask to receive a free download link to our 96-page in-house Workbook #9.2: “DELE/SIELE exam orientation and acing tips” by sending me an e-mail to: email@example.com or by filling in the convenient contact info form on this page. It will certainly help you in your Spanish exam prep!
Buena suerte with your preparation!
Sefardis, there’s still time to pass the DELE A2 Spanish exam
If you are of Sephardic descent and you are keen to apply for Spanish nationality, then there’s great news – a new concession by the Spanish authorities means that you can do the DELE A2 exam AFTER the 30 September 2019 deadline for having handed in your nationality application, and still have your DELE results accepted. There definitely still remains sufficient time to prepare to pass, even for beginners.
THE SPANISH LEGAL REQUIREMENTS:
The Spanish “right of return” law of 2015 allows applicants of Sephardic descent a limited window to file their applications for expedited Spanish nationality. The deadline has already been extended once (and the law only allows for that one extension). It expired on 30 September 2019. It is theoretically possible that it may be extended again, but this would likely require amendments to the original law, not just a simple administrative act (as with the first extension). Reality is that the somewhat inconclusive 2019 Spanish general elections has left the Cortes (national assembly) with other pressing priorities. Another complicating factor may be that the Muslim world is questioning the fact that, whilst in 1492 Jews and Moors were expelled from Spain, only descendants of those Sephardic Jews are currently being invited back in.
One of the requirements under the Sefardi return law, is that applicants must show proof of having mastered basic Spanish. This is tested by means of the DELE A2 exam, administered by the Instituto Cervantes. The A2 is the second lowest level of Spanish in a system that goes up to C2. A2 is really “survival Spanish”, with elementary grammar and its vocabulary focused on the candidate’s immediate needs and for describing his/her close living environment. The DELE exams are offered world-wide, on a limited number of days per year. The dates for 2020 are shown below .
From February 2020 there’s a streamlined and improved new DELE A2 exam format. The essence of the curriculum and assessment criteria remain, but it’s more targeted to the needs and experience spheres of those seeking Spanish nationality, and slightly shorter with fewer tasks and questions – so it should be easier to pass. For more details, see our blog post:
A problem with the DELE is that the results typically only become available three months after the exam date. The actual diploma usually arrives a further three months later. Furthermore, accredited exam centers are relatively few, and have limited numbers of seats available for the exams. These practical problems with the DELE, have caused the Spanish Justice Ministry to DE-LINK the submission of the languageexam RESULTS (as well as those of the CCSE culture & constitution exam, also managed by the Instituto Cervantes) from the filing of the actual application as such.
The concession now made by the Spanish authorities, means that – on condition that you officially filed your nationality application before or on 30 September 2019 latest, then your DELE / CCSE results will be accepted beyond that date, including for exams taken AFTER the closing date for applications as such (i.e., 30 September 2019).
Exactly till when candidates will be allowed to sit for the exams and still qualify, is unfortunately somewhat unclear at the moment (we are urgently working with our local Spanish Embassy to have this definitively cleared up). The web-site of the Jewish Federation of Spain avers that the exams can still be done through the whole of 2020. The actual notification of the concession, published by the Spanish Ministry of Justice in their official gazette on 19 June 2019, speaks of a period of “one year, which can be extended or reduced” for HANDING IN YOUR RESULTS. Unfortunately, it fails to state whether the year is to be calculated from the date of publication of the notice, or from 1 October 2019. It is also debatable whether such a right, once accorded, can legally be “reduced”, since that appears to be contrary to Spanish law of administrative procedure. The Instituto Cervantes, for its part, wasn’t clear what the last qualifying date for ACTUALLY SITTING THE EXAM would be (as distinct from the last date for handing in results).
Please remember that registration for the exams close about four weeks prior to the exam date. Please make sure that the exam center that you aim to choose, will definitely be presenting the A2 on these dates. Not all centers choose to present all of the DELE exams offered by the Instituto Cervantes in any given year. Also be sure to ask whether the particular center must first meet a quota of candidates before Madrid will send them examiners (for the oral; not all centers have locally-based qualified oral examiners always to hand). Students have had the unfortunate experience of registering at such centers, and then receiving an e-mail from them on the last day of registration saying: “sorry, we didn’t meet the quota so we won’t be offering your level after all”. This then leaves the student in the impossible situation that it is then too late to search for another center.
Considering that this is truly a “once in a lifetime” opportunity and that it is now rapidly running towards its close, it makes sense to not put all your eggs in the basket of one exam session. Many things can go wrong – health-wise, business or family, impeding one to actually sit the exam as intended, or even on the day itself you may not be at your best, for any number of reasons. It thus is wise, as a precaution, to also register ahead, in time, for an additional, “fall-back” session.
The regional head office of the Instituto Cervantes for North and Central America is located in Albuquerque, New Mexico (they are also an exam center). If in doubt, don’t hesitate to contact them: https://albuquerque.cervantes.es/en/default.shtm
A last point about the registration process: if you suffer any disability that may impact your ability to fairly complete the exam, such as being hard of hearing (which may be a problem if you have to listen to the audio of the listening comprehension test over a public sound system in a group context, rather than having earphones) you need to take this up with your center from day one.
WITH PROPER PREPARATION, THE DELE A2 EXAM IS RELATIVELY EASY:
As far as the exam itself is concerned, it is NOT the Spanish Inquisition. It is not a “gotcha” type of exam trying to catch you out. It is a real-world, very practical test of your competency at communicating intelligibly in basic Spanish. The oral examiners are trained to try and put you at ease, and the exam papers as such are full of helpful guidance, so please don’t rush reading them – read them carefully, at least twice. The DELE is not like your typical school or college language exam. It is not hung up on grammar, or on marking you negatively for every small mistake. It is all about communication; about messaging: can you understand a simple message and are you able to convey an understandable message in turn? The four equally-weighted scoring criteria of the speaking and writing segments of the DELE are: coherence, fluency, ample vocabulary, and accuracy (the latter encompassing pronunciation, spelling, and grammar ). The examiners are under orders to ignore “slip of the tongue” type grammar mistakes that don’t impact the clarity of your message.
So, can a beginner start now and hope to pass in time? Definitely, YES. On condition, of course, that you are dedicated, apply yourself, and have access to a 1-on-1 coach. That “personal trainer” must work with you i.t.o. a personalized study plan, based on first of all doing a proper diagnostic of your level, aptitude and learning preferences.
As a concrete example: in 2018 we assisted as student who came to us at the beginning of May. He was based in Iceland (where there isn’t much opportunity to practice Spanish!) and he wanted to do the May 19th 2018 exam as a “dry run”, while really aiming for the July exam. Here is an extract from his registration form with us:
Address Currently living in Iceland. Academic Qualifications obtained BFA in Graphic Design. No qualifications in Spanish. Your current level of Spanish: Beginner level. When can we do a Skype interview about your needs? My schedule is currently very open. I’d love to get started as soon as possible. Which aspects of your Spanish do you need help with? I’ll be taking the A2 exam for the Sephardic Jews Spain Right of Return. I’m scheduled to take the test on May 19, I’m not sure I’ll pass the first time, so I’m currently planning to take it again in July.
Well, this student took 20.5 hours of very focused, structured classes with us via Skype, starting on 3 May, and on 19 May he passed! And he isn’t the only one to have achieved that kind of progress, by any means. I could cite a whole list of similar cases. YES, IT CAN BE DONE! (It is based on just such testimonies that the Jewish Federation of New Mexico kindly recommends us to Sefardis who want to seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity).
OUR DELEhelp TUITION VIA SKYPE IS PERSONAL AND FLEXIBLE:
Our tuition is always based on a personalized study plan, which we design for you, based on the initial diagnostic that we do as first step. We believe in being maximally flexible regarding hours. We are open seven days a week, from early to late in the evening and you can reschedule or cancel up to one hour before the booked time for your Skype session, without any penalties. You get our specialized DELEhelp in-house workbooks and related resources FREE. We bill you at the end of each month via PayPal, so you don’t have to send us any personal or credit card data. You are billed only for the actual Skype interface time, at just US$14-00 per hour (which thus includes our class prep and homework review time, plus our in-house resources, for FREE). I’m pretty sure that you won’t get a better rate anywhere…
At DELEhelp we go way beyond grammar, covering each of the four communicative competencies being tested in the DELE. We thoroughly familiarize you with the exam format and curriculum. We inform you about the four scoring criteria applied by examiners in evaluating you in the oral and writing tests. We also coach you in the “distractor” techniques used by examiners in the multiple choice reading and listening comprehension tests. Our tuition is hands-on, simulating exam reality. It is absolutely goal-driven (i.e., entirely focused on helping you to pass the exam).
Above all our tuition is practical, informed by our own first-hand experience of the exam, from the perspective of an English-speaking student. It is an intensive, one-on-one effort to help you develop your actual communicative ability in Spanish, so that you can demonstratethe real-world skill sets that the DELE’s four equally-weighted scoring criteria evaluate. Our aim is to help you perform optimally in the exam setting. We help you to develop your actual communicative competencies. We DO NOT simply lecture you school-style about the “rules” of the Spanish language (which merely allows you to “know” in the abstract, instead of enabling you to actually DO).
Your personalized study plan will provide for 2/3 self-study and 1/3 Skype interfacing with the tutor (i.e., for every hour of Skyping, we assume two hours of guided self-study). The Skype sessions serve to practice the things one cannot really do on one’s own at home, such as practicing for the very important oral expression part of the exam. The sessions also serve to give feed-back on the self-study assignments (for example, practicing writing in Spanish) and reviewing with you, your mock exam results. We include a lot of realistic simulated exam practice – using actual previous exam papers as well as model exams.
If you want to know more about the A2 exam and how best to prepare, have a look at our earlier blogpost on the topic:
Our DELEhelp blog is full of useful guidance about all aspects of the DELE exam – browse the past postings at www.delehelp.org
To know more about our DELEhelp course package, please go to our secure website: https://edele.org
Don’t forget to ask for our free, 96-page workbook of “DELE exam orientation an acing tips”, by simply filling in the contact info form linked to the image below (just click on it).
We look forward to helping YOU ace your DELE A2 exam before the Sephardic window closes: “¡Si, se puede!” (Yes, it CAN be done!).
DELE / SIELE oral & writing: HOW to learn, and WHAT
The DELE / SIELE exams are very different to traditional school or college exams. The examen DELE / SIELE tests your ability to express yourself in Spanish, coherently, fluently, correctly and with sufficient linguistic scope (i.e., vocabulary / lexis), simulating real-world situations. The DELE and SIELE are NOT examinations of your abstract knowledge of the “rules” of Spanish grammar or orthography. They test whether you can actually apply your knowledge and maintain proper communication in Spanish. The first questions when one starts prepping for the oral and written expression tests, need therefore be – for the DELE / SIELE oral & writing: HOW to learn and WHAT to focus on, so that I can acquire the communicative competencies that the DELE / SIELE require. Even if you are not interested in actually sitting exams, but want to know how to attain fluent, coherent conversational ability in Spanish, then the same issues of How to learn and What to focus on, will apply.
These are very fundamental questions, and therefore are very broad in scope. They cannot flippantly be answered in a few bullet points – to really be of help, this blog-post must first provide you with a proper understanding of how humans acquire language and the communication skills associated therewith. In other words, give a conceptual reference framework for understanding why certain things work, and others don’t, when you are trying to gain communicative competency in a new language. This blog-post will, therefore, focus broadly on explaining the language acquisition processes occurring deep inside the brain, as based on significant new research published in early 2018. Rather than simply listing “exam acing tips”, we will today step back a bit, so that we can distinguish the forest from the detail of the individual trees. We need to comprehend what fundamentally is going on inside our heads when we acquire language – so that, with such understanding, we will be better able to focus and adapt our own language learning efforts. So please bear with me through the explanations – I can promise you it will be worth-while in helping you comprehend what you need to do to gain conversational ability in real life, and thus to ace the DELE / SIELE – as much (actually, much more) than any blithe infographic of acing tips would achieve.
In an earlier blog-post I wrote: There are many conflicting theories, plus ingrained teaching habits stretching back many generations, regarding how best to achieve proficiency so that you will be able to converse in Spanish. Just about the only thing that we do know for certain, is what DOESN’T work; it has been empirically proven that the traditional school or college-style teaching of a second language fails miserably in producing alumni with the capacity to maintain even a basic conversation at the end of their schooling. Recent figures from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) show that only 0.5% of alumni achieve that level of competence. Most students taught the traditional way, give up on learning a second language, and those who do finish, have forgotten practically all they had learnt in just three to four years.
I am very pleased to tell you that, during January 2018, a seminal new study was published that greatly advanced or knowledge of how the human brain enables us to acquire language. We now have the empirical data to resolve the “conflicting theories” I mentioned in the earlier blogpost. This research not only clearly points to what to do, and how, in order to develop your language skills – it also confirms why that which we already knew doesn’t work (namely traditional classroom teaching methods) in fact fail, as proven by the ACTFL survey quoted above.
This significant new study was published online on 29 January 2018, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) under the title: “Child First Language and Adult Second Language Are Both Tied to General-Purpose Learning Systems”. As the title indicates, the two major conclusions of the study are that (a) mother tongue and second language are acquired using the same brain circuits, and (b) these ancient circuits are common to most animals and thus not unique to humans, nor are they uniquely dedicated to language learning. As the senior investigator of the study, Michael T. Ullman (professor of Neuroscience at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.), said in a statement: “Our conclusion that language is learned in such ancient general-purpose systems contrasts with the long-standing theory that language depends on innately-specified language modules found only in humans.”
The perceived difficulty in acquiring another language as adults, lies not so much in the nature of that particular language, as it does in our human nature. As Steven Pinker and others have demonstrated (see the earlier blog-post), we learnt our own first language instinctively. In our early youth, we acquire language without formal grammar or teaching, because language is the defining “thing” of our species – it is our foremost unique instinct, like that of a spider is to spin webs.
We are programmed and maximally facilitated to acquire language in early childhood. Our brains are strongly focused on it up to about age six (having satisfied also our other differentiating instinct – that of acquiring the skill for walking upright). Thereafter, however, the brain’s acquisitive capacity of necessity needs to be increasingly focused on other priorities as well, and our ability to acquire other tongues with ease, seem to us to diminish (at least, in our own perception, because it has now been proven that we engage the exact same parts of the brain to acquire any language, as we did for our mother tongue). HOW we in later life strive to acquire language, also changes fundamentally from what happened instinctively during the toddler phase – from the recognition and internalization of the patterns of our mother tongue through casual observation and then constant practicing to speak, we shift to academically “studying” the new language – as we would study History or Geography or whatever other academic subject where the goal is to abstractly KNOW (i.e., to able to recall facts and interpret them). This is NOT the way that we would, for example, learn to play the guitar, or to play golf, or to master gymnastics, or whatever other competencies that require not just abstractly knowing about, but which requires us to hone the actual ability to fluently, coherently, and correctly DO – to DELIVER OUTCOMES.
How we opt to learn, and under which circumstances we in later life strive to acquire a new language, represent the biggest changes from how we had acquired our native language. Firstly the conditions and priorities have changed fundamentally – instead of instinctively spending our every waken moment for six years focused almost singularly on acquiring the ability to communicate, whilst our every human need is being taken care of for us, we now have to multi-task complex lives with many competing demands on our attention span; we have to survive economically, physically and emotionally, and try and accomplish our goal whilst being able to invest only a few hours per week, for a limited time. Imagine if you could study a new language every waken hour, 24/7, without anything else requiring your attention, while being fed, cosseted and cared for… How long would it take you then – since, as an adult, you have many more learning tools available than a toddler (such as reading, access to grammar handbooks, and to all the modern digital audio-visual resources)? Six years? No! Certainly not! So, are you still thinking that babies have you beat at acquiring language?
What is true is that these adult circumstances and opportunities available to us since the advent of the age of formal schooling, have changed the way that we traditionally go about acquiring competency at communicating in the second language. It is no longer done instinctively, through observation and practice. We shift from practice-based pattern recognition, to academically studying the new language. Like for any memorizing activity, right back to ancient times (such as what plants we can eat and which not) we engage for this memory-building activity the declaratory circuit of the brain – the circuit for data storage. But – by “studying” the new language in this memory-focused traditional way, we are, unfortunately, concentrating on abstractly knowing its “rules”, rather than on building the competency to apply that knowledge in order to be able to PERFORM – to produce coherent, fluent conversation as OUTCOME.
HOW BEST TO GO ABOUT ACQUIRING A NEW LANGUAGE: To understand how to go about acquiring the ability to communicate in a second language, we first and foremost have to understand how the human brain functions when it comes to “learning a language” – or, more correctly put – how we develop the ability to communicate. Understanding this process is certain to help you in cultivating the right mind-set and learning methods for making your conquest of conversational Spanish effective.
It is recognized that the two most important abilities that set us humans apart from other primates and the rest of the animals in general, is our ability to walk upright and our ability to comprehensively communicate. Both are vital survival skills, and both are heavily brain-driven. The ability to walk comes quicker, because it is a much shorter process. There is proof that babies actually start picking up language whilst in the womb. After birth, the brain’s major developmental focus for the next six years is on honing the ability to communicate.
A fundamental question in understanding how we humans acquire language (whether it be our native tongue, or a foreign language) is: what enables humans to have this unique capacity? Is it that we and we alone have a unique “something” in our brains – a circuit, some special DNA – that all other animals lack? This has been a rather logical assumption, and when DNA research became possible and the so-called “speech gene” (FOXP2) was identified, some had thought that it was the eureka moment – until we realized how widespread this gene is, even extending to birds, allowing them to sing. At the beginning of 2018, the result of seminal neurological research was published which once and for all dispelled the notion that we humans possess some unique “speech” part or circuit of the brain, that no other animals have.
It was clearly demonstrated that, no matter our age, and whether it is for acquiring our mother tongue or a foreign language, we use two very ancient circuits of the brain that pre-date homo sapiens and even primates – circuits that are present in most animals. Although it debunks assumptions of structural uniqueness, this neurological research has some extremely important implications for our understanding of how we humans acquire language (and consequently, how it should be taught). The most important revelation is that there are two general-purpose circuits of the brain that are employed in this effort, namely the declaratory as mentioned before, but also – very importantly – the procedural circuit. These circuits aren’t solely dedicated to acquiring language, either, but are vital in our everyday functioning.
The declaratory circuit is engaged when we consciously learn things that we store in our memory, such as how to count, the words of a song, or Spanish vocabulary. The big break-through has been to see how the procedural circuit “lights up” when acquiring language – the same circuit we use for mastering playing the piano, or to perfect our golf swing, or our tennis back-hand. This PROCEDURAL CIRCUIT enables us to PERFORM TASKS, and hones this ability through practice, practice, practice – like athletes building up “muscle memory” of their required moves. For acquiring language, therefore, we now know that it truly is also a case of “practice makes perfect”. We pick up the patterns of the language and internalize them with the objective of reflexive, spontaneous reproduction – and we do so through practice, practice and more practice, without having to think and consciously configure phrases in terms of “rules” we have tried to memorize through the declaratory circuit.
This revelation about the vital role of the procedural circuit of the brain – of actual repetitive practice – in acquiring language, goes a long way towards explaining the ACTFLA survey results, when we consider that traditional language teaching almost exclusively relies on engaging the declaratory circuit. As toddlers we principally engage the procedural circuit to pick up and practice patterns of language, and pass things like vocabulary and pattern irregularities through to the declaratory circuit to be stored. As teenagers or adults, we traditionally try and “study” a new language the other way around, namely by means of engaging the declaratory circuit to try and memorize the “’rules”, with too little opportunity to practice, practice, practice to perfection. The moral of this story, is that you cannot “study” to speak a language from books alone (that is, if you want to meet the communicative criteria of coherence, fluency, linguistic scope and correctness in spontaneous reproduction) without practice, practice, practice – just as the star pianist cannot hope to perfectly render a piece that he/she can easily read off sheet music, without also putting in the necessary practice, practice, practice.
I am not going to repeat here what I said in the earlier blog-post about the importance of pattern recognition in the acquisition of language. It is a vital human ability, and you may want to read that post again to integrate what was said there, with these new research findings about the importance of the procedural circuit and of viewing language not as an academic subject for abstract study, but as a competency that needs to be actually performed, exactly like playing a musical instrument or a sport. It is only necessary to recall one’s own childhood to know that we developed the ability to communicate verbally without any formal teaching. As toddlers, we certainly didn’t formally study grammar – but from about age three and a half, we could construct phrases grammatically correctly. Where we did make “mistakes”, it usually was when the supposedly “correct” English form deviated from the general pattern we had correctly discerned – such as when a child says two “oxes” instead of saying two oxen, because the regular pattern for forming the plural in modern English is by adding an “-s” (like in two boxes, or two cows). Oxen is a relic from the past, which has somehow clung on – unlike the word “kine”, which until a few centuries ago was the correct English plural of cow, but which was jettisoned in favor of cows (with “cows” probably before then regarded as child-speak).
As little kids, we didn’t think of particular verbs as being distinct conjugations of some infinitive form – we simply knew that that was the right word for that particular phrase and context, based on pattern recognition. Our ear told us if another child used a word incorrectly, without us being in any way able to explain why it was “wrong”. We developed our language skills by getting to know words as simply words, plus the familiar patterns of stitching them together in phrases.
How to understand what importance to attach to the study of grammar: It is obvious that the patterns of languages weren’t ever formally designed and ordained by committees of elder cavemen laying down grammar “rules”. Languages grew spontaneously, constantly undergoing local variations and unstoppable evolution at the hand (or rather, tongue) of the common folk. The first visible signs of language standardization started emerging with the advent of printing. The first formal grammar book for any European language was only published in 1492, for Castilian (i.e., modern Spanish). In it, its author, Antonio de Nebrija, laid down as first fundamental rule that: “we must write as we speak and we must speak as we write”. What he insisted upon, therefore, is that researchers and academics should not invent language “rules”, but must observe and record that which actually exists, the patterns of speech with all their irregularities (the concept of grammar “rules” is actually unfortunate, because of the connotation that the word “rules” have of being something authoritatively ordained – with hindsight, it would have been better to speak of grammar as a faithful recording of the commonly used patterns of speech).
Because of the natural eagerness of the human mind to create order by means of identifying patterns, it was inevitable that languages would eventually be formally studied. The study of grammar would come to consist of tabulating the patterns evident in any language, such as those for word modification (known as morphology – for example, the conjugation of words) or the protocols of phrase construction (known as syntax). It is evident that, by learning and knowing these “rules” or rather patterns, one would be able to predict likely constructs. Now, if we take any sport, knowing the rules of the game isn’t – in and of itself – going to make you a great player. The latter depends i.a. on one’s ability to APPLY such theoretical knowledge instantly and intuitively in actual game settings. Ditto for the guitar player – knowing the score of a song doesn’t guarantee that he/she will be able to render it perfectly at first attempt. This analogy very much resembles the demands of everyday conversation, which is focused on the speaker’s ability to instantly access his/her theoretical knowledge of grammar and vocabulary (i.e., as memorized via the declaratory brain circuit) and then – most importantly – to reproduce it spontaneously in real-world communication (i.e., the practice-embedded “muscle memory” originating with the procedural circuit of the brain). We don’t simply “know” language, we need and use it to PERFORM communicative tasks.
Speaking is the performance of a communicative task, and requires guided PRACTICE to perfect
Unfortunately, the traditional school system requires standardized curricula and methodologies. This is the case because, in order for school tuition in real life to be feasible when teaching classrooms full of students, there just isn’t much scope for individualization. They cannot all practice speaking, all at once. And there are many other subjects to be taught in the school year, in addition to (maybe) a foreign language. Therefore, for the foreign language student there cannot be anything like the constant immersion in his new tongue that the typical toddler is exposed to every woken hour in his native environment for at least the first six years. In school and college, time for studying foreign languages is limited – usually only some four to five hours per week, homework time included, is dedicated to acquiring a second language (thus engaging primarily the declaratory circuit of the brain for memorization, without truly activating the all-important procedural circuit for practicing the ability to perform). Furthermore, it is logical that schools – which are subject to severe constraints of time and organization, whilst dealing with entire class-groups and not individuals – by the nature of these limitations are focused on imparting theoretical knowledge of rules, and not on the individual coaching and practice, practice, practice required to develop actual communicative ability.
As a consequence, schools and colleges are mostly teaching the theoretical foundations of a foreign language, with a focus on reading and writing (all pupils can practice to read or write at the same time, but certainly all can’t practice to speak at the same time). Quite naturally, therefore, schools are setting written exams to test students’ knowledge of the content which the schools have been teaching. Schools are not structured, nor disposed, to focus primarily on the individualized testing of each student’s ability to engage in an actual conversation, one by one. Which explains why only 0.5% of US students end up being able to converse in the foreign language they have studied. It’s like teaching and testing football spectators for their knowledge of the rules, instead of coaching actual, competent football players.
The foregoing is not a condemnation of schools – in many ways the traditional grammar-based approach to foreign language teaching was and is what is practically possible, and no informed teacher is under any illusion that it would, in and of itself, be enough. Because humans instinctively seek for patterns, formal grammaris clearly a very useful tool that helps identify and present for study, the patterns inherent to any language. It is thus very important that grammar be learnt (particularly because it provides a short-cut to knowing and identifying the irregularities inherent in any language). It obviously is a faster way of becoming aware of such patterns and their exceptions, than simply by absorbing them subconsciously, over the course of years of unstructured immersion. But it evidently is not enough to simply know these grammar rules, or even to have academic awareness of the patterns, if one wishes to acquire the capacity to fluently, correctly and coherently engage in actual conversation – to communicate effectively and reflexively.
As I said in the earlier blog-post, another major drawback inherent to the traditional way of teaching, is that it inevitably leaves the student with the impression that language consists of rules and vocabulary – of individual words, which must be strung together in accordance with set rules, such as that of conjugation. In reality, though, language for the most part consists of “chunks” of words in the form of well-established phrases with agreed meaning. These chunks of words and the customary way in which they are strung together, form an important part of the patterns of a language. As kids, we pick up and become skilled in using these “chunks”, like: I am going to school; I am going in the car; I am not going to grandma’s etc. We comprehend that the basic chunk stays the same, we only have to change some words to suit the need of the moment. This truth was recognized some two decades ago by Michael Lewis, who called for a new, complementary approach to the traditional way of teaching foreign languages, which he called the “lexical approach”. You may want to refresh your memory about this part of the earlier blog-post as well, because in your preparation for the DELE / SIELE, you will notice the emphasis that examiners are placing on the use of “link phrases” to enhance fluency and coherence – and such “connectors” are prime examples of the word chunks that the lexical approach has been focused on. The lexical approach is not intended to replace traditional learning, but to supplement it; Lewis and his followers see it more as an enhanced mind-set, a better understanding of how we actually acquire language, which would broaden the learning methodologies beyond their traditional focus and strive for an outcome of actual conversational competency.
The WHAT of becoming proficient at conversation: The first thing to get right, is mind-set. Your objective should NOT be “I want to studySpanish” (because that is only aimed at acquiring theoretical knowledge about the language). You should consciously decide that “I want to develop the capacity to converse in Spanish” (which entails not only knowing the theory, but the practiced and honed performance skill, of integrating and applying your knowledge in real-world situations, instantly and spontaneously). What you want to be, is an accomplished football player, not just a coach potato football rules guru.
With your mental objective clearly defined, it is important next to identify the skills and knowledge sets that are essential for you to develop, in order to acquire the ability to converse in Spanish. These elements then become the “to do” list of your preparation plan. The ultimate phase will be to add to this “what to do” list, the very important “how to do” component.
What, then, is necessary, in order to be able to actually maintain a conversation in a foreign language? You must firstly have the ability to understand what your interlocutor is saying to you, and secondly you must be able to make yourself understood.
For both understanding and being understood, you first of all need a sufficiently ample “linguistic scope”. This means that you do have to know (i.e., that you have learnt, to the point of having committed to memory and thus have fully internalized) the words, expressions and common “word chunks” making up the general use lexis of the language. You need to do so with sufficient width and depth, so that you can easily identify the words and word chunks upon hearing or seeing them, and also instantly reproduce them when needed in your own oral expression. This essential knowledge of words and patterns entails knowing the semantics (or meaning) of words, the phonology (or sound) of the word, plus its orthography (spelling, for recognizing it when reading).
click on image to go to this blogpost about expanding your vocabulary
Your knowledge of Spanish words and word chunks (lexis) is one of the two theoretical knowledge legs upon which real conversation stands (or falls). The other leg is knowledge of the patterns of the language, so that you can string the word chunks together correctly. But lexis may be more vital to conversation, because your listener can, as an intelligent native speaker, compensate for your small grammatical errors of syntax or of such things as gender accord, even for wrong verb conjugation – however, what he or she cannot compensate for, is if you completely lack the appropriate words to say what you want, or pronounce them so incomprehensibly that your listener’s eyes simply glaze over. When you are preparing for a modern Spanish exams of actual communicative competency, such as the DELE / SIELE, you will know that the amplitude of your linguistic scope is one of the four equally-weighted scoring criteria that examiners will be applying, when scoring you written and oral expression tasks.
However, these two legs of stored knowledge, although clearly required, are not of themselves enough to allow conversation. In order to converse, we now understand that – like any athlete – you will have to practice these legs to perform spontaneously. In fact, if you are still obliged – when you want to say something in Spanish – to first try and remember the right words, and then to calculatedly apply these grammar rules in order to mentally construct a phrase before you can utter it, you will have a serious problem with fluently maintaining any kind of conversation.
This is the difference between sitting a traditional end-of-school written exam, where you have time to calculate how to apply rules, and real-world conversation, which is an instantaneous give-and-take. Instead of relying on calculated application of rules (which usually signify that you are still thinking in your mother tongue and first have to translate from it) you need to have fully internalized – through practice – the patterns of Spanish speech (as you had done as a kid, with your mother tongue). Having internalized these patterns, it rolls out correctly almost without conscious thought as to how to say something (thus leaving you free to focus completely on the really important thing, namely the substance of what you want to convey). From this, you will understand that being grammatically correct is just one part of the “correctness” criterium applied in the DELE / SIELE exam (other elements of correctness being spelling, pronunciation etc.) which means that grammatical correctness is assessed at one-third value of one quarter of the overall scoring under the four equally-weighted main criteria (the other two main criteria, alongside linguistic scope and correctness, being coherence and fluency).
In real life, conversation breaks down when there is no fluency and coherence – when you have to constantly interrupt your interlocutor because you could not understand something that he/she said, or when you yourself cannot find the right words or correct pronunciation or appropriate syntax to comprehensibly say what you need to say. Once again, if you need to first translate for yourself and do a rules-based calculation of how to say something, then there will be no fluency. You need to have the lexis and patterns of Spanish sufficiently internalized. Especially important to the fluent flow of conversation is the appropriate use of link phrases in order to fluently join up different thoughts or sentences – and not end up uttering, in staccato style, a disjointed series of unconnected phrases. You know from conversation in your own language, how important link phrases are – words such as “accordingly”, or “on the other hand” or “as you know” or any of the many such devices that we use to fill blank “think time” between sentences, and to link them together, in place of uttering “uhm” and “aah”. These are some of the most fixed and most used “word chunks” in the lexis of any language, and knowing these patterns are essential to fluency.
To recap – the what of Spanish that we need to internalize in order to be able to maintain conversation, are the patterns and the lexis of the language. The latter is the words and word chunks (including their meaning and pronunciation). The patterns are those of syntax (how words and phrases are strung together to form coherent sentences) and of morphology (how we transform words to signify different meanings). This knowledge of lexis and of patterns we have to commit to memory (i.e, with the declaratory brain circuit), and then with the procedural brain circuit, through guided practice, hone the ability to reproduce it instantaneously without much conscious thought. Without such well-honed internalization of the lexis and phonology of Spanish and of its morphological and syntactical patterns, you cannot hope to achieve fluency.
The HOW of developing the ability to converse in Spanish: Developing the knowledge and skill sets required to maintain a conversation in Spanish, needs to engage both the declaratory and procedural brain circuits (i.e., learn and practice). Luckily, as adults we have access to certain facilitating and enhancing tools which toddlers don’t have available. Adults can read, can follow TV and live stream radio, can do classes (nowadays, also via Skype, from the comfort of the own home). In fact, it may be a misconception to think that babies have an advantage over adults, when it comes to acquiring a language, given the learning tools that adults can access. The one true benefit that babies have, is that their brains can focus almost exclusively on mastering verbal communication because of their adult-facilitated environment without a care in the world, whereas adults have a huge array of responsibilities between which they must divide their mental energy.
Internalizing the patterns: The basic manner in which your Spanish will develop, will be by means of assimilating patterns and practicing their spontaneous reproduction. You can check with just about any fluent speaker of Spanish as foreign language – they will tell you that they don’t consciously construct sentences based on grammar rules; they speak Spanish the same way as they speak their native English. They do so intuitively and without conscious mental effort, focused on the substance of their message and not on form. They probably will have to do a double take if you start cross-examining them about the intricacies of the morphology or syntax they had just used – the same as you would, if they do the same to you about your native English (you’ll probably respond that you can’t recall why something needs to be said in that particular way, but that you know for sure that that’s the way it’s said!).
The importance of practice/immersion: To discern patterns, and especially to internalize them in this natural manner, we have to be scanning a vast amount of Spanish. This can only be achieved through immersing yourself in an environment where you regularly hear, see and have to speak Spanish, just as a toddler masters the patterns of his/her mother’s speech.
It is therefore evident that any attempt to acquire a foreign language with an approach based just on classroom + homework time (i.e., just employing the declaratory brain circuit without the addition of guided practice via the procedural circuit), is not going to result in any better performance than the figure of 0.5% of U.S. students reaching conversational ability, as cited in the earlier blog-post.
The relative importance of, and correct view of formal grammar: Again, this is not to suggest that formal grammar should or could be substituted. Grammar as we know it is none other than a handy codification of the enduring patterns of a language, as these have been observed over time by qualified linguists. Using the fruits of their labors will clearly help you identify and understand the patterns (and their “irregular” exceptions) a lot quicker than you would be able to do with just your own random observation. The key, however, is mental attitude – you have to study grammar as a very valuable tool, which will help you spot and comprehend the patterns far quicker and easier. Do not study grammar as if it represents the language as such, as if knowing the “rules” of grammar could or should be – in and of itself – the ultimate objective. Please realize that knowledge of grammar is no more than a convenient crutch in the early phase of language acquisition, while you are still hobbling along because of not yet having fully internalized the patterns. Just as you did with your English grammar crutch, you will be discarding it (actually forgetting all about it) as soon as you – figuratively speaking – can walk upright with ease and comfort without it.
How many adult native English speakers do you think ever give a moment’s thought to English grammar in their day-to-day conversations? When last did you, yourself?
Always remember, too, that the language patterns codified under the title of grammar (essentially being word morphology and sentence syntax), are intellectual constructs developed almost organically over ages by communities of humans. Since grammar “rules” are intellectual constructs, any intelligent man, woman or child can therefore mentally compensate for most errors they hear in your grammar, without losing track of the meaning you are trying to convey. Studying grammar isn’t the be-all and end-all of “studying the language” (this is particularly important to understand when prepping for exams such as the DELE/SIELE, as illustrated by the fact that grammatical correctness is just one element in the “correctness” criterium, with coherence, fluency and linguistic scope each carrying equal weight to correctness). It isn’t even the most important part of such learning (as evidenced by the ability of others to mentally compensate for your grammar errors, as well as by how quickly this crutch is discarded from your active consciousness, once you’ve reached fluency). Nevertheless, don’t be mistaken – until you are fluent through having fully internalized these patterns of morphology and syntax through constant guided practice, you HAVE TO STUDY YOUR GRAMMAR – but do so selectively, as we will show you during your tuition, and with the right mental attitude, namely that grammar is a valuable “cheat sheet” of essential patterns and irregularities.
The most vital aspect that you have to focus on in your active learning (i.e., when pumping that declaratory brain circuit) isn’t grammar. It is expanding your Spanish lexis.
Expanding your Spanish Lexis is your top active learning priority: By studying lexis is meant acquiring a suitably ample linguistic scope in Spanish for your particular needs (for example, a missionary doctor is clearly going to require a different lexis to a policeman walking the beat in an immigrant neighborhood; a DELE A2 student will need a lesser lexis than a C2 student to pass). Lexis consists of vocabulary and phonology (i.e., knowing words and their meaning, as well as how to pronounce them) as well as the learning of “word chunks” and common expressions and idioms, plus the “link phrases” (conectores) that are so important to ensuring fluency and coherence in speech. The reasons why lexis is deemed so important to conversational ability, are twofold:
As was said earlier, to be able to maintain a conversation, you firstly need to comprehend. If you don’t know the meaning of a word or phrase your interlocutor has used, there is no way you can mentally compensate in order to arrive at a correct understanding of what you’re hearing (apart from asking your interlocutor to repeat and explain). It is therefore axiomatic that, to understand, “you have to have knowledge of words and the world”. This is just another way of underlining the lexical approach, which goes beyond the semantics of any given individual word to include its situational context, which helps give it specific meaning within a particular pattern of use. If you don’t have adequate lexical knowledge (i.e., knowing the situational meaning of words and phrases that you hear), and don’t know enough about phonology to be able to correctly identify which words you are actually hearing, you cannot hope to comprehend much in the course of any given conversation. Neither will you be able to do well in the multiple choice listening and reading comprehension tests that make up 50% of the DELE / SIELE exams.
When expressing yourself orally, lexis is also of vital importance. You have to readily know the right word or phrase (to the point of not having to break your flow to search your memory for it), and you have to be able to pronounce those word chunks intelligibly. If you don’t readily have the right words and phrases at your disposal, or you cannot pronounce them sufficiently correctly for your interlocutor to be able to identify them, then – even with the best theoretical knowledge of grammar – there is no way that your conversation can blossom, simply because your interlocutor cannot mentally compensate for words that you don’t have and which he cannot divine. He will be as lost as you are.
At this point it is important to underline that one should have realistic expectations about the time and effort it will require to reach conversational ability in a foreign language such as Spanish, since far more is involved than just learning grammar rules and lists of vocabulary with the declaratory circuit of your brain (you have to engage the procedural circuit through practice, practice, practice to be able to spontaneously produce the right phrases). The ACTFL has calculated that a student of average aptitude will require 480 hours to reach “advanced low” proficiency (A2/B1 level in the European Common Framework such as the DELE diploma). This translates into doing forty hours per week (8 hours per day) for twelve weeks solid. To achieve “advanced high” level (i.e., not yet “superior”), will require 720 hours for the average student, starting from scratch. For the superior proficiency level that diplomats and the like require, it is generally thought that 1,000 hours of intensive preparation is necessary. The reason for this many hours, is that these institutions (such as the Foreign Service Institute of the USA) aren’t teaching their students the same way as schools or colleges do; through experience, they have come to understand the vital importance of practice – therefore, a diplomat doesn’t need 1, 000 hours of book study, but rather that total amount of time for both memorizing and guided practice of actual communication.
What constitutes immersion, in the internet age?Immersion doesn’t only signify visiting a Spanish-speaking country and living there for some time. You can immerse yourself totally in Spanish-language books, films, talk radio and news. This is more focused and productive than merely living in a Spanish-speaking environment, because you can select appropriate themes and you can have your learning tools at hand, such as for jotting down and looking up new words, and adding these to your flashcard list. This combines the mental awareness of the importance of a lexical mind-set and the practice routines of engaging the procedural brain circuit, with all the other traditional learning tools focused on the declaratory circuit.
There is no doubt that the more time you invest in reading Spanish, the more you will internalize the lexis and patterns of the language, as well as getting to know the Hispanic cultural context – especially if you have given sufficient attention to your grammar as a great tool for helping you to quickly spot and understand those patterns. Reading has the huge benefit of seeing the words, but you need to hear them as well for the sake of phonology (you therefore have to maintain a balance between listening and reading). For this reason, the Spanish telenovela (TV soapy) is a great learning tool, especially those that have subtitles for the hard of hearing, so that you can see and hear the word, and also see its situational context playing out on screen.
In any event, whenever you read, read out loud – this provides good practice to your “articulation tools” to adapt themselves to the Spanish sound system, in the privacy of your own home and thus without any risk to your ego. Better still: tape yourself reading out loud, so that you can pick up your pronunciation errors – you will be surprised how different we all sound in reality, as opposed to how we imagine we sound!
Luckily, such “home immersion” in Spanish is nowadays a free option, thanks to the internet. You don’t have to go live in a Hispanic country anymore (if you don’t want to, that is). Check out this DELEhelpblogpost for a host of links to free sites, ranging from streamed talk radio, through the major Hispanic print press to free e-books and telenovelas. One needs to differentiate between active learning (such as working on your flashcard lists of lexis and memorizing them, or doing homework exercises in grammar, in reading comprehension or writing) and passive immersion. The latter can form part of your relaxation, like reading a book in Spanish (if you are a beginner, look for dual text books that have Spanish on one page and the English on the opposite). Every possible minute that you can have Spanish talk radio streaming live, or the TV running telenovelas in the background, is useful – even if you can’t really concentrate on their content, you will pick up phonology as well as words, phrases and patterns. Knowing how kids learn, you shouldn’t underestimate the value of this.
One of the great killers of people’s ambition to master a foreign language, is frustration (next to boredom, especially if they just do grammar exercises!). Frustration can really grow very quickly if grammar mastery is (wrongly) seen as the be-all and end-all of gaining proficiency in Spanish. You may know, for instance, that every Spanish verb can literally be conjugated into 111 different forms, given the number of different moods and tenses in Spanish. If you get stuck on the idea that you absolutely have to memorize each and all of these 111 possibilities in order to be able to converse, the task will seem so daunting that very few will not become frustrated.
Develop your own style of speaking, that’s natural and comfortable for you: Here’s another tip – each of us, no matter our language, have a particular own style of speaking that we’re comfortable with. We don’t use all the possible tenses in normal conversation (as some writers may do in penning high literature). Similarly, when conversing in Spanish, you don’t need to have all 111 conjugation options rolling fluently off your tongue. This is especially true in the beginning, while you are still internalizing the basic patterns of Spanish.
Beginners and intermediate-level students, in order to start speaking with coherence and fluency, may choose to concentrate on mastering the present, the idiomatic future and the perfect tense of the Indicative mood. If you can conjugate these three tenses well, any interlocutor will be able to understand which time-frame you are referring to. These three tenses correspond very well to the way you are accustomed to use tenses in English, because both the idiomatic future and the perfect indicative in Spanish are compound tenses, using auxiliary verbs (just like in English, which also use compounds with auxiliary verbs to indicate past and future – auxiliaries like “shall” and “have”).
This way of speaking is in fact becoming more common in Spanish, so you won’t be regarded as weird – in the Americas, for example, the idiomatic future (futuro idiomatico) is already used exclusively, in place of the traditional conjugated future tense. For the idiomatic future, you only need to learn the present indicative conjugation of one verb, namely “ir” (to go). We must emphasize, though, that this approach works when you yourself are speaking; however, because you cannot control the tenses that your interlocutor may choose to use, you have to have sufficient knowledge of the other tenses to at least be able to recognize them, otherwise you may not comprehend what you are hearing or reading. In any event, it is much easier getting acquainted with something to the point of being able to recognize it when used by others, as opposed to the level of active learning and especially practice that’s needed for the purpose of own speech, which demands full internalization to enable spontaneous, real-time reproduction that’s coherent and fluent.
For proficiency at conversation, you have to practice speaking (and be expertly guided / corrected): The immersion that we referred to above, needs to go beyond you simply absorbing written and spoken Spanish. To acquire the skill and confidence to maintain a conversation, you have to have guided practice in actually speaking. This is often a problem for a home-study student living in an environment where there are few speaking opportunities. Again, though, the internet comes to the rescue, in the form of Skype and its equivalents. Such online tuition and interaction is actually better than what most classroom tuition situations can offer. In the typical classroom, you are part of a group, dragged down by the lowest common denominator and by methodologies and curricula that of necessity are generalized, without focus on your particular needs – unless you are fortunate enough to have one-on-one tuition, such as at our partner residential school in la Antigua Guatemala, PROBIGUA (click on this link for a 2-minute video).
The great benefit of having your own expert, experienced online tutor (apart from the low cost and the convenience of studying in the comfort of your own home) is that you have someone you can speak to, who will know how to record (i.e., tape), correct and guide you. A relationship of confidence soon develops, so that the natural inhibitions of ego fall away and you can really freely practice to speak. We have already mentioned the vital importance of pronunciation – it is clearly very difficult to perfect this if you don’t have a live human being listening to you and guiding you (no matter what the computer-based interactive packages may claim about their pronunciation verification software). It is also true that interactive computer packages can tell you if you are answering correctly or incorrectly, in relation to simple things like vocabulary, but can they explain to you? Obviously not. The need for expert assessment and guidance in language practice is no different to the same need for the golfer we mentioned, practicing his swing (for both, it is the procedural circuit of the brain that’s engaged). If an amateur golfer (“hacker”) like myself should try and practice my swing on my own, I will just re-enforce my bad habits. I need a pro to video-record me, show me where I go wrong, and guide me to correct it, to make my hours of practice worth-while – the exact same applies to language practice.
Getting over the barriers constituted by the own ego / the “fear of failure”: A last tip with regard to speaking practice, concerns the barrier in the adult psyche constituted by our natural fear of making a fool of ourselves in front of others. This is perfectly normal, and its inhibiting power is great. There are three distinct ways of overcoming this barrier. The first is to build a relationship of comfort with a trusted tutor, as I mentioned earlier. Another is to get objective proof of your communicative proficiency in the form of certification, such as the gold standard DELE / SIELE diploma of the Spanish education ministry, or the Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) in the USA. This knowledge that you’ve proven that: “yes, I can!” will boost your self-confidence no end.
A third option (which can be integrated with the first) is to create a situation where you, John Smith, aren’t making the mistakes – “somebody else” is, so it’s no skin off your nose. This approach, which is called suggestopedia, was originally developed in the 1970’s by a Bulgarian psychotherapist by the name of Georgi Lozanov. What it entails, is that John Smith will, for example, arrive at the diplomatic academy, where he will immediately be given a new identity related to his target language – he will become Pedro Gonzalez, a journalist from Mexico City with a passion for football and politics, and an entire back story that John Smith has created for his Pedro identity. All his fellow students and tutors will know John Smith as Pedro, and interact with him as such. This has the benefit of taking John’s ego out of play, plus the benefit of freeing him up to adopt a Latino persona, so that he can escape from his unilingual Anglo cultural and phonological straightjacket and learn to articulate (and gesticulate) like a true Latino.
Suggestopedia isn’t the answer to all the methodological challenges of learning a foreign language – it is simply another tool, to be used in conjunction with others. I have seen its effectiveness during my days as head of South Africa’s diplomatic academy (before I became ambassador for the New South Africa of President Mandela). I’ve also seen it here at DELEhelp – one remarkable fellow really got into the swing of things, designing for himself an identity as a Mexican footballer (soccer player). Every time, sitting himself down in front of the Skype camera, you could see him with his enormous sombrero on his head, dressed in his Mexican club soccer shirt and with a glass of tequila in his hand. It wasn’t difficult for him to really get into his new character, which completely freed him of his uni-lingual Anglo straight-jacket and assisted him enormously in mastering the articulation of Spanish phonology in no time. If you think it can work for you, give it a try!
Like any endeavor in life, learning a new language requires more than just guts and determination (although a lot of that, as well!). It requires that you understand the challenges, and the science behind what works and what doesn’t. I hope that this rather long blog-post has helped you acquire such understanding. We here at Excellentia Didactica / DELEhelp would be more than pleased to help you with engaging the procedural circuit of your brain through guided practice, so that you can master the performance art that conversing fluently and coherently in Spanish truly is.
REMEMBER TO ASK FOR OUR FREE 96-page DELE / SIELE EXAM ORIENTION AND ACING TIPS WORKBOOK.
Buena suerte with your learning of the beautiful Spanish language
(Click on IMAGE to ask for the free e-book)
Sephardi Jews, Spain’s return law and the DELE A2 language test
Sephardic Jews Spain right of return DELE A2 language test
In 2015 Spain promulgated a law allowing the descendants of the Sephardim who were expelled more than 500 years ago from Iberia (which in Hebrew, is called Sepharad), to apply for citizenship. Applications had to be submitted by the end of September 2019 (with a further year to do the DELE A2 and CCSE exams – click here for more detail). It is subject to a basic Spanish language test (the DELE A2), as well as a civics-style test of knowledge of Spanish culture and the constitution (the CCSE). The language test is prescribed for Sephardic applicants under the age of 70, from countries where Spanish is not the official language. So, what does the DELE A2 exam entail?
In this blog-post we will explain the nature of the DELE exam, what level of ability i.t.o. comprehension and expression is required in A2, the scoring criteria that the examiners apply, what grammar and functional language use elements are prescribed in the A2 curriculum, where and when to take the DELE A2 exam, its format, and how best to prepare for success.
NATURE OF THE DELE SYSTEM: The first thing to know about the DELE (which stands for “Diploma de Español como Lengua Extranjera – diploma of Spanish as foreign language”) is that it is NOT a typical school or college language exam focused on theoretical knowledge, such as of the rules of grammar. The DELE is a very practical test of your ability to apply your knowledge of the Spanish language in a real-world context – i.e., of the ability to actually communicate in Spanish in everyday circumstances. It tests four communicative competencies, with equal weight: listening comprehension, reading comprehension, expression in writing and oral expression.
The DELE is managed by the Instituto Cervantes, the Spanish state-funded cultural institute that is similar to the British Council, the Alliance française of France, and the Goethe-Institut of Germany. The DELE diplomas are issued in the name of the minister of education, culture and sport of Spain. They conform to the standards of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (the CEF). There are three main levels – Level A for beginners, Level B for intermediate, and Level C for advanced. Each main level is divided in two (i.e., A1 & A2, B1 & B2, and C1 & C2), making for six levels in all. Level A2 is thus the second beginner level, also called “waystage”.
DEFINITION OF THE STANDARD – This is the official CEF definition of the level of communicative competency that DELE A2 represents: “Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment). Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters. Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.”
To clarify this standard further, the CEF provides a self-assessment tool for each of the communicative competencies at Level A2. It is self-explanatory and reads as follows:
Listening comprehension – I can understand phrases and the highest frequency vocabulary related to areas of most immediate personal relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local area, employment). I can catch the main point in short, clear, simple messages and announcements.
Reading comprehension – I can read very short, simple texts. I can find specific, predictable information in simple everyday material such as advertisements, prospectuses, menus and timetables and I can understand short simple personal letters.
Spoken interactionand production – I can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar topics and activities. I can handle very short social exchanges, even though I can’t usually understand enough to keep the conversation going myself. I can use a series of phrases and sentences to describe in simple terms my family and other people, living conditions, my educational background and my present or most recent job.
Writing – I can write short, simple notes and messages relating to matters in areas of immediate need. I can write a very simple personal letter, for example thanking someone for something.
The SCORING CRITERIA used in the DELE exam further illustrate the practical nature of the testing, which aims to directly test ability to actually communicate – thus indirectly what you know about theory. There are four equally-weighted criteria used in assessing the written and oral expression tests (the comprehension tests are of the multiple-choice type). The four criteria are:
Coherence, meaning how well the candidate can convey meaning, whether orally or in writing.
Fluency of speech, which assesses ability to keep a conversation flowing by means of, for example, the appropriate use of link words to string together phrases, thereby avoiding fragmented, staccato utterances (in the case of the written expression tasks, fluency is substituted with testing conformity to the genre, i.e., the appropriate format, level of formality, etc.)
Correctness, which assesses how well words are pronounced (or spelled, in the case of writing) and how correct the candidate expresses him/herself in terms of grammar – regarding grammar correctness, it is important to note that every small error isn’t penalised, unless it detracts from correct understanding of the meaning the candidate wishes to communicate, or is so repetitive that it shows a lack of basic knowledge.
Linguistic scope, which considers the adequacy of the candidate’s vocabulary for the tasks required at Level A2.
From the above, you will note that grammar correctness forms a very limited part of the DELE exam -which means that exam preparation should not be primarily focused on it, school style; practicing actually speaking, writing and comprehending would be much more essential, though grammar should not be neglected either.
There’s an excellent e-book of DELE A2 model exams that one can buy for €9-90 and download, via this LINK.
Talking about SPANISHGRAMMAR, the DELE A2 curriculum requires that the candidate should have knowledge of the following Spanish verbal moods and tenses:
Of the four moods in Spanish, only the Indicative (used to objectively describe concrete actions) and the Imperative (used to give orders). The Subjunctive and the Conditional moods are thus not required at this level.
Of the tenses of the Indicative Mood, knowledge of the following is required:
Preterit (i.e., simple past tense – example: I ate);
Imperfect Preterit (i.e., continuous past tense – example: I have been eating);
Perfect (i.e., compound past tense – example: I have eaten).
FUNCTIONAL LANGUAGE USES TO BE MASTERED – being a very practical exam focused on everyday functional language use, the DELE A2 curriculum emphasizes and details the communicative tasks that a candidate must be able to perform. These can be summarized as follows:
1. GIVE AND ASK FOR INFORMATION:
Identification – identify yourself (I am), things (this/that/my…), others & other things (by name and he/she/the), my preferences & those of others.
Ask for information about – persons, things, class or type, places, nationality, activity, quantity, time, finality (by when must…?), reason / cause, method / manner (how do I…), alternatives (tea or coffee?), expressions of curiosity (why did you go there?).
Give information about – yourself (personal data), things, places, time, frequency, finality, reason/cause, correcting wrong information, responding in the affirmative / negative i.r.o. information postulated.
Ask for confirmation – you are Julian?, is it true that…?, isn’t the number…?
Confirm / deny information postulated – yes, I’m Julian, no it isn’t true that…, yes, I’m British.
EXPRESS OPINIONS, ATTITUDES & KNOWLEDGE
Ask and give an opinion
Ask and give a value statement (are you well? / I am well)
Express approval or disapproval
Position self for or against something
Ask if in agreement / invite agreement / express agreement or disagreement
Express scepticism / present counter-argument
Express certainty and evidence / express doubt about certainty and evidence
Express presence or absence of obligation and necessity
Express or ask about knowledge / state you have no knowledge about something
Ask about or express ability to do something
Express or ask about recalling something / state that you don’t recall
EXPRESS TASTES, DESIRES & SENTIMENTS
Express or ask about interest in / taste for something or express aversion
Ask for confirmation of an offer, accept an offer, reject an offer or proposal
Advise or warn
Offer to do something
Greet and respond to a greeting
Approach / engage someone
Present yourself to someone
Respond to someone presenting him/herself to you
Welcome someone and respond to a welcome
Excuse yourself and respond to someone asking to be excused
Thank someone and respond to thanks
Offer sympathy (lo siento)
Propose a toast
Wish someone well / respond to congratulations and well-wishing
Take your leave from company
STRUCTURE A CONVERSATION
Establish communication or react to communication being established
Greet and respond to a greeting
Ask for someone or respond to such query
Ask for an address / phone number or respond when asked
Ask to leave a message
Ask interlocutor to commence conversation (as on phone) or react to its initiation
Introduce a theme / subject or react to it being introduced
Indicate interest in a subject
Organize the subject matter
Interrupt someone politely
Ask someone politely to keep quiet
Conclude a subject
Politely propose closure of a conversation
(Keep in mind that, although these generic headings of communicative functions may appear overwhelmingly broad at first glance, the DELE A2 curriculum inventory provides much more limiting detail about exactly what is expected at A2 level under each heading – your tutor will work through this detail with you, to ensure that you can perform each function as required).
THE DELE EXAM – WHERE & WHEN TAKEN: The DELE exam is taken at accredited exam centres around the world, on fixed dates – usually five or six times per year, in February, April, May, July, October and end November.
An important point to note, is that not all accredited DELE exam centres offer the DELE A2 at every scheduled sitting. You thus have to make doubly sure with the exam centre of your preference, that they are actually going to be able to offer, guaranteed, the DELE A2 exam on your chosen date (the oral exam requires two certified DELE A2 examiners to be present; if the centre doesn’t have sufficient local examiners, the Instituto Cervantes has to fly out examiners, which they only do if a certain quota is met at the particular centre).
As you can see, candidates typically must register more than a month in advance, and the results are only available three months after the exam date. For candidates wanting to apply for the “right of return” accorded to the Sefardíes, time is therefore running out, given the end September 2018 cut-off date for applications to be submitted. It should also be noted that the new online version of the DELE exam, the SIELE (which was introduced only after the 2015 law was passed) evidently isn’t mentioned in the law as an acceptable alternative to the DELE for purposes of the “right to return” – even though it is also administered by the Instituto Cervantes and has the exact same standards and curriculum. (We here at DELEhelp are trying to get the SIELE formally included, because it can be taken all year-round with 48-hour registration and its results are available within just three weeks, but time may be too short to really accomplish anything with the bureaucracy).
So, if you want to do the DELE A2 for “right of return” purposes, you have to start preparing NOW.
FORMAT OF THE DELE A2 EXAM – the exam consists of four tests (“pruebas”) corresponding to the four communicative competencies. The three written parts are taken sequentially on the exam date; the oral test is individually scheduled, for either the day before, or on the day of the written exam (after completion of those tests). The DELE A2 exam format was streamlined and improved at the end of 2019, taking effect in February 2020 (the descriptions below have been updated as per the new format, about which you can read more detail in this DELEhelp blog post – click on the IMAGE to go to the post):
The new DELE A2 exam explained – click on IMAGE to go to post
The first written test is Reading Comprehension, lasting 60 minutes and comprising 4 tasks with a total of 25 items. The Listening Comprehension test lasts 40 minutes, also with four tasks and 25 items. These comprehension tests are taken in the form of multiple choice papers marked by computer.
The Expression in Writing test lasts 45 minutes and consists of two tasks, written long-hand on paper. These are marked by qualified examiners in Spain.
The Oral Expression test is preceded by 12 minutes preparation time, and then lasts a further 12 minutes. It involves four tasks. The first is a prepared presentation on a given theme, the second consists of describing what is seen on a photograph, and the third is a dialogue with the interviewer in a simulated situation derived from the photograph in the second task. The oral is examined on the spot at the exam centre, by two certified A2-level DELE oral examiners. One is the interviewer, who does a holistic assessment. The other does a more detailed analytical assessment and usually sits behind the candidate.
Students do not all have the same aptitude for learning languages, have different learning preferences, and don’t have the same amount of time available. It is therefore essential that a proper diagnostic be done of each individual, and a personalized study plan be developed based on that.
Most of the potential applicants for the “right of return” will find themselves in work and family situations that won’t easily permit dropping everything and going off to a residential language school for an extended period. This is where modern technology comes in – with Skype, students can learn from the comfort and convenience of their own homes, one-on-one with a dedicated tutor, with a flexible schedule fitted around their realities. There’s no cost of flying off to attend school, nor accommodation costs and no opportunity cost in the form of lost income either. Furthermore, with Skype it is possible to search for tutors based in countries with a low cost of living, such as Central America, and avoid paying high tuition fees in Euros.
One thing that is definitely NOT ideal, is ending up in group classes (typically 6 or 8 students in European schools) where everything is reduced to the rhythm of the lowest common denominator.
The foregoing doesn’t mean that immersion in the last weeks before the exam date isn’t valuable. Such intensive exposure at a suitable residential school, with homestay with a Hispanic family, can be beneficial as final polishing – if done 1-on-1, with someone who knows what your Skype preparation consisted of and can integrate seamlessly with that. But it will cost a lot. On the other hand, it is quite possible to have the same intensity via Skype, doing an “immersion” the last few weeks with your known tutor, by blocking out sufficient time on your calendar.
If you have an exam centre near your home, and you therefore aren’t in any case obliged to fly off to an exam centre abroad, then Skype immersion makes more sense than residential immersion. The latter is normally over-cooked, because too many hours are fitted into to few days (since one cannot be away from home/work too long). Skype immersion ensures big savings in cost and time. It is clearly not an optimal learning situation to sit through seven or eight hours of classes a day at a residential school (as one would do, to justify the cost of the trip and accommodation). With Skype immersion, proper rest breaks can be planned in-between, without leaving a sense of a wasted investment in travel and opportunity costs.
La Antigua Guatemala (where we are based) is recognized as one of the world’s leading centres for the teaching of Spanish as foreign language. Guatemala offers unbeatably low prices in a beautiful historic setting. We have a large DELE exam centre where you can be guaranteed that the A2 will be offered on each scheduled exam date. So, if you do need to travel (because of not having an exam centre near your home) you may want to consider our partner residential facility here for such immersion, where you can be sure that your immersion will integrate seamlessly with your DELEhelp Skype tuition, and you will probably have your DELEhelp Skype tutor as your immersion tutor. Their website’s url is: www.probigua.com
Click on the image below to be taken to a short video recommending PROBIGUA:
LINKS TO OTHER BLOGPOSTS AND FREE RESOURCES – for more information about how to prepare for different elements of the DELE exams, you can have a look at some of the other posts on this blog. The blogpost here-below provides links to our top 16 posts, covering topics such as how to ace the oral exam, top tips for the written exam, how to navigate the multiple-choice format of the comprehension tests, top tested answers to DELE exam FAQ’s, and the like (click on this cover image to go to our omnibus post, and then click on the covers of the individual posts you want to read):
At DELEhelp we offer our 96-page e-book “DELE Exam Orientation & Acing Tips” free and without obligation – just ask for it via our contact information form (click on the image below, to be taken to the form). We also offer a free, one-hour exploratory Skype session, which you can request via the same contact information form.
It would be an honour and a privilege for us to help more descendants of the Sefardíes to successfully claim their right of return to the land of their ancestors.
Sephardic Jews Spain right of return DELE A2 language test