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ACING the OPI in SPANISH

Top tips for Acing the American OPI in Spanish (Oral Proficiency Interview)

A quick introduction

The Oral Proficiency Interview, or OPI, is a language competency certification recognized by the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) of the U.S.  Government for determining the level of conversational ability of a candidate in any given foreign language. The OPI was developed by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) in conjunction with the ILR. It is administered by a specialist private testing company, called Language Testing International (LTI), with the help of proctor institutions around the world (and I am proud to be an official proctor myself).

The classic Oral Proficiency Interview originated as a live, 20-30 minute telephone/Skype-style conversation between a certified tester and the candidate. Thanks to advances in IT, one can  now do the modern version, called the OPIc, which is the same test but computerized.  This means that the candidate engages online with an on-screen avatar that asks the prompt questions, rather than with a live interviewer. For an excellent demo of the OPIc, please go to: https://opicdemo.actfltesting.org/ – you should really make time to review this demo, which closely resembles the actual exam. An important note when looking at this demo – it is for doing the OPIc English-language competency test. However, just as in this demo for the English, please note that also in the  case of doing the Spanish OPIc test, the initial list of options establishing your profile of personal interests will be put to you in English, making things a lot easier for you than the equivalent European exams that jump straight into Spanish exam questions (as will be explained later).

The system of tests commonly referred to as the OPI isn’t limited to testing just your oral expression. Going beyond oral proficiency, candidates can also test their listening proficiency with the LPT, their reading proficiency with the RPT and their competency at  writing with the WPT. Together, these four certifications therefore cover the same ground as the European language exams such as the DELE / SIELE of the Instituto Cervantes (The OPIc is equal to the SIELE S4 “oral expression” unit). Your certificate for any of the four competencies can, at your election, be issued either in terms of the USA-ILR scale (0>5) or in terms of the European scale (A1, A2, B1, B2, C1) because these exams share the same policy foundation, norms and standards, namely the CEFR – the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.

The OPI in its live as well as computer formats is a test that reliably measures how well a person converses in a foreign language. It is focused on the communicative competency – in other words, on the clarity of the message. The procedures for both the OPI  and OPIc are standardized; the tests assesses speaking ability globally, in a holistic manner, determining strengths and weaknesses (see this blogpost for how OPI compares to DELE / SIELE: http://www.delehelp.org/oral-proficiency-interview-vs-dele-diploma/

The primary goal of the OPI / OPIc, from the system’s perspective, is for the tester to engage constructively with the candidate, in such a way that a proper sample of speech can be obtained from the candidate. It isn’t, therefore, a “Spanish inquisition” trying to catch you out. After all, from the perspective of the examiners, they must – first and foremost – capture a sample of your speech that will be sufficient to allow a valid rating of your competency. To achieve that, the conversation must clearly demonstrate the highest sustained level of performance of the speaker (known as the “floor”) plus the level at which the speaker can no longer sustain the performance (known as the “ceiling”), over a variety of topics. The OPI resembles a conversation – but, in fact, the live tester as well as the OPIc’s avatar “Ava” do respect a strict protocol to put the candidate at ease; they use trigger questions that conform to the candidate’s own pre-stated interests, to get the candidate to speak up.

The OPIc – personalized for YOUR interests

The preliminary phase of the OPIc that you will go through on exam day setting up your interview, illustrates this point well. This initial phase establishes your “interest profile” and aims to ensure that the later conversation will be geared towards topics that you will be at ease to talk about. Getting this selection of questions right on the part of  the  OPIc system should ensure a substantial enough sample being recorded. After all, there’s no point in asking you questions that you can’t answer because you know nothing about a  particular topic and have no interest in it. Doing that will simply mean that the system has failed to meet its own primary need, which is to get from you a proper representative sample that can be assessed.

The system’s data bank contains a multitude of possible exam questions, covering a hugely diverse field of interests and activities. Initially, therefore,  the computer will list for you options (in English) about your personal interests across a very wide range of subjects, including hobbies, sport,  vacation preferences and the like. The fact that the OPIc is designed this way, allows you as English-speaking student a clear comparative advantage when you do the OPIc, as compared to the DELE or  SIELE exam – firstly, because the OPIc asks you these initial questions in your own mother tongue, and secondly because it sets out to personalize your exam according to your own personal interests, whilst the DELE /SIELE simply launches straight into an undifferentiated set of exam questions, in Spanish from the word go, in a “one size fits all” style.

Your responses to the OPIc’s personal profile options then determine the precise exam questions that the computer will select for you, and which its on-screen avatar – named Ava – will then put to you (in Spanish) during the actual test. This is what the screen will look like, that you will be speaking to when doing the OPIc (in the case of the classic telephone-based OPI, your interviewer will also first establish your broad interests, but obviously it cannot be as detailed as the technology allows for the OPIc):

Next we will show you some further screen shots, to give you an idea of how detailed the questions are during the set-up “profile phase” (remember, you can see the official demo by clicking on the link supplied earlier above: https://opicdemo.actfltesting.org/ ).

The OPIc system will first  ask you to identify general fields of personal interest, which you would like to talk about. The next screen shot contains just a small sample of the areas of interest – for example, it will ask you about your activities, hobbies, sport and vacation preferences. Under sport and physical activities, for example, you will find a list that contains basketball, baseball/softball, soccer,  football, rugby, ice hockey, field hockey, cricket, golf, volleyball, tennis, badminton, table tennis, swimming, biking, motorcycling, scuba/snorkel, ski/snowboard, wateski… And so the list goes on (it is therefore quite unlikely that you, no matter which part of the world you’re from, won’t find subject matter in there that you would be comfortable and knowledgeable to talk about). Here’s the initial “background survey” screen shot :

The next screen shots show some of the hobbies plus sport options not yet listed in the text of the previous paragraph, as well as vacation options, to further illustrate the level of detail and personalization sought:

The OPIc will next ask you to broadly assess your own level of Spanish-speaking ability. This serves to ensure that the computer avatar asks you questions that correspond, in degree of difficulty, with your level and don’t totally overshoot or under-estimate it. This is again a great advantage of the OPIc over the SIELE, since the latter does not first establish a personalized profile and thus needs to incorporate into each test segment the full spectrum of difficulty levels ranging from A1 beginner to C1 advanced, which all candidates then willy-nilly need to work through. (In this particular screen shot you will see that the OPIc system asks about your “English-speaking” ability; in your exam it will of course be your Spanish-speaking ability,  but the initial profile questions will still be asked of you in English):

The OPIc – personalized for YOUR level

The OPIc system is technologically very robust and glitch-free. We here at DELEhelp are both SIELE exam admisitrators as well as OPI proctors, and in our experience the online capacities of the OPIc definitely set the gold standard for maintaining you connected on-line during the exam. You are,  therefore, very unlikely to be left stranded in the middle of the exam because of some technical glitch, if you select to do the OPIc. It is also a very user-friendly and intuitive system, and I can truly state that LTI (who manages the system on behalf of the ACTFL) are always extremely helpful and quick to respond to any queries. You therefore don’t need to be a computer genius in order to be able to use the OPIc system with ease and confidence. Remember also that there’s always an OPI proctor present, who will step in if any technical issues should arise during the test.

Contrary to what one may imagine, OPIc candidates find it easy to interact with AVA the avatar. She speaks / articulates very clearly in Spanish, not too fast, and without some deviant accent. Electing to do the OPIc instead of the old-style OPI, also eliminates any possible issue of human bias or quirks of speech / accent on the part of the human OPI interviewer that you may end up with (NB: some institutions still require that their applicants/employees must take the test in the form of the classic OPI, not the OPIc, so you need to inquire and establish from your employer or the entity to which you may be applying, what their rules are about perhaps insisting on one format and not the other – in truth, the standards are exactly equal and the certification equally trustworthy, and it is no secret that we as proctors much prefer candidates to do the modern OPIc, because of all its obvious advantages for both the student and the administrator).

The system is also mindful of helping the student to keep track of time elapsed / time remaining for responding, as well as to keep you orientated with regard to where you are (i.e., at which question) i.t.o. the overall test segment. The next screen shot shows what you’ll see while you’re doing the test – there is a bar at the top of the screen that shows you at which question you’re at, and another bar showing you the time remaining for your responses:

This next shot shows the last screen that you will see, when you’ve finished the OPIc test:

In the next segment we will share with you some tips that underpin doing well in oral exams  Keep in mind that the OPI/ OPIc is a multi-level exam. What this means is that, contrary to the DELE exam for example (for which you have to pre-select a specific level that you wish to write) your result is not going to be simply either a pass or a fail for that particular level. Unlike the DELE, you effectively cannot fail the OPI, because the goal of the system is to place you along a competence curve, corresponding to the level you have actually demonstrated. If you have asked for an OPI/OPIc certificate expressed i.t.o. the European system, you will for example get a certificate stating that your oral expression competency in Spanish is at level A2, or B2, or C1 or whatever the case may be. In the case of the DELE, if you haven’t made the grade i.t.o. the specific level you have enrolled for – say B2 – you don’t get an A2 or B1: you simply get a No APTO, meaning fail, with nothing more to show for your entire effort. (The OPI/OPIc is, as multi-level exam, therefore similar to the multi-level SIELE, which is the modern online version of the DELE introduced by the Instituto Cervantes of Spain in 2016.

What the OPIc certificate looks like

In the next image you can see what an OPIc certificate actually looks like. In this example, the grading was done i.t.o. the ACTFL system, with the candidate achieving an “Advanced Low” which corresponds to a B2 in the European system. You can see that what the grading means in practical terms (i.e., level of communicative competency) is explained on the back of each certificate:

Basic tips for Acing Oral exams:

  • Know what the goals are of the OPI/OPIc. It is an examination of your ability to communicate orally in everyday situations. There isn’t a more common, nor is there a more essential way of communicating, than by means of speaking. This makes the oral interview obviously crucial in assessing your overall communication competency.
  • Know what the official OPI oral interview format and scoring criteria are. You need to be familiar with the system and criteria that the testers will be using to assess your oral performance. If you don’t know this, you won’t know how best to converse with your interviewer.
  • Sit correctly: When sitting down, don’t slouch (i.e., don’t sit with your head and upper torso leaning back in relation to your backside, because this posture constricts your breathing). Sitting correctly means getting your lower backside as far back into and pressed up against the chair’s backrest as possible. This will help with your breathing and articulation. It will also force your upper body forward, thus into a natural posture of engaging positively with your interlocutor (this remains valid, also for the OPI format, which is an interview by phone or – in the case of the OPIc – engaging with a computer avatar).
  • NB: NB: Engage with your interviewer, be relaxed and friendly, COMMUNICATE.
  • Fluency is an important scoring criteria; this is achieved particularly by means of using link phrases (connectors), for which the testers will be actively looking in your discourse – it is therefore important to know and practice a list of such phrases which you can employ naturally. In general, it is critical not to get hung up on searching desperately for specific words that may have momentarily abandoned you; use whatever others that come most readily to your tongue at that moment, even if you also have to use additional description to communicate your point.
  • Coherence is important. Don’t launch willy-nilly into a torrent of speech, hell-bent on appearing to be answering the question, but without any thought or plan. Communication is more than filling time with sound – true communication is based on transmitting a MEANINGFUL MESSAGE. The typical structure for such is: intro/body of proof/conclusion. Organize your thoughts.
  • Linguistic scope is another core aspect tested. What linguistic scope means, is your repertoire – the breadth and command of vocabulary and expressions; how familiar you are with colloquialisms and idiomatic native language use, in order to be able to correctly contextualize sayings and to do justice to communicating about increasingly sophisticated concepts and themes. There are no better ways of improving your Spanish (and thus your score) than extensive and attentive reading, plus jotting down new words on your flashcard system such as www.cram.com . To stay abreast of news actualities across the full spectrum of subjects, spend a few minutes each day with the free site www.practicaespanol.com By attentive reading, we mean that you should be looking up words that you encounter and don’t yet know – include these in your vocabulary flashcard list, and revise them frequently. Here’s a link to a blog-post that will help you with the study of vocabulary: http://www.delehelp.org/expand-vocabulary-best-dele-exam-prep/
  • Accuracy or correctness of language is a scoring factor. This relates to your correct use of fixed idiomatic expressions and grammar, such as agreement of gender and number. Slow down! It’s fine to pause briefly and naturally to gather your thoughts (a good fall-back with which to fill these moments is using connectors or link words, such as entonces, which will give you breathing space and contribute to naturalness and fluency). When you start talking, talk at a slower/measured pace (but clearly conversational) so that you can allow yourself time to formulate thoughts and speak accurately. If you make a mistake, correct yourself in a natural manner, don’t try and ignore it as if it didn’t happen – you will actually be positively assessed for having corrected yourself.
  • Confirm questions if needed: It’s certainly normal to get nervous in an exam situation, and equally normal even in real everyday conversations to require clarifications from your interlocutor. Rather ask, than answer a question that you’ve misunderstood. So, make sure to clarify the question if in any doubt, with a phrase like “Puede usted explicarme su pregunta, por favor…” (in case of a telephonic interview).
  • Personalize and engage with the content, by reflecting your own perceptions and opinions about the subject matter and quoting relevant personal experiences; don’t just repeat in a purely descriptive manner the elements of the question your tester had posed.
  • Pay attention as well to your delivery, i.e. to the art of oratory and rhetorical devices you employ in order to persuade and negotiate: for example, vary your tone and emphasis, to nuance and underscore key points. Be sure to adapt your presentation to the nature of your audience and setting – such adaptability on your side to conform correctly i.t.o. appropriate level of formality of language or sophistication of the lexis / terminology you use, in relation to the demands of the event or setting being simulated, is an assessment criterium, especially at the higher levels. Don’t be so hung up on ensuring correctness of your grammar that you lose the natural flow, rhythm and thrust of conversation as interactive, interpersonal engagement. SMILE (it will reflect in your voice, even though the tester can’t necessarily see it). Remember that the testers are taught to draw you out of your shell, in a friendly manner, and never to correct or criticize you – therefore, relax: they are not your enemies, nor your inquisitors.
  • Confidence is truly the key to fluent, engaged communication. Never forget that the OPI tests your capacity to communicate effectively – to receive and transmit meaning. You will be authentic and authoritative when you speak from inner conviction, having personalized your responses, rather than parroting talking points with which you don’t identify. The best booster of confidence is the knowledge that you have practiced and practiced and practiced doing mock versions of these oral interviews, to perfection, before the actual interview date – doing as many guided simulations as possible with your expert tutor via Skype or in situ immersion in the weeks and months leading up to the exam.
  • Read out loud whenever you are reading Spanish books, blogs or news media during your self-study and relaxation hours. As preparation and practice of your pronunciation, do as much of your Spanish reading en voz alta, so that you can get accustomed to actually saying words, not just seeing or thinking them.
  • Record your practice sessions on tape or preferably on video, when you do simulations of interviews. That way you can hear and see yourself in action and can take note of improvements you need to make. A good method is to review how you initially had responded, and then “re-do” your initial answers in writing, ensuring that they are now to the point, well-structured, accurate and impactful – thereby developing and internalizing your own mental system of organizing your thoughts so that you can respond to questions reflexively in such an organised, clear manner.
  • MOST IMPORTANT – get an expert tutor with whom to practice and who can design for you an appropriate personal study plan & help guide you to success.     

FREE OPI Workbook!

This blog post is already quite long. Rather than trying to cover everything here, I prefer to offer you – FREE and with NO OBLIGATION – our in-house DELEhelp Workbook #8. It contains a lot more detail about the OPI grading system, as well as the scoring criteria used by the examiners (the “can do” statements against which your performance will be weighed in relation to the different competency levels). The Workbook also contains links to videos of actual OPI interviews, as well as to further free resources that will give you even more background detail about the OPI/OPIc. Just click on the image below, to access the short contact form with which to ask for our free Workbook #8. And while asking, you can also request the download links for our other free in-house workbooks as well, as advertised elsewhere in this blog and on our DELEhelp Facebook page.

Click on image for form with which to ask for free workbook

 




FREE DELE/SIELE EXAM PREPARATION BOOK IN ENGLISH

Your free DELE/SIELE exam preparation book that explains, in English, all you need to know for effective exam prep

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.

To go to this blog post, just click on image

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).

click on image to ask for free workbook

Buena suerte with
your Spanish exam preparation!

Saludos cordiales

Willem  




16 TOP BLOG POSTS ON ACING DELE EXAM

Quick access to 16 of our top blog posts of the past three years, on how to ace the 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!

See how the different exam components are grouped together and averages calculated.
TESTED ANSWERS to DELE exam FAQs
Comparing the DELE, its online twin SIELE and the American OPI
20 Top Tips for Acing the DELE exam ORAL tasks
Acing the American OPIc
Three top “been there, done it” tips for effective exam preparation for the DELE / SIELE & OPI
ACE your DELE EXAM by getting to know the curriculum
History is part of the DELE exam curriculum
The best prep for the DELE exam is to expand your VOCABULARY
DELE exam functional language use a key part of curriculum
Top Tips for Acing the DELE / SIELE & WPT written tasks
The scoring criteria used in the assessment of your DELE exam ORAL test
LINKS to top DELE exam prep RESOURCES
For effective DELE exam prep, your need a personalized study plan
DELE exam reading comprehension top tips
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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 grammar is 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 study Spanish” (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 DELEhelp blogpost 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

Salu2

Willem

(Click on IMAGE to ask for the free e-book)

 




COMPARING THE DELE / SIELE & OPI SPANISH TESTS

At DELEhelp we are often asked how the three main Spanish language competency exams, the DELE, the SIELE and the OPI compare, since we are official proctors for the American OPI system, as well as accredited SIELE exam coordinators (and I myself as writer of this post, have a DELE C2 diploma).

THE THREE OPTIONS: The traditional style “pen & paper” DELE exam of the Instituto Cervantes of Spain is long established and thus probably the most widely known Spanish language competency test. However, modern technology now offers two equally valid additional options. Both can be taken online, with much more flexibility and convenience. One is the SIELE (which the Instituto Cervantes launched in 2016 as essentially an online twin for the DELE). The other is  the American OPIc – the Oral Proficiency Interview via computer – of the ACTFL (the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages).

These online exams offer not only a choice of accreditation between Spain and the USA. They also offer relief to those students who need their results quickly (not the three months that the DELE results take), and who want to take their exam any day of the year (i.e., not be limited to one of the five dates that the DELE offers). In particular, the SIELE and the OPIc offer relief to students who do not want, or do not need, simultaneous testing in all four communication formats (listen, read, write, speak) which remains an onerous obligation with the DELE. If you only need, for example,your oral proficiency assessed and certified (or any combination of the four competencies) then the SIELE in its different component forms, or the ACTFL package of competency tests for speaking, writing and reading & listening comprehension would be much more suited for you.

Lastly, both the SIELE and the ACTFL online tests are multi–level exams that peg you at your right level for each competency individually. Unlike the DELE, you don’t have to commit yourself to passing all of these competency tests at one specific level, on one day (for instance, B2). And unlike the DELE, you effectively can’t fail SIELE or the OPI/WPT/LPT/RPT (whereas the DELE you most definitely can fail, if you do not achieve an across the board pass for the four competencies together, in their same-day exam).

THE SIELE EXAM PACKAGE:

The SIELE  and the DELE use the same curriculum and scoring criteria. They both qualify you i.t.o. the same levels (A1, A2, B1, B2, C1) and the certificates for both are signed by the same official – the Director of Studies of the Instituto Cervantes. If you want to do the top C2 level, though, you can still only do that through the DELE. The SIELE has eliminated many of the logistical nightmares associated with the DELE, and introduced newfound flexibility – both regarding the dates when you can sit the SIELE (practically any day of the year, as opposed to five fixed dates for the DELE) and the fact that the SIELE allows you to test for only one competency at a time, if you wish (as opposed to the DELE’s obligation of doing all four in one sitting). You also typically get your SIELE certificate within three days of doing the exam, whereas you have to wait THREE MONTHS for your the DELE results (and another three months for the actual diploma). We have published a detailed blogpost about the SIELE, so I will not repeat all the details here. You can access the post by clicking on this link: https://www.delehelp.org/the-siele-exam-is-fast-flexible-and-fail-proof/

SPAIN OR USA? When you look beyond the Instituto Cervantes of Spain’s DELE / SIELE and you consider the American ACTFL’s options as well, there is one essential question  to ask yourself – especially if you need certification for university study purposes or employment in a public service position: do you intend studying at a North American college or work for a U.S. entity?   If  that is the case, then the ACTFL’s package of OPI/WPT/LPT/RPT may be your more appropriate choice (even though many American academic institutions do also recognize the DELE and increasingly, the new SIELE).

If your personal goal – or your professional / social need – is no more than to be able to converse, then one of the best general certifications (for Americans especially), is the OPI / OPIc test of the ACTFL.  Keep in mind that, although the ACTFL tests are commonly know as the OPI, they are not limited to assessing oral proficiency only – you can do the WPT, RPT and the LPT (the writing proficiency test, and those for reading and listening proficiency), similar to those offered under the SIELE banner. These three additional proficiency tests are all done individually online, in much the same easy way as the OPIc (the classic OPI is still done by telephone, but has in practice been largely superseded by the OPIc).

Public sector institutions in the USA (many of which are grouped together in the inter-agency round table for languages or ILR, associated with the ACTFL) obviously accord preference to the OPI/OPIc. It stands to reason that most academic institutions in the USA are also familiar with the ACTFL and its testing, for credit purposes. Many private sector institutions in the USA, such as business employers and private schools seeking to appoint teaching staff, require OPI/OPIc certification from applicant employees as well.

This blogpost will essentially describe the OPI and OPIc, plus what we here at DELEhelp can do to assist you in your preparation for the interview, whether it be the online or “by phone” version.

MAIN DIFFEENCES BETWEEN THE DELE / SIELE AND THE ACTFL TESTS

Whereas the DELE tests all four components of communicative competencies as integral, obligatory parts of one exam sitting, on the same day, the ACTFL and the SIELE test these competencies individually: in the case  of the ACTFL, in the form of the OPI / WPT / RPT / LPT stand-alone tests. These can – if one so choose – be taken on different days and it’s possible also to choose to do only one test, and no more: like the OPIc or the SIELE S4, both being just oral proficiency.

For the DELE exam, the candidate must register for one of six progressively more difficult levels, from A1 to C2, and pass all the competencies at that same level/standard in one exam.  Fail one and you fail all. In the case of the OPI and also for the WPT/RPT/LPT, there is no testing level to pre-select on the part of the candidate. Each comptenecy is assessed independently. The generic interview / test format allows for candidates to be assessed and a level of proficiency to be certified for each competency, on the ACTFL scale of ten, ranging from “novice low” through “intermediate mid” to “superior”, or the ILR (Inter-Agency Language Roundtable) scale of 0 to 5, with the latter being equivalent to “functionally native”. It is possible, though, with the ACTFL’s tests to request that your certificates be issued i.t.o. the European 6-level scale (A1/A2, B1/B2 & C1/C2).

The physical exam format is also different: for the DELE, the candidate must present in person at a certified examination center across the globe, pen in hand, on one of five pre-set exam dates during the year. The OPI is an interview conducted by telephone, and the OPIc is an online test by computer (as are the WPT/LPT/RPT), which can be taken at any pre-arranged time of year, taken wherever the candidate finds him/herself (where there is a proctor available).  The OPI/OPIc can usually be scheduled within a few working days. The tests are conducted i.t.o. the ACTFL assessment protocol by Language Testing International (LTI). To request an oral proficiency interview, the candidate needs the co-operation of an institution that can procurate the test (i.e., vouch for the identity of the candidate and oversee adherence to the rules) which may be an accredited school or one’s own employer. Our terrestrial school here in La Antigua Guatemala, PROBIGUA, is such a proctor institution: http://www.probigua.com ).  The certified OPI/OPIc or other ACTFL proficiency test result is normally available within ten working days (the DELE usually takes three months).

THE ORAL PROFICIENCY INTERVIEW

The traditional-style OPI interview (as opposed to the OPIc interview) is conducted live by a qualified tester, by phone; it is recorded and usually further assessed by a second examiner, before a proficiency level is certified. The interview lasts from twenty to forty minutes. The objective is to assess the candidate’s ability to use the language orally in real-life situations. The manner in which the candidate acquired Spanish is not important, nor is there any set coursework or curriculum to cover. The candidate is tested against a standard set of criteria, essentially by means of questions and answers broadly intended to resemble a conversation.  The tester will structure the questions in such a way as to oblige the candidate to use different tenses, such as past and future, and to express hypotheses and wishes – in this way indirectly testing knowledge of grammar and (above all) your ability to apply this knowledge.  The format also makes provision for using role-play at some point, which the tester will introduce and explain in English.

Testers are under strict instructions to avoid contentious topics such as politics and religion. A manual for OPI testers explains how topics should be selected:

  • Warm-up topics should focus on autobiographical information, educational background, work or profession, interests, hobbies, etc.
  • The tester’s role is to develop topics that are of interest to the candidate so that the candidate is engaged in the discussion naturally and spontaneously.
  • Topics to pursue (if previously mentioned by the candidate) include:

Education, work experiences, future career ambitions, consumerism, customer service, sports, exercise, the workplace in the 21st Century, innovations, urban, suburban, rural communities and lifestyles, transportation, traffic, ecology, the environment, industry (financial, service, manufacturing), classical culture, art, music, popular culture, TV, movies, fashion, technology, computers, hobbies, special interests, food, diet, entertainment, pets, automobiles, tourism, travel, science, medicine, history, etc.

The online OPIc is an advance on the OPI, since it eliminates the human factor in the interviewing, and is therefore even more standardized. The first important thing to note about the OPIc is that all instructions are in English, as opposed to the DELE / SIELE, where all instructions are in Spanish only.

This is obviously a great advantage for English-speaking students, which is further enhanced by the ACTFL’s ample study materials in English for preparing for the OPIc.

You will be interviewed by a friendly avatar called AVA, who will first establish with you the topics that most interest you in life, and then allow you to choose the main themes about which you want to be interviewed. The conversations start out at the level that you yourself had rated your Spanish to be at (done in the biographical segment that introduces the test). It thus allows you to “warm up” with well-know topics that you’ve identified as being of interest to you, regarding sport, recreation, your work, family etc. It then steadily escalates to the main themes you chose, which would for example be:  

The test is similar to climbing a stairway, with the objective being to see at how high a level you can sustain the conversation (the “floor”) and where you find the going impossibly tough (the “ceiling”). Student feed-back has been that the OPIc format is very user-friendly, keeping one at ease and without undue time pressure. The fact  that the instructions are, as mentioned, in English is also a clear advantage for students with working knowledge of English – especially if you are still a relative beginner at Spanish.

From our own practical experience of the DELE / SIELE / OPI exam formats, we can testify to the fact that the OPIc is by far the most technologically advanced and also robust against hiccups. Yet it is also the most simple, intuitive and human-friendly to use.  So, if your accreditation requirements are satisfied by the OPIc, don’t hesitate to go for it.

From observing students, it appears that people actually have fun doing the test.

lti-logo

For more information on the Oral Proficiency Interview by computer OPIc, have a look at this LTI website (it includes a demo exam you can try):
https://www.languagetesting.com/oral-proficiency-interview-by-computer-opic

The ACTFL has 76 OPI sample videos on YouTube, which you can look at via this link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MWx_y3LsB3w&list=PLh_cfDwS8mrt6d3RFa5QdVnxktSfS8sS0

We have prepared a DELEhelp BLOG POST specifically on the OPIc, with lots of detail and acing tips – you can access it by clicking on the image below:

Top tips for Acing the OPI in Spanish

DELEhelp CAN PREPARE YOU FOR THE ACTFL TESTS like the OPIc

From the above, it is evident that the objectives of the DELE / SIELE and the ACTFL tests are very similar, as are their approach based on “can do” comptency. This being the case, you will understand why our tutors here at DELEhelp would be very able (and happy) to assist your preparation for doing the ACTFL tests – particularly the OPIc, if your aim is purely to demonstrate competency at speaking.  As with the DELE / SIELE oral prep, the key to effective preparation for the OPIc is lots of oral practice (via Skype) with a qualified tutor who can simulate the OPIc interviews and provide you with feed-back and correction. Depending on what level of OPIc certification you would like to achieve, a personalized study plan will be developed to help you with mastering the appropriate lexis (vocabulary and phrases) and grammar necessary to achieve the coherent, fluent speaking required for the standard you are aiming for. Our programs and lesson hours are entirely flexible, and at only US$14 per hour, our rates are unbeatable.

If you want to ask for our free, no-obligation e-book for preparing for the OPI/OPIc, and/or if you would like to do a free exploratory Skype session with me, in English, about what coaching assistance we can offer  you (with no obligation), please use the convenient contact information form that you can access by clicking on the image below:

Buena suerte with your preparation!

Saludos cordiales

Willem Steenkamp
Director of Studies: Excellentia Didactica

Click on IMAGE to go to our secure website




The DELE and FUNCTIONAL LANGUAGE USE

DELE exam functional language use segment is a key part of curriculum

Why is “functional language use” an important curriculum component?

The DELE / SIELE exam curriculum consists of much more than grammar and spelling. The same applies to their American equivalent, the OPI. Because the DELE / SIELE & OPI  test “communicative competency”, they are focused on what you can actually DO, more than on what you abstractly know.   (For the sake if convenience, from this point on I will refer simply to the DELE, instead of each time the DELE / SIELE & OPI).

In this blog post we will examine the DELE’s curriculum component that identify the “functional language uses” prescribed for every level, i.e., A1, B2, C1 etc. This means, which everyday, functional uses of the Spanish language a student needs to master, in order to do well in the DELE exam  (or, plainly put, which typical tasks of real-world communication – the OPI’s “can do” statements). Examples of such “can do” statements would be: can I identify myself to an official? Can I ask for directions? Order a cup of coffee? Introduce a toast at a wedding? (the latter at the upper levels, of course!).

“Functional language use” signifies the everyday communicative tasks that the student must be able to perform well, as assessed in terms of four scoring criteria:  fluency, coherence, correctness and sufficiently ample linguistic scope (i.e., knowledge of vocabulary and expressions).  Some more examples of these functional uses would be tasks such as to ask for information or for a favor. Or it could be to express an opinion or sentiment, such as disagreement or repentance. It includes how to relate socially, such as in the tasks of responding to words of welcome, or extending sympathy. It also includes influencing a situation, such as how to give an order or to deny permission. Another set of functional language uses relate to structuring a conversation – for example, tasks such as how to greet someone and how to respond to a greeting.

DELE curriculum is more than grammar

How important is “functional language use’ in relation to the other curriculum components? Very! Grammar and pronunciation/spelling are but the first components of the DELE curriculum, which has ten in all. The next main component is “functional language use” (i.e., the “can do” statements). Because the DELE exam does not pose college-style questions that test theoretical knowledge, what you should be expecting, is for your ability to perform these functional tasks to be tested instead.  These tasks happen to also be typical of communication in real life, so mastering them not only serves to help one in the exam, but prepares one for the demands of everyday interaction – which is exactly what the DELE system is designed to foster and measure.

What the section on “functional language use” also  does,  is to give a good, practical indication of the SCOPE of matter that must be mastered for each level of the exam. In that sense, it is like a built-in “exam spotting tool” that students so much wish to have.

Now, simply to be practical about this blog post, it should be evident that dealing here in detail with the required functional language use competencies as listed in the DELE curriculum for every single level of the DELE system would be too much ground to try and cover in one blog post. We will, therefore, focus here on Level B, because it sits in the middle of the range and students at other levels can get a good idea of what their level’s requirements would likely be (all three levels follow the same structure and headings in relation to this particular component on functional language use).  In addition, we will provide links at the end of this blog post to this curriculum component for each level, for your convenience.

Our purpose here is not to give you fully developed phrases as examples of the typical manner in which Spanish-speakers accomplish each of these functions. Again, this is because (even if we limit ourselves to level B) that would require the volume of a whole book, not a mere blog post.  The idea here, in this blog post, is to introduce and sensitize you to the TYPE OF FUNCTIONS that the DELE requires you to be able to perform. We will present these in English (because the original curriculum documents are, of course, in high academic Spanish) so as to make them more accessible to especially the lower-level students. The links to the “functional language use” curriculum segment for each of the DELE’s A, B & C levels – which we provide at the end of this blog post – will however lead you to the somewhat wider detail of the original documentation. But not even in the original curriculum itself, will you find full examples of the typical phrases you will need to be able to form and articulate in order to perform these everyday functional tasks – that, your expert 1-on-1 tutor will have to help you with, via Skype.

snappa_1467577824Related to the emphasis on mastering functional language uses in order to communicate competently, is a growing trend towards following a lexical approach as the best way to acquire a new language (“lexis” meaning internalizing “word chunks” or expressions and patterns of language, instead of mostly studying grammar rules – see our blog post: http://www.delehelp.org/learn-to-converse-in-spanish/).

This lexical trend plays into the DELE’s focus on tangible outcomes, not merely on abstract knowledge. Also important is tradition and culture, since clearly there are broadly standardized  speech “formulas” / norms of good conduct, for how to appropriately perform these “functional language use” tasks, such as commiserating with a bereaved person, for example. The best way to master these everyday communicative functions (which is key to doing well in the exam, as well as in real life) is to practice with your expert tutor, doing simulations and role-playing.

Now please be aware that this blog post will, of necessity, have a somewhat weird look to it.  This is because we are now going to list (in abbreviated form, in English) the DELE functional language use tasks – doing so under the same headings as used in the original curriculum document.  Remember, this serves as an introduction, to give you a feel for the scope and nature of what is required (and, if you still labor under any illusion that the DELE’s curriculum is all about learning the rules of Spanish grammar and spelling, to disabuse you of that notion). For set 1, we will give some examples (as contained in the actual curriculum document) to illustrate what is meant under each function.

DELE Curriculum Level B: FUNCTIONAL LANGUAGE USEuntitled-design-39

 Set #1: Ask and give information:
  • identify; (example: ¿Quién es la hermana de Raquel?]
    -La (chica) morena que está hablando con Pablo. Who is Raquel’s sister? The brown-skinned girl talking to Paul);
  • ask for information (¿Sabes si / dónde / cómo…?  ¿Sabes cómo se hace la sopa de marisco? ¿Puedes / Podrías decirme si / dónde / cómo…?  Por favor, ¿puede decirme dónde está la estación?);
  • give information;
  • then request confirmation.
 Set #2: Express opinions:
  • ask an opinion;
  • give an opinion;
  • ask for valorisation;
  • offer valorisation;
  • express approval and disapproval;
  • position yourself in favor or against;
  • ask if your interlocutor is in agreement;
  • express agreement;
  • express disagreement;
  • demonstrate skepticism;
  • present a counter-argument;
  • express certainty and provide proof;
  • express lack of certainty and demand proof;
  • invite to formulate an hypothesis;
  • express possibility;
  • express obligation and necessity;
  • express lack of obligation and necessity;
  • ask about knowledge of something;
  • express knowledge of something;
  • express own lack of knowledge;
  • ask about the ability to do something;
  • express your ability to do something;
  • ask if interlocutor remembers or has forgotten;
  • express that you remember;
  • express that you have forgotten.
 Set #3: Express preferences, desires and wishes:
  • ask about tastes and interests;
  • express tastes and interests;
  • express aversion; ask about preferences;
  • express preferences;
  • express indifference or absence of preference;
  • ask about desires;
  • express a desire;
  • ask about plans and intentions;
  • express plans and intentions;
  • ask about state of mind;
  • express joy and satisfaction;
  • express sadness and sorrow;
  • express pleasure and happiness;
  • express boredom;
  • express satiety;
  • express anger and indignation;
  • express fear, anxiety and preoccupation;
  • express nervousness;
  • express empathy;
  • express relief;
  • express hope;
  • express deception;
  • express resignation;
  • express repentance;
  • express embarrassment;
  • express surprise and longing;
  • express admiration and pride;
  • express affection;
  • express physical sensations.
 Set $4: Influence the interlocutor:
  • give an order or instruction;
  • ask a favor;
  • ask for an object;
  • ask for help;
  • plead;
  • repeat an earlier order;
  • respond to an order,
  • petition;
  • ask permission;
  • give permission;
  • deny permission;
  • prohibit;
  • reject a prohibition;
  • propose and suggest;
  • offer and invite;
  • ask for confirmation of an earlier proposal;
  • accept a proposal,
  • offer a proposal;
  • reject a proposal,
  • offer an invitation;
  • counsel someone;
  • warn;
  • menace (only B2);
  • reproach;
  • promise and commit yourself;
  • offer to do something;
  • calm and console.
 Set #5: Relate socially:
  • greet;
  • return a greeting;
  • direct yourself at someone;
  • present yourself to someone;
  • respond to a presentation;
  • ask about the necessity for a presentation;
  • solicit to be presented;
  • welcome someone;
  • respond to a welcome;
  • excuse yourself;
  • respond to an excusing;
  • thank someone;
  • respond to thanks;
  • present your sympathies/condolences;
  • propose a toast;
  • congratulate;
  • express good wishes;
  • respond to congratulations and good wishes;
  • pass on greetings, wishes for better health;
  • respond to being wished;
  • take leave of.
 Set #6: Structure a discourse:
  • establish the communication or react to communication being established;
  • greet and respond to a greeting, ask about someone and respond to such a query;
  • ask for an extension and respond to such a request;
  • ask if you can leave a message;
  • ask how things are going, and respond;
  • request to start relating something and respond;
  • introduce the theme for relating something and react;
  • indicate that you are following the telling with interest;
  • attract the attention of the speaker;
  • introduce something into the conversation;
  • organize the information;
  • reformulate what was said;
  • highlight an element;
  • quote;
  • open a digression;
  • close a digression;
  • reject a theme or an aspect of the theme;
  • interrupt;
  • indicate that the conversation may be resumed;
  • ask of someone to keep quiet;
  • concede the floor to someone;
  • indicate that you wish to continue the discussion;
  • conclude a narration;
  • introduce a new theme;
  • propose closure;
  • accept closure;
  • reject closure and inject a new theme.

As promised, here is the link to this particular section in the original DELE B-level curriculum document:

http://cvc.cervantes.es/ensenanza/biblioteca_ele/plan_curricular/niveles/05_funciones_inventario_b1-b2.htm

For levels A and B, the respective links are:

http://cvc.cervantes.es/ensenanza/biblioteca_ele/plan_curricular/niveles/05_funciones_inventario_a1-a2.htm

http://cvc.cervantes.es/ensenanza/biblioteca_ele/plan_curricular/niveles/05_funciones_inventario_c1-c2.htm

I hope that this blog post has given you at least a feel for what this very, very important component of the DELE curriculum is all about.  Keep an eye on our blog; as indicated, we will be posting new segments in this series that will eventually cover all of the components of the curriculum.

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Please keep in mind our FREE OFFER of our 96-page Workbook #9.2 (DELE / SIELE exam orientation & acing tips) which you can have absolutely gratis and with no obligation, simply be sending us a request via our convenient contact form (just click on the image above). This unique free DELE / SIELE exam preparation book covers all aspects relating to the goals, format and curriculum of the DELE system, plus battle-tested tips for preparing yourself to ace the DELE exam.

Don’t miss out either on our other free offer, which is an exploratory one hour Skype session with myself, in English, explaining the intricacies of these exams and answering your questions – you can make use of these offers with no obligation on you to sign up for coaching.

Best of luck with your exam preparation!

Salu2

Willem

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TOP TIPS FOR THE DELE / SIELE / WPT WRITTEN TASKS

Top Tips for Acing the DELE / SIELE & WPT written tasks

THE GOAL OF THIS BLOG-POST:

You probably have asked yourself: “How can I do well in the DELE exam written tasks? (or in the equivalent writing tests of the DELE’s online twin, the SIELE, or its American equivalent the WPT – Writing Proficiency Test). What are the do’s and don’ts”? What do I have to KNOW, and which SKILLS must I hone?

The essential requirement for acing the DELE exam’s “expression in writing” tasks, is expertly-guided preparation (with lots of practice, simulating exam formats). This preparation needs to be personalized, practical, goal-orientated – i.e., pass the exam – and focused on strengthening your individual weaknesses. So that, on exam day, you will have that calm, confident mental concentration that will allow you to almost reflexively  apply the knowledge and writing skills you had practiced beforehand with our exam simulations.

During your preparation you need to become totally familiar with the DELE exam’s goals, plus its format, and the practical constraints as well as the scoring criteria for this part of the DELE exam.  You need to practice your writing skills – for correctness, for stylistic aptness, for message coherence, and as a practical portrayal of the extent of your “linguistic scope” – this latter meaning your vocabulary and lexis. You need to practice and practice some more, getting expert guidance and feed-back, one-on-one, about where and how you need to improve.

On exam day, you have to read and re-read the instructions for each task, to be certain that you understand exactly what is required. Then you have to set out to demonstrate your knowledge and skills, by firstly planning and sketching out an apt and coherent answer. With this scheme of presentation in hand, you have to start writing down your definitive answer, because there won’t be time to try to first do a draft in rough, and then re-write it all.

From this brief summary you will notice that there are elements of abstract knowledge of Spanish that will be required of you. More importantly, though, there’s the art of written presentation, which skill relates to the overall DELE goal of testing your ability to communicate effectively in writing, with tasks simulating every-day, real-world writing projects.

Furthermore, there are practical issues such as handling the time constraints, as well as “finger fitness” and legibility of writing longhand (if you haven’t done it in  a while). In this blog-post I will expand on all of these elements, giving you practical, battle-tested tips (having passed the DELE C2 myself). For illustration, I will focus here on actual examples taken from the mid-range B1-level (since I cannot hope to deal with all six DELE levels in detail in a single blog-post). However, the principles and the assessment criteria are essentially the same over all six levels, with only the length of the individual tasks and their time-frames changing, plus of course the extent of the linguistic scope required for each level.

We will deal first with the goals of this part of the exam, then with its structure, followed by the assessment criteria in terms of which your effort will be scored. In explaining how the answers are marked, we will give examples of actual answers that passed and failed, plus the examiners’ comments.

Lastly, we will give you our own DELEhelp Acing Tips for this part of the exam. These are taken from our in-house workbook #9.2 “DELE / SIELE EXAM ORIENTATION AND ACING TIPS.  In its 96 pages you will find guidance and practical tips regarding all the sections of the DELE / SIELE exam (i.e., reading and listening comprehension, plus written and oral expression).  It is available as an e-book for free download, for readers of this blog. You can request it with the convenient contact form at the bottom of this page – there’s absolutely no obligation attached.

THE GOALS OF THE DELE EXAM “EXPRESSION IN WRITING” TASKS

W E goals blockThe overall goal of the DELE exam is to certify a candidate’s level of competency at actually communicating in Spanish, in simulations of typical real-world communicative settings. It is not a school or college type exam – it is NOT primarily concerned with abstract knowledge of Spanish.  It tests the ability to apply knowledge, in conversation and in using the written word. For conversation proficiency, it tests listening comprehension and oral expression. For the written language, it assesses proficiency at reading comprehension and at expressing yourself in writing – setting every-day tasks such as writing e-mails, letters, reports and articles.

As a consequence, in the course of the written expression exam the candidate will not be unduly penalized for small errors of spelling or grammar, as long as these aren’t repetitive or of such a nature that it impedes clear transmission of the meaning of the intended message.

In brief, what the DELE tests is your proficiency at understanding meaning, and conveying meaning in Spanish.

THE STRUCTURE OF THE DELE EXAM “EXPRESSION IN WRITING” TASKS (level B1)

W E structure blockDuration: 60 minutes. Number of tasks: 2. Total extent of the texts: between 230 and 270 words. Format of the answer: The candidate must write by hand his/her answers to the tasks that have been set, doing so in the space reserved in the exam book itself. Scoring: Answers are assessed according to two scales – holistic and analytical.  The holistic scale counts for 40% of the final score and the analytical scale for 60%.  For the analytical scale, the two task papers count equally.

For the sake of comparing B1 with other levels, here’s the structure for the written expression tasks of levels A1 and C2 respectively: A1 = 25 minutes total duration, completing a biographical form and writing a brief message of 20 – 30 words; C2 = 150 minutes total, 3 tasks of 1,000 words, 450 words and 250 words respectively.

The following descriptions of the structure and scoring criteria for the DELE B1 written expression tasks, have been directly translated from the official curricular documentation (which for most students would be difficult to follow in its original Spanish, written by academics for academics). For the sake of authenticity and completeness of this very important information, we have not abbreviated and have kept to the original format of the curricular documents (which explains why the following sections will not be in typical blogpost language!).

Description of the Written Tasks – Level B1

Task 1 – Format:  The task consists of writing a letter or a marketing message, an e-mail or a blog, which may include descriptive text or narration.

Extent of the writing: Between 100 and 120 words. Focus: In this task the capacity of the candidate is evaluated to produce a simple informative and cohesive text. Based on: The writing task is based on a text provided in the exam paper (a note, announcement, letter, e-mail etc.) to which the candidate’s writing is a sequel. May be personal or public in nature.

Task 2 – Format: The task consists of writing an essay, a diary entry, biography etc., which may include description or narration. Two options are offered, of which one must be chosen. Extent: between 130 and 150 words. Focus: This task tests the capacity of the candidate to write a descriptive or narrative text in which opinion is expressed and which conveys information of personal interest, based on personal experiences, sentiments, anecdotes etc. Based on: A text provided in the exam paper, which may be a brief newspaper announcement, blog or social media, which helps to define and contextualize the candidate’s required output text. May be of a personal or a public nature.

3.3.2     Marking Scales for the Written Expression Exam: DELE B1

W E scoring criteria blockFor scoring the written expression tasks, an analytical scale with four categories, plus a holistic scale are used. Both the holistic and the analytical scale consist of four ordinal scoring bands, ranging in value from 0 to 3 points. Values of 2 or 3 signify a pass, while 0 and 1 result in a fail.

Analytical Scale: Category “Conforming to Discourse Genre”

  • Value 3: Writes texts that are clear and precise, amplifying them with details of both a concrete and an abstract nature. Writes letters, messages and notes in the correct register for the particular context (i.e., tone: levity / seriousness; formal / informal). Efficiently develops all of the points indicated in the orientation text in the exam paper.
  • Value 2: Writes simple texts that are clear. In the case of the letters, messages and notes, respects the basics conventions of the genre (introduction and conclusion) and uses basic courtesy formulas (greeting, end salutation). Develops with clarity the great majority of the issues provided as orientation in the exam paper, even though some may have been skipped or not dealt with adequately.
  • Value 1: Writes texts that are very short and basic, dealing with immediate environment or aspects of daily life. In some cases, the information appears disorganized or incomplete, which obliges the reader to re-read in order to understand. Writes letters, messages and notes that are simple and brief, related to basic necessities or transmitting personal information. Hesitantly uses the most common functional exponents, elementary courtesy rules or formulas of greeting and treatment («muchas gracias»; «hola, ¿cómo estás?») or misses some important details (for example, the greeting and farewell salutations in a letter). Mentions only some of the issues stipulated in the exam paper, or doesn’t develop these sufficiently.
  • Value 0: The text produced is limited to a series of simple, isolated phrases about self or other persons or themes from own closest personal environment. In some cases, the text produced is incomprehensible. Makes errors in simple everyday formulas related to greetings, farewells, presentations and expressions such as: «por favor», «gracias», «lo siento». There are errors in the tonal register and important details are omitted. The text produced doesn’t follow the guidelines provided in the exam paper and doesn’t meet the required extent of writing by having fewer words.

Analytical Scale: Coherence

  • Value 3: Writes clear, coherent and structured texts with limited but adequate use of cohesion mechanisms to link The message is planned, taking into account the effect it can have on the receiver. It synthesizes, evaluates and varies the information from other sources trying out new combinations and expressions, marking the relationship between ideas. Properly uses punctuation, but may make some mistakes.
  • Value 2: Writes brief and cohesive texts, ordered by a linear sequence of simple elements, using information organizers («primero», «luego», «después») and common basic connectors («y», «también», «por eso», «entonces», «pero», «porque…»), although the text displays some deficiencies or limitations in its structure.
  • Value 1: Writes a series of short sentences linked with very simple and basic connectors («y», «pero», «porque»). The discourse – in some cases memorized, messy or incomplete – obliges a rereading in order to understand it.
  • Value 0: The text is limited to a series of words or groups of words linked with very basic and linear connectors («y», «pero»). The discourse does not maintain an organized structure that allows one to follow the reasoning of the candidate.

Analytical Scale: Correctness

  • Value 3: Maintains good grammatical control in everyday situations, even though may still make some unsystematic errors or show minor flaws in sentence structure, that do not produce Spelling is reasonably accurate but may make some mistakes under the influence of the mother tongue in the least common lexicon.
  • Value 2: Shows reasonable control of basic linguistic elements and common structures used to meet immediate and predictable personal interest or May make some mistakes in the spelling of words, but that does not interfere with the transmission of the main idea of the text.
  • Value 1: Use simple grammatical structures. Makes basic mistakes, without these causing misunderstanding on condition that the message is related to an everyday communicative situation. Systematically makes spelling mistakes, which in some cases render understanding of the message
  • Value 0: Shows limited control even of very basic and simple grammatical structures, or uses short (probably memorized) phrases related to basic and immediate needs. Makes abundant grammatical and spelling errors (concordances, errors in the choice of the person of the verb), which hinder the understanding of the message and require continuous rereading.

Analytical Scale: Linguistic Scope

  • Value 3: Dominates a large vocabulary, which includes some idiomatic expressions and colloquialisms, which allows the description of unpredictable situations, as well as explaining the main points of an idea or problem with reasonable precision and express thoughts on abstract and cultural topics. May commit some minor lexical imprecisions.
  • Value 2: Has enough vocabulary to communicate in relation to candidate’s immediate environment and everyday exchanges. This allows requesting information, making assessments, expressing wishes and giving instructions. May make mistakes when using more complex structures or
  • Value 1: Has a limited vocabulary which is used to convey basic information in situations related to very specific daily needs; otherwise, vocabulary is insufficient to convey the message. Makes mistakes that do not affect the communication.
  • Value 0: Uses a very basic repertoire of isolated words and phrases that are not sufficient to transmit the required information or for communication to Commits constant lexical inaccuracies, and interference from other languages is evident.

Holistic Scale

  • Value 3: Adds a level of detail to the information required, which ensures that the organization and formulation of the message amply meets with the stated communication objectives of the level. Uses a linguistic repertoire sufficient to present clear and precise descriptions, express opinions and viewpoints and develop arguments, without apparent limitations. The result is a clear and detailed text.
  • Value 2: Provides the required information in an understandable way and manages to convey Expresses self clearly in exchanges of information related to everyday themes, though, if the issues are abstract topics, some hesitation may occur or may be missing some detail. Uses a linguistic repertoire ample enough to express self adequately on everyday situations and topics of interest to the candidate. Despite some mistakes, hesitations or repetitions the candidate constructs simple, linear sentences with keywords in an understandable and clear manner.
  • Value 1: Provides part of the required information with However, due to brevity and lack of clarity the discourse is insufficient to convey the message. Uses a limited linguistic repertoire composed of syntactic structures and memorized expressions in phraseology filled with elementary errors that makes it difficult to understand the candidate and, in some cases, leaves unclear the general idea.
  • Value 0: Contributes only some data which is insufficient to convey the message. The written text consists merely of a series of very short and simple sentences in a disorganized discourse with an abundance of errors that hinder the understanding of the message.

SAMPLES OF EFFORTS ILLUSTRATING PASS AND FAIL STANDARDS – Level B1

Task 1 – FAIL:

¡Hola Diego! Soy muy feliz para el tuyo correo. Espero que tu estes bien. Fui en Madrid solo dos dia antes que ir a Salamanca con el bus. Estabo en un bar cuando he vido Miguel con su hermana. Despues un café con ambos yo y Miguel decidimos que hacer un giro de la ciudad porque yo nunca la había vida bien. Me conouci en sitios realmente maravigliosos y me gusto  muchissimo la suya compañía. Despues fuimos en un jardín para descansar: fu un dia maraviglioso. Espero que venir pronto a Barcelona, a lo meyor el próximo mese. Tengo mucha gana de verte. Hasta pronto.

Task 2 – FAIL:

Hola me llamo Sara y quiero contar mi experiencia porque creo que esta iniziadiva es muy interesante. Para mi comer significa comer untos a la gente que quiero.  y condivider nuestras experiencias del dia. Hace tres años había una comida que me acuerdo bien. Era un ordenario dia de Enero. Y estaba con mi madre, mi padre y mi hermana como quasi todos los días; porque en mi familia es normal comer untos. Ese dia comimos una comida preparida por mi madre, que es una bravissima cocinera. Se trataba de una pasta tipica del mi pais . «pasta a la nona» también pollo con patatas. Y al fin una tarta muy rica. Ese momentos lo acuordo con mucho gusto porque estábamos untos y feliz A lo mejor una de las ultimas veces.

Comments by examiners:

Analytical Scale:

  • Aptness for genre: The texts in task 1 and task 2 are brief and basic. The task guidelines that were given, were not sufficiently developed by the candidate, with the discourse being limited to his/her everyday environment or aspects of private life. In some cases, the information appears haphazard and incomplete (tarea 1: «Fui en Madrid solo dos *dia antes que ir a Salamanca con el bus. Soy muy feliz para el tuyo correo»; tarea 2: «A lo mejor una de las ultimas veces»).  Hesitantly uses somewhat incomplete greeting formulas (tarea 1: «Soy muy feliz para el tuyo correo»). These shortcomings are reflected especially in task 1 and results in the candidate not being able to achieve a value 2 grade in both tasks taken together.
  • Coherence: Although makes good use of organizational structures (tarea 1: «Despues fuimos…»; tarea 2: «Y al fin…»; «Porque en mi familia…». «Me llamo Sara y quiero contar…»), as well as some connectors and cohesion mechanisms, the texts produced have a limited number of connectors that are insufficient to achieve the degree of coherence required for this level. These shortcomings are reflected in both tasks, and causes this sample as a whole to qualify only as value band 1.
  • Correctness: Use simple grammatical structures and makes basic mistakes (tarea 1: «Soy muy feliz para el tuyo correo…»; Fui en Madrid solo dos dia antes que…»; «Despues un café con ambos yo y Miguel decidimos que hacer…»; «Me conoucí…»; «fuimos en…»; «Espero que venir…»; «Tengo mucha gana de verte». Tarea 2: «Hace tres anos había una comida…»; «… una pasta típica del mi país…»; «Ese momentos lo acuordo…»). There are frequent errors in verbal morphology (tarea 1: «he vido, conouci, verte», tarea 2: «condivider; preparida»). Commits systematic errors of spelling and punctuation (tarea 1: «… para descansar: fu un día maravilloso», «muchissimo»; tarea 2: «anos»; «… a la gente que quiero. Y condivider…»; «Los días; porqué…»).
  • Scope: Has a limited vocabulary, with a clear influence of the mother tongue; this vocabulary is insufficient to convey the message. tarea 1: «vido, giro, vida (for vista), maravigliosos, mese»; tarea 2: «iniziadiva; untos; condivider; ordenario; quasi; bravissima; rica; acuordo».

Holistic Scale:    Although the texts produced contain information that can be understood, in the two tasks the candidate uses a limited linguistic repertoire composed of syntactic structures and memorized expressions in a written discourse full of elementary errors that hinder comprehension. All this results in the two tasks to be assessed as achieving value band 1.

Task 1 – PASS

¡Hola Diego! Gracias por tu mensaje. Cuando me encontré con Miguel justo estaba esperando el autobús para ir al aeropuerto. Mi amiga estaba regresando de los EEUU y quería mandarle la bienvenida. Pero como Miguel y yo no nos habíamos visto por mucho tiempo, decidí invitarle a comer un helado en un bar italiano muy cercano. Pasamos un tiempo maravilloso juntos y nos contamos como habíamos pasado el verano. ¡Además el helado estaba muy rico! Al final olvidé el tiempo y tuve que tomar un taxi al aeropuerto. Era caro pero valía la pena. Como seguramente tenemos los dos vacaciones en navidad, he pensado venir a Barcelona durante éste tiempo. ¿Qué te parece? Hasta pronto, saludos

Task 2 – PASS

En mi comentario quería escoger como tema un tiempo que todos nosotros conocemos muy bien: navidad. Cada vez que se acerque el fin del año nos preparamos a comer bien y por supuesto comer mucho. Recuerdo especialmente la cena del 25 de diciembre en el año en que cumplí los 16 años. Como cada año, toda la familia se reunía para celebrar la cena tradicional. Lo especial era que pude por la primera vez sentarme a la mesa de los adultos. Recuerdo bien como empezé con el primer plato que era salmón. Por la primera vez en mi vida venía acompañado de una copa de champán servido po mi abuelo en persona. Me sentí muy grande y por esto lo recuerdo tan bien. Después seguí con fruta rellenada de castanias preparado con mucho talento por mi abuela. Y por supuesto terminé con helado como postre. ¡Qué rico!

Comments by examiners:

Analytical Scale:

Aptness for the genre: The texts are clear and to the point, and in the case of Task #1 respects the conventions of the genre (Intro: «¡Hola Diego! Gracias por tu mensaje»; closure: «Hasta pronto, saludos»). Develops with clarity the great majority of the points provided in the orientation text, even though in Task #1 fails to develop the reasons for the trip to Madrid.

Coherence: Writes brief and cohesive texts, structured along a sequential line of basic elements, utilizing information organizing mechanisms and basic link phrases of high frequency (task 1: «Cuando me encontré…»; «Pero como Miguel y yo…»; «Al final olvidé el tiempo y tuve…»; «Era caro pero valía la pena…»; task 2: «En mi comentario…»; «… y por supuesto…»; «Como cada año…»; «Por la primera vez…»; «… y por esto…»; «Después…»). Th structure of the text and the distribution of the paragraphs are well ordered, thanks to proper use of punctuation. Is an effort that qualifies as band 2.

Correctness: Demonstrates a reasonable control of the basic linguistic elements and habitual structures. May commit some errors (task 2: «Cada vez que se acerque…»; «Lo especial era…»; «Por la primera vez…») but this does not interfere with the transmission of the message.  The spelling is correct.

Linguistic Scope: Possesses a sufficient vocabulary to participate in daily exchanges related to his/her immediate environment. May commit errors when using constructs or vocabulary that’s more complex (task 1: «mandarle la bienvenida»; task 2: «rellenada»; «castanias»). There aren’t important errors that impede comprehension and in totality meets the criteria for a score of band 2.

Holistic Scale: Conveys the required information in comprehensible form and succeeds in transmitting the message in a manner that’s clear, detailed and without vacillations. The result are texts that are comprehensible and well-structured in both tasks, qualifying for scoring as band 2.

DELEhelp THIRTEEN TOP TIPS:

  • W E tips blockRead as much and as widely as possible during your preparation, to familiarize yourself with written Spanish, its spelling conventions and – above all – to expand your linguistic scope. Diligently add new words to your flashcards and study them (whether old-style or modern digital, like Anki or Cram.com). For links to free reading resources, please see our earlier blog-post: http://www.delehelp.org/top-dele-exam-resources-links-best-sites/
  • Do as many mock exams as you can, to familiarize yourself with the format and the time constraints – but do get expert feed-back, otherwise you may be leading yourself up the proverbial garden path.
  • When preparing for the written exam, practice your handwriting, especially if it has been some time since you’ve last had to write with a pen in this computer age. Make sure that you are writing legibly, and get your fingers properly “fit” again. Also check how many words you typically write on the lined DELE exam sheet; during the exam it is a waste of time if you have to sit and count – rather know beforehand how much of the page would constitute a given number of words in your handwriting.
  • Read the instructions, and plan: Once you have the exam paper in hand, make absolutely sure that you understand what is required of you. Highlight or underline key points in the instructions, and transpose these to a sketched scheme of structure, so that you can make sure that you cover every element required of you in your presentation. When you plan your written presentation, keep in mind the main categories of the analytical scoring scale: aptness to genre, coherence/fluency, correctness and linguistic scope.
  • Aptness requires you to adopt a structure and style of writing suited to the genre of the task at hand (for instance, a letter of complaint will have a very different structure and style to a text message or an essay) as well as selecting the appropriate register of tone/vocabulary (i.e., formal or informal).
  • Structuring your presentation is fundamental to success, especially regarding coherence and aptness to genre. A letter, for instance, will need to consist of three components, usually presented as separate paragraphs: firstly, defining the purpose of the letter; secondly, substantiating what you are saying; and thirdly, what kind of answer you expect. It goes without saying that you have to start the letter with the appropriate greeting and end it with the correct form of taking leave (the common Spanish versions of these you have to learn and remember, taking note also that Spanish formal letters tend to be more replete with courtesies than typical English usage). Examples of a formal greeting would be “Estimado / Respetable Señor” with the name of the person, if known, followed by a heading such as “Asunto: Trafico en la calle del Augua, Aldea Santa Ana”. A formal letter to anyone who isn’t a close friend or family member will usually start with a courtesy first phrase of the kind: “Espero que todo vaya bien en sus labores diárias.” and then: “El motivo de mi carta es…”  The typical end salutation in Latin America for this type of formal letter is: “Atentamente”.
  • Journalistic style: If you are required to write a journalistic article, you need to include the well-known “what, where, when, who and why”.
  • Short sentences: Whatever the typical structure of the genre you are required to write in, you will have to present your thoughts in logically structured paragraphs, trying to keep to one issue per paragraph. Try and avoid long sentences – in any form of writing, short sentences usually are stylistically better. In the exam context in particular, the longer the sentence, the greater the possibility for confusion and grammatical errors, such as regarding tenses or agreement of gender and number. With clarity being an important scoring requirement, keep your sentences short and to the point.
  • Link phrases: The foregoing does not imply that you should spit out short, unconnected sentences or paragraphs, staccato-style. You will have seen in the scoring criteria that coherence and fluency are very important; the examiners are actively looking for the use of appropriate connectors or linking phrases. As you sit down, make a quick list of such expressions at the top of your exam page as a memory jogger, and incorporate them appropriately as you write your texts. Some examples: sin embargo, así que, de todos modos, a pesar de que,  no obstante.
  • Think in Spanish: When writing in Spanish, try and think in Spanish, rather than translate phrases that you had first formed in English. In addition to taking up valuable time, thinking in English may lead you astray: you will know that a Spaniard using literal translation in order to express himself in English, is likely to write phrases like: “I have thirst” instead of “I’m thirsty”. The same will likely happen to you if you follow that route, which will undermine fluency and leave the impression of a limited and non-idiomatic lexicon. This will lead to you being penalized under the assessment criteria for correctness and linguistic scope. To be able to think and write in Spanish, it stands to reason that you must possess an ample lexis (i.e., vocabulary + expressions) and must have developed an ear for idiomatic language usage by means of reading and listening to lots and lots of everyday Spanish. You will observe that lexis – not just individual words, but knowledge also of everyday phrases and expressions – forms the foundation for doing well in reading and listening comprehension, as well as for oral and written expression; in brief, for each and every segment of the DELE / SIELE exam.  The importance of your flashcards for actively expanding your lexis / linguistic scope, and of reading and listening to Spanish for passive learning, cannot be stressed enough. See our blog post: https://www.delehelp.org/expand-vocabulary-best-dele-exam-prep/
  • Stay calm and think laterally: If you run into problems with words you would like to use, but which are stubbornly stuck on the tip of your tongue, think laterally and improvise (don’t waste time by getting hung up on a particular word, and don’t panic). Pay attention to the minimum length required for each task – you will lose marks if you don’t write at least that much. However, don’t fill up lines by repeating ideas that you’ve already stated, the second time just in different words. Do not copy entire sentences from the exam question either. Do not regurgitate memorized model answers; examiners are trained to recognize them and your test will be invalid.
  • Proofreading: There isn’t time during the exam to entirely re-write first drafts. You have to write down your answer straight away (after having first carefully analysed the instructions, and then equally carefully having planned and structured your text). Then use the remaining time to proof-read your work. To this end, it is a good idea not to write too densely on the page (i.e., you should initially write your words somewhat spaced, in order to allow you to fit in corrections).  The DELE is not an exam in the aesthetics of handwriting, so don’t worry if you need to scratch out and correct – as long as it remains clearly legible. Proofread particularly for agreement of gender and number, for correct use of ser/estar and por/para, for obligatory use of the subjunctive mood, and for spelling mistakes, paying attention to accents (tildes).
  • Check your watch: It is imperative to have an old-style watch at hand, to check your timing. Keep in mind that you won’t be able to use your smartphone for this, since their presence in the exam center is prohibited, for obvious reasons. It therefore needs to be a traditional timepiece. Be aware also of the relative weights of the different written tasks, so that you don’t waste too much time on initial, low-weight tasks. For example, in the three tasks of the DELE A2 written expression exam, task 1 counts for only 17% of the total score, task 2 for 33% and task 3 for 50%.

infographic

infographic

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For more information, feel free to request our e-Workbook #9.2 entitled DELE / SIELE Exam Orientation and Acing Tips (96 pages). It is available for download, gratis and without any obligation – just ask, using the convenient contact information form on this page. This unique free exam preparation book covers all aspects relating to the goals, format and curriculum of the DELE / SIELE system, plus battle-tested tips for preparing yourself to ace the DELE or SIELE exam. Just click on the image, to ask for it. (You can also ask for our Workbook #8, which covers the OPI / WPT, and which we will also be happy to make available to you FREE).

You may also want to check out our personalized, one-on-one online tutorial assistance via Skype – the first exploratory conversation of one hour is also free and without obligation (Click on the display ad below, to be taken to our web-site). Our rate is only US$10 per hour, which includes our own prep and homework / mock exam review time, plus our free in-house workbooks – there are no hidden extra costs.

Watch 2 minute video introducing DELEhelp’s services.

Thank you for reading this blog-post. Please see also our earlier posts, covering other important aspects of the DELE exam. Any and all comments will be highly appreciated.

Hasta la proxima

 Saludos cordiales

Willem Steenkamp PhD
Director of Studies : Excellentia Didactica




ONLINE COACHING FOR DELE/SIELE & OPI

Key elements of our online coaching for DELE/SIELE & OPI

Our online coaching for DELE/SIELE & OPI exams of Spanish language ability is based on the fact that these are “can do” exams, not tests of abstract academic knowledge. Effective online tutoring that truly helps students, 1-on-1 with their exam preparation, requires special coaching methods which are very different to traditional classroom teaching.

Such coaching must be founded on a well-designed, personalized study plan for each individual student. This needs to be based on a proper initial diagnostic of each individual’s existing  level, unique learning preferences and strengths & weaknesses. Done this way, our expert 1-on-1 exam prep coaching  is much more effective than taking group classes at a residential school, where the lowest common denominator often drags everyone down and where there is very little opportunity for what is truly essential in any skill development: practice, practice and yet more PRACTICE.

Furthermore, enjoying such personal coaching via Skype in the comfort of your own home, is a lot more convenient, as well as time and cost-effective than attending group  classes. But you probably know that already. What you likely want to know, is what (i.t.o. resources) you will be receiving from us, if you should choose DELEhelp to tutor you via Skype, and how (i.t.o. methodology) we will be going about it. Those are the fundamental questions that we want to answer with this blog-post.

1. THE ISSUES WE WILL ADDRESS IN THIS POST:

  • Defining our shared Objectives
  • Recognizing the Challenges
  • The Exam Components
  • Mind-set
  • Methodology: OBL / CLT/ Lexical Approach / Suggestopedia
  • Lexis: Phrases, collocations, expressions and Vocabulary
  • Pronunciation
  • Correct Grammar & Spelling
  • Exam Simulation

2. DEFINING THE OBJECTIVESVEU1RODNF5 (3)

2.1 You need a Personalized Study Plan

At DELEhelp, our individualized online coaching for DELE/SIELE & OPI has a single focus. It is to help the unique you (i.e., not a group class full of students) to pass your chosen exam.

To achieve this, we first have to develop a personalized study plan, based on your individual needs and learning preferences. People do not have the exact same aptitude for language learning. Personal preferences differ, when it comes to study methods – for example, between those who thrive on structured grammar and those who hate it. Candidates also don’t have the same level of competency in Spanish to begin with. Their respective strengths and weaknesses vary significantly, as far as what they happen to already know (or not know). Equally, and very importantly, there are differences between individuals as to which communicative skill sets they already have mastered.

The four skills are fundamental to everyday communication, and therefore to the goals of these exams – because these exams, just like real life, revolve around the ability to fluently and coherently apply your knowledge in everyday, practical communication settings. Therefore, doing a proper initial diagnostic and developing a personalized study plan for each candidate is absolutely essential (which explains why group classes usually are not optimal for students preparing for these exams).

To arrive at a well-founded individual study plan, we first have to diagnose your current strengths and weaknesses, plus your aptitudes and preferences. By strengths and weaknesses, we don’t mean only what you do (or don’t) yet know. We primarily need to test what you can do, because these exams are a very practical assessment of your competency at communication in real-world situations. We therefore have to test your ability to apply your knowledge, and measure your skill at all four task fields, namely reading and listening comprehension, plus oral and written expression.  We will, during the first weeks, test your competency at actually communicating in Spanish, with reference to correctness, fluency, coherence, and a sufficiently ample linguistic scope (these four elements in bold, are the typical assessment criteria used by the examiners).

Once we have established what you know and can do, we then have to match that with what the curriculum for your chosen exam level requires of you to know and be able to do. In this way, we identify your individual knowledge and skills shortcomings, which we then have to address with a personalized plan of learning activities and skills coaching. This plan is constantly updated i.t.o.  your progress, which we continuously measure during the Skype sessions, as well as by means of regular mock exams (which also familiarize you with your exam’s format). This study plan also needs to flexibly fit around your practical constraints as well, such as the study time you have available and your budget.

We will NOT try and make you fit into some boilerplate “package plan” based on a one-size-fits-all syllabus.

2.2       What you need to know about your exam’s format and goals

DELE exam logoOur shared objective is to develop your real-world proficiency at actually communicating in Spanish, so that you can pass your chosen exam. But how will this proficiency be tested in the exam? What kind of exam is the DELE, the SIELE or the OPI? What does your exam aim to assess, what tasks does it consist of, and how is it scored?

What is needed at the outset, is to ensure that you have a proper understanding of the goals and nature of these exams of communicative competency, which are all now based (whether European or American) on the CEFR – the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages). Again, they are by nature very different from typical school or college language exams. Only once you know exactly what is required, and how your efforts will be scored, can we then take careful aim at those aspects of Spanish everyday usage which your diagnostics show you haven’t yet sufficiently mastered. (For a fuller discussion of how a personalized study plan is drawn up, please see our DELEhelp Blog-post below (click on the image to have the post open in a new window):

Click on image to go to blog post

What we won’t be doing, is to over-emphasize school-style formal teaching of Spanish, because neither these exams nor the everyday communicative challenges encountered in real life are directly concerned with abstract knowledge of grammar – nobody in either the exam or in real life is ever going to ask you to recite conjugation tables. In any event, school or college-style tuition is notoriously inefficient at developing conversational ability – according to statistics from the ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) only 0.5% of US students who majored in a foreign language, can maintain a conversation in the new language, at the end of their regular studies. (For more information on how the human brain processes patterns in order to acquire language, please see our DELEhelp Blog-post: “Learn to Converse in Spanish”):

Click on the IMAGE to go to this blog post

The foregoing doesn’t mean that you can get by without having internalized the patterns of Spanish (grammar is just a handy cram sheet of those patterns). What is essential is the correct mind-set. One has to understand that the objective is to develop the skill to communicate, to which end grammar does serve as a handy tool facilitating the identification and comprehension of the patterns you need to be able to apply; knowing the rules of Spanish grammar by heart, however, is not the end goal, in and of itself.

We also assume, since you are enrolling for one of these exams, that you already have some basic Spanish schooling under your belt – we are therefore not going to be presenting you with a generalized beginners course (unless you are aiming for Level A1, por supuesto). Our interventions will, instead, be focused on sharpening your proficiency at actually communicating in Spanish. We will be targeting your specific needs and weaknesses according to the individualized program of tutoring we’ve drawn up, after a thorough diagnosis.

The principal objective with our online coaching for DELE/SIELE &OPI will be to help you to internalize, through guided practice, the lexis and the patterns of Spanish (lexis being its words and “word chunks” or collocations, plus expressions, with the patterns being the syntax and morphology of Spanish).

However, comprehensible communication obviously is not enabled merely by knowing the right words and phrases, in terms of merely knowing their individual meaning (as important as such knowledge of semantics undoubtedly is). Comprehensible communication also requires intelligible pronunciation as well as the syntactically and morphologically correct use of the strings of words (i.e., sentences) that you speak and write.

It bears stressing again that grammar, in this context, must be seen as a useful tool, and not the be-all and end-all of “learning Spanish”.  Knowledge of grammar is, in reality, just a shortcut to identifying and internalizing the all-important patterns of the language. It is these patterns that you have to “get to own”, to the point of reflexively applying them without having to consciously think (which is what we mean by internalize).

The objective is to develop your ability to instantly and without conscious, calculating effort, roll out the correct phrases and combinations that will convey your message (just as you constantly do in your native tongue, without even thinking about grammar). It is a question of the right mental attitude: your overriding goal (even when learning grammar) must always be to develop the ability to converse in Spanish – that is, not merely to know the rules of Spanish grammar, but to be able to apply them. Life is all about the skill of APPLYING knowledge, not merely about possessing abstract knowledge; this is the proficiency that’s fundamental to these exams as well.

In essence, we will be concentrating on assisting you to develop and improve your Spanish communication skills. This means that, during the Skype sessions, we will primarily be concentrating on guided conversation practice – firstly, because in the case of the DELE for example, it is statistically proven that the oral section causes 70% of the students who end up failing the exam, to have failed. Secondly, we focus on conversation sessions because conversation is the one skill that is difficult for you to practice alone at home. Thirdly, targeted conversation shows up any weaknesses in your overall preparation through the lexical or grammatical mistakes you make, which can then be clarified and corrected on the spot. We also believe in the value of doing regular mock exams, to familiarize you with the typical format, but also to use as an ongoing diagnostic tool, so that we can constantly adapt your personal program as needed.

Our task is to get you to be confident and comfortable in your own skin when communicating in Spanish, so that you may do so coherently, correctly and fluently. To achieve this, we have to help you to gain confidence and overcome the natural inhibitions associated with fear of making mistakes in front of others, through the application of some basic principles of teaching psychology (about which, there will be more detail later). These principles of de-suggestion (Suggestopedia) we integrate with the broad modern pedagogical approaches known as Outcome-based, Task-based or Content-based learning, plus Communicative Language Teaching and the Lexical Approach – as will be explained in sub-section 6.

3.   RECOGNIZING THE CHALLENGES

childrenIt is common wisdom that, whether it is a child or an adult that’s acquiring a new language, the end objective is the same (namely, to be able to communicate, primarily through conversation).  Evidently, though, there exist practical differences in the circumstances of adults and children when acquiring a language, that are important to realize i.t.o. understanding and meeting the challenges.

In many ways, adults are better positioned to acquire a new language, than toddlers. Adults enjoy definite advantages – such as, for example, having the ability to read. In addition, there are many learning tools adults can access, such as books, audio and video, flashcards and interactive computer programs, which permit intense bursts of immersion. There’s also tuition, plus the availability of grammar handbooks that identify and explain the patterns of morphology (how words are morphed, such as through verb conjugation, to signify different meaning) and syntax (how sentences are put together). Adults, therefore, are not limited to acquiring these patterns just from speech that they randomly hear in their environment, as kids are obliged to do.

Nevertheless, kids have one great overriding advantage: they can devote at least six years of almost exclusive mental focus to the basic process of developing language proficiency, because their every other need is being taken care of (and their brains are, at that  age, optimally receptive to language). Very few, if any, adults enjoy the luxury of so much time and focus! Can you imagine how good your Spanish would be if you had six years of total, exclusively focused immersion, as a child would have? Put differently, if you study 10 hours a week for a whole year, you’ve only done around 40 days, when considering only waken hours.

Yet we as adults typically want to acquire a new language in the briefest of time, while still attending to all our other priorities (the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages calculate that a student with above-average aptitude will require 720 hours of the intensive kind of language training that diplomats undergo at the Foreign Service Institute (i.e., full day and freed up from other work obligations), to reach the kind of professional-level proficiency at conversation that diplomats, for example, would require).

Furthermore, kids don’t suffer the barrier of inhibition, which in most adults stifles the very essential willingness to open their mouths and practice.

When adults learn a foreign language, they typically progress through stages – first acquiring the ability to read it, secondly to being able to listen and follow the spoken word, thirdly being able to speak, and lastly to write to native standard. For these exams (as for real life) all four of these skill sets have to be mastered – except of course if you’re only doing the OPI as such, or the SIELE S4, which are limited to just the oral skill.  The main challenges to communicating effectively, fluently and confidently in Spanish as foreign language can be summed up as being, on the comprehension side:

  • Establishing a sufficiently ample lexis (vocabulary plus collocations and expressions) as well as knowledge of the syntactical and morphological patterns of the language, to enable you to understand the meaning of what you are reading or hearing;
  • Attuning your ear to enable you to correctly capture and differentiate the words and phrases that others are saying; and

on the side of expressing yourself orally and in writing:

  • Getting your tongue and mouth accustomed to forming sounds the Latin way, to enable you to pronounce intelligibly;
  • Developing a sufficiently ample linguistic scope in Spanish (lexis) so that the right words and phrases come to you with ease; and
  • Internalizing the patterns of Spanish morphology and syntax, so that you can reflexively string together words in the correct configuration, when conducting a conversation.

To meet these overt challenges just mentioned, some important innate ones also have to be overcome:

  • We have to help you undo unilingual rigidity (particularly for those who don’t yet speak any foreign tongue) because this restricts mouth movement, body language and conversational mental agility. This rigidity, which is a very important hindrance to acquiring proficiency in a foreign language, stems from inhibitions related to our adult ego-awareness, and from lifelong conditioning and casting in one cultural/linguistic mode. It negatively impacts ability to pronounce correctly, and also inhibits the ability to recognize and mentally “own” the lexical and grammatical patterns of Spanish, especially where these patterns differ from that which the student is used to in native English;
  • In parallel with overcoming unilingual rigidity, we need to assist you in developing your own confident, uninhibited Spanish-speaking “alter-ego” – this new parallel persona needs to have a correctly-attuned mind and flexible tongue/mouth and body language; and
  • As with any distinct type of exam, there is the challenge of building confidence for the exam itself by knowing what to expect of your chosen exam, how to approach it (i.t.o. your lead-up preparation, as well as on exam day itself) and being well orientated about its typical setting, format, sequence of tasks, and the practical do’s and don’ts.

4.  THE “FOUR SKILLS” AS EXAM COMPONENTS

The modern exams of communicative competency are designed to test different levels of proficiency at everyday communication skills, encompassing comprehension of the written and spoken word, plus the ability to express oneself intelligibly and coherently in Spanish, both in writing and in conversation. It thus includes audio listening elements (to test comprehension of meaning, accents, vocabulary etc.), written tasks (hand-written as well as multiple choice papers) plus oral presentation / conversation.  The length of time allocated to each component varies for the different levels.  Rather than re-inventing the wheel by writing up our own version of each level’s requirements, we prefer to direct you straight to the original sources:

NB: When you sign up with DELEhelp for our  online coaching for DELE/SIELE & OPI, you will be provided with our free in-house Workbooks for your particular exam and level.  Our e-book #9, for example, is titled DELE / SIELE Exam Orientation and Acing Tips.  In its some 96 pages you will find detailed guidance about the exams and how to prepare yourself for presenting your knowledge and skills to best advantage.  If you are aiming to do the OPI / OPIc, then you will receive our e-book #8, which is aimed specifically at that test. You will also receive the entire series of our Workbooks, all in English, which are all free for our registered students, covering topics such as vocabulary / cognate words, expressions and idioms, the history of Spanish, plus a very popular one, WB#2, called De-Mystifying Spanish Grammar which relates Spanish to the grammatical reference framework with which students are already familiar, namely that of English.

Even if you’re not registered as a student, but want to check out our materials, you can make use of our FREE, NO OBLIGATION OFFER of our e-books 8 & 9 covering the OPI/OPIc and the DELE/SIELE, by simply asking for the download links, using our easy contact info form – just click on the images below to contact us:

click on image to ask for free workbook

Click on IMAGE to ask for this FREE e-book, with no obligation.

 

5.   THE MIND-SET TO ADOPT

mindsetBefore we address the didactic methods available for coaching in preparation for these exams, it is important to stress once again that the candidate’s own mind-set regarding mastering Spanish is pivotal.  Exam preparation is firstly a question of self-improvement, of self-study. No spoon feeding. What is at issue, is developing yourself psychologically, intellectually and in terms of practical, physical performance skills – expanding your existing communicative persona as based on your mother tongue, by adding an additional, parallel identity: the new Spanish-speaking you.

One’s mother tongue is perhaps the most definitive expression of one’s culture.  It is of such importance in the life of individuals and societies that the way we speak it, seriously type-casts us: as nationals of given countries, natives of particular places, members of a given social strata.

To function effectively as communication medium for any given society, language requires a high level of conformity within that group. Language is a code, and like any code it must be shared with exactness and precision, in order to unlock the same meaning. Individuals cannot freely construct phrases and pronounce words to their own whim or delight, and hope to be clearly understood.   Therefore, in our formative early childhood, we are conditioned to conform to the communication parameters of our family’s peer group – their language use, their way of pronouncing (such as in regional dialects or class-based speech), even to types of body language. This is the reality of societal conditioning, which underpins the hurdle of unilingual rigidity.

As Steven Pinker and like-minded researchers have shown, up to the age of six a child instinctively acquires its mother tongue from its immediate environment – just as a spider has the innate skill and instinct to spin webs, our species has this instinct as our particular “thing” (together with the ability to walk upright, of course). There is strong proof that our species is genetically “wired” to acquire (as opposed to abstractly learn) the ability to communicate in the mother tongue, with adaptations of the brain that facilitate this acquisition as the uppermost developmental priority, up to the age of six.  Thereafter (unfortunately) the brain has to start allocating resources to other priorities and consequently the learning of another language can get crowded out – even though the latest neuroscience has shown that our brains process language acquisition exactly the same, whether it’s 1st or 2nd language, or as adults or toddlers.

It is also important to understand that what the young child acquires is the skill to communicate, rather than merely abstract “knowledge”  about the features of a particular language – definitely without yet consciously being able to describe its grammar “rules”, for example (even though they can apply the patterns).  Communicating also requires skill at using one’s articulation tools to form sounds. Styles of pronunciation are therefore also fixed in childhood, so as to conform to the accent or dialect of one’s peer group (a quick aside – a respected linguist once defined the difference between a “dialect” and a “language” as being merely that the speakers of the latter possessed an army and a navy, meaning that they could enforce the official supremacy of their dialect, over those of other groups…).

From very early childhood, as part of this human quest for conformity, we accustom ourselves to our own language or dialect’s accent – its particular “mouth gymnastics”. We also learn to conform to its socially acceptable customs of non-verbal communication (for example, British “stiff upper lip” versus “Latin exuberance”) in body language. Then – from the beginning of formal schooling – we are drilled to conform to the written character sets of our language, abiding by its rules of spelling.

Understandably, because conforming is of such importance, our particular communication mode quickly tends to become a rigid fix, with the tongue and jaw seemingly inhibited from forming sounds at variance with the mother-tongue pattern. Without re-conditioning, the mind also seems incapable of according “non-conforming” sound values to the familiar letters of our alphabet that we see when reading – even if reading a foreign language.

To compound matters, our equally highly conditioned ears seem reluctant to differentiate and de-code unfamiliar sounds reaching them.  Worse still, when we listen to our own speech, our hearing tends to selectively “hear” only the sounds that we ourselves had mentally intended to form. We do not register accurately the actual sound (often highly mutilated by our stubborn jaws and tongues) that in fact escape from our mouths; this is why we have to use a recording device and record ourselves when practicing, so as to re-listen, in order to be fully aware of our own shortcomings in pronunciation.

We are also inhibited by our fragile adult ego. We are o-so-afraid of making fools of ourselves in public. And what more revealing way to demonstrate “foolishness” than to incorrectly speak someone else’s language?

It therefore stands to reason that, in order to speak Spanish like a “native”, we have to first acquire the right mind-set. We have to be willing to “go native”. Then, we have to consciously re-accustom our minds, jaws, faces, tongues, hands – everything we are – to the demands of an additional  cultural identity; in essence constructing an “alter-ego” for ourselves that’s “native” to Spanish culture and to whom the grammatical constructs, tongue gymnastics and body language inherent to speaking Spanish “natively” will thus come naturally, without embarrassment or ego interference.

6.  METHODOLOGY – TBL / OBL / CLT , the Lexical Approach & Suggestopedia

scrabbleIn dealing with methods of tutoring and exam preparation, it would be easy to fall here into the trap of academically discussing all the theories that are nowadays proffered about learning. There’s a plethora of “methods” out there today, with so many acronyms it looks like a Scrabble board.

Please rest assured – that is not what we’re about to do here.  We want to introduce a practical, common sense approach to addressing the challenges that we identified earlier, always keeping in mind the need for personalization.  We’re not into absolutizing any given method (in most instances, these modern methods seem quite similar, just with different names depending on where and with whom they originated). With us, your online coaching will therefore be driven by you and your unique needs, not by some methodological dictate, as often happens in school systems.

There are, however, common denominators that we have to take note of in most of the methods that are now in vogue, whether they be called task-based learning (TBL), or outcome based learning (OBL), or content-based learning. They all have in common that students need be assisted to acquire the skill to apply knowledge – not just to know, but to be able to actually do. This is the essence of the common European approach to learning adopted in 2005, known as the Bologna Process, which defines qualifications “in terms of learning outcomes”, with emphasis on the “importance of performance”. Such performance relates to “what students know and can do” when they finish their course. You will by now be very aware that these exams share this common European approach, and therefore are strongly focused on testing competency at actual communication.

Task or outcome-based education originated from a behaviorist approach to teaching. It ties in, in the sphere of language training, with one of the other modern methods known as Communicative Language Teaching (CLT). This method came about thanks to a recognition of the limitations of traditional teaching methods. A study by the University of Illinois found that “students who were taught communicatively fared no worse on grammatical tests than students that had been taught with traditional methods, but they performed significantly better in tests of communicative ability.”

In recent years CLT has become more refined, through Task-Based Language Learning (TBLL).  In TBLL the emphasis is on the successful completion of tasks; the students’ efforts are then marked, which allows for regular progress assessment to be conducted.

In our experience at DELEhelp, the best practical approach to selecting an appropriate teaching methodology for each student is a two-track one. Firstly, we have to stay true to our maxim of personalization, dependent on the unique knowledge and skill levels, plus distinct aptitudes and learning preferences of each individual student. Secondly, one has to be guided by the reality that these exams are structured as outcome / performance based, communicative competency tests. Since this is the way the exam is set up, we evidently need to adhere to the same task or outcome based, communicative approach, with emphasis on developing proficiency at performing real-world communication tasks.

At DELEhelp, you will be assigned at least two tutors – one who is native English speaking (with a C2 level of Spanish), for explaining challenging concepts in English and to allow you to put your questions in your own tongue. The other tutor is native Spanish-speaking (but with a good working knowledge of English) to assist you with pronunciation and Spanish lexis and grammar in general, as well with your communicative skills development. For the frequent simulations of the oral exams, you will encounter some of our other tutors who will act as the interviewing examiner, to simulate the exam situation where you have to face an unfamiliar figure.

What is somewhat unique about us, is that we approach the exam prep assistance from the student’s perspective – thanks to the fact that I myself, (the Director of Studies of DELEhelp), had to pass the DELE exam, at the highest C2 level. It is truly a case of “been there, done it”, with therefore a very clear and practical understanding of what kind of help the English-speaking student needs in order to succeed.

To help you come to grips with the patterns of Spanish more easily and quickly, our in-house workbooks (which are in English), purposely set out to relate the Spanish constructs to the linguistic framework you are most familiar with, namely English.

In the course of our  online exam prep tutoring, we focus on:

  • the typical tasks set in these exams (reading and listening comprehension, plus oral and written expression);
  • regularly assessing progress by means of exam simulations using model exams and the actual scoring criteria (which also serve to familiarize you and provide practical experience); and
  • using our Skype interface time primarily for those aspects of preparation that a student cannot do at home, such as practicing conversational fluency (during which we can immediately address any problems regarding correctness of grammar, lexis and pronunciation). The Skype interface time also serves for providing feed-back on self-study tasks the student has submitted.

At the beginner levels in particular, we do of neccesity incorporate grammar exercises in the tuition (as a handy shortcut to learning the patterns of the language, not as a goal in itself).

In all study plans we stress the importance of self-study: for every hour of formal tuition via Skype, there should typically be at least two hours of guided active self-study, plus as many hours as possible of passive immersion.  By the latter we mean, for example, having talk radio or TV running in the background throughout as much of your day as possible, and doing as much leisure reading in Spanish as you can fit into your daily routine.  The active self-study consists of doing set tasks (yes, homework) to improve the comprehension and expression skill sets being tested in these exams, plus working on your vocabulary and lexis flashcards. We will expand on this a bit later, but to complete this introduction of methodologies, we need to present a solution for the adult ego problem – with a method that has been proven to work for many learners of a second language, particularly at beginner level.

In the 1970’s the Bulgarian psychotherapist Georgi Lozanov developed a teaching method which he called suggestopedia.  This method was validated in 1978 by a special working group of the UN’s educational arm, UNESCO, whose formal finding was: “There is consensus that Suggestopedia is a generally superior teaching method for many subjects and for many types of students, compared with traditional methods.”

Suggestopedia was proven to be particularly useful in the learning of a second language. It is based on the idea that people, as they grow older, are inhibited in their language learning by the unilingual rigidity we mentioned earlier. They instinctively try to force the new language into the communicative mold of their mother tongue – whether in relation to pronunciation, or to grammatical structure. To escape this tendency, the student needs to approach the new language with a clean mental slate; he or she needs to adapt to the new language and its conventions, rather than trying to adapt that language to their own pre-existing way of using rheir communication tools. It is, of course, not easy to transform oneself culturally, because sense of identity is so strong and valuable – the “suggestopedic” trick lies in creating a parallel persona for tackling the new language, free of inhibitions of ego or prior conformisms.

Lozanov said that students need to feel confident and relaxed and their psychological barriers must be “de-suggested”. Since the 1970’s, significant development of these principles have taken place and been published under names such as SALT (Suggestive Accelerated Learning and Teaching) and Superlearning.

Pure Suggestopedia as well as its derivatives are mostly orientated to classroom/group teaching, not to our one-on-one online tutorials. In its original form Suggestopedia has been rightly criticized over the years as not being capable of covering all methodological aspects of language tuition, and it has been superseded by the newer approaches mentioned earlier. Again we must stress that, at DELEhelp, we don’t follow any “method” slavishly, nor do we condemn outright any approach – be it traditional grammar (if correctly viewed as a shortcut to the patterns of the language), or Suggestopedia, for that matter. This latter may not be personally appropriate for all, depending on preference and personality, but that it could contribute to your induction into a Hispanic mind-set, is proven fact.

So, how would we help “liberate” you from the constraints inculcated in you by society, and by your (very human) adult ego, using the essence of Suggestopedia?

sombreroFirstly, we would ask you to choose and build (solely for the purpose of your Spanish language practice, not as a public persona) your own Hispanic identity, your “alter-ego”.  Choose a name, a nationality, locality / residence, profession, family context etc., and write up a little mock biography which your tutor will use to refer to you by that name / identity. In other words, convert yourself into Pepe Pérez, a taxi driver from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, for example.

Why do we do this? Because whereas John Smith may be understandably hesitant / reticent to mouth full-throatily in the Spanish way, the nice roaring RRR’s  when for example he must pronounce the name Raul, the newly minted “Pepe Pérez” will have no such psychological hang-ups.  And when Pepe mispronounces or says something that could be construed as silly, so what? It’s no skin off John Smith’s nose/ego!

This “mind trick” of mentally adopting, for learning purposes, a parallel identity may sound infantile, but the principle of “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” or “it takes a thief to catch a thief” (or any other idiom which we can twist and misuse to make the point that if you want to speak like a native, then go native) has been well proven. You simply have to de-suggest your mouth, tongue and jaw out of its rigid cultural fix. You have to accustom your communication tools, through positive suggestion, to function in a “new native” manner.  If not, you cannot avoid sounding in Spanish like the incomprehensible gibberish that you yourself have laughed at in the past, whenever you’ve heard others trying to speak your language, whilst retaining their own “sound system”.

Intelligible pronunciation is absolutely vital to being understood – if you make errors of grammar, your interlocutor can usually compensate in his own mind and deduce what you’re actually trying to say. Mispronouncing, on the other hand, usually means just a blank stare, indicating that he/she doesn’t have a clue what you’re talking about (and thus cannot possibly compensate). Therefore, it is rightly said that pronunciation is much more important than correct grammar, and you can only pronounce correctly if you acquire the native tools and mind-set. In the course of your online coaching sessions, a considerable amount of time and effort will go towards improving your pronunciation.

A few other psychological tricks you could consider employing to get yourself into the “Pepe Pérez” mold for your sessions with our tutors, as well as for use during your self-study time, is to identify for yourself a talisman such as a hat or beret that you imagine a Pepe would be wearing, and putting it on whenever you are “Pepe”. Have a glass of tequila, or Spanish/Chilean/ Argentinean wine to hand, or a cup of mate, and put on bolero or salsa music, or classic Spanish guitar, in the background. We’re sure that, with your fertile imagination and originality, you will be able to imagine your own re-enforcers of this idea.

Since these exams are based on the common European framework (CEFR) and therefore correspond largely with the goals of OBL/CLT/TBLL (i.e., “communicative competence”), how do we go about assisting you with your exam preparation?  We try to maximize your active interaction, not only with your tutor but also with authentic sources of everyday Spanish, such as found in the media. For this reason, two-thirds of the hours that we recommend you set aside each week for conscious, guided exam preparation (as opposed to informal preparation by means of – for example – listening to talk radio when you travel to work, or reading a novel in Spanish) will be dedicated to such guided interaction tasks.  Your efforts in completing these communicative tasks (i.e., the outcomes you produce), will be reviewed with you during the face-time that you have each week with your tutor via Skype.  The practical application of this OBL/CLT/TBLL approach will become apparent when we deal, here-below, with the very important aspects of lexis, pronunciation and correct grammar & spelling.

Check this DELEhelp blog-post, for a set of links to very useful free sites that can help you with your passive immersion, as well as with the vital flashcards for expanding your linguistic scope:

LINKS to top DELE exam prep RESOURCES

7.   LEXIS (vocabulary and phrases)

Just as sure as the best gunner with the best machine-gun will not achieve results without bullets, so you will fail if you don’t have the necessary “ammunition” for speaking Spanish. This ammo is constituted by your linguistic scope – by the words and word chunks (collocations) plus link phrases and expressions that you know. You need to seriously build your vocabulary (knowing each new word’s proper pronunciation, its meaning, its gender in case of nouns and its irregularities in case of verbs, plus of course its correct spelling). Because, once again, knowing the rules of grammar serves no purpose if you don’t have the words to which to apply those rules. These exams are very strong on testing your linguistic scope. It is therefore imperative that you read widely, particularly the better newspapers such as El Pais and El Mundo (which are available free, on-line).

When you are reading and you encounter a new word or expression, YOU HAVE TO LOOK IT UP.

We recommend using an on-line dictionary such as FARLEX.

If you are old-fashioned, get yourself a whole stack of note cards, of a stiff cardboard and in a color that you can’t read through when held against the light. Note the new Spanish word or expression on the one side, and the English meaning(s) on the other. The modern way, though, would be to have flashcards on your computer, using free software such as Cram.com, Quizlet or Anki.

You simply have to memorize the vocabulary and phrases. The flashcard method of memorizing has the great advantage over making word lists, that you can easily test yourself. Secondly, while testing / memorizing, you can separate the cards into those that you know (which you put aside) and those you don’t, which you put back in the pack. This way, you are not wasting eye and mind time on words you already know; you are focusing only on ones you don’t know, and testing yourself till you don’t have any “don’t know” cards left in your hand.  You can also “play” the cards with a mate, or on the computer if you are using Cram, making it more interesting and challenging. Your tutor will be asking you to e-mail him/her your “new words” on a regular basis.

The best way to pick up the vocabulary of colloquial conversation-speak, is to watch Spanish-language soap operas – it will also help you with deciphering different regional accents (which DELE and SIELE will be testing you on). Whenever you have the opportunity, you should also be listening to Spanish-language talk radio – with live streaming now common, it is easy to tune in to stations such as RNE, the Spanish National Radio (see our blog-post on “useful links”, mentioned earlier).

Because language does not consist solely of free-standing individual words, but most often of established patterns of words (such as idioms, proverbs and expressions) we have developed a Workbook (#5: “Spanish Idioms, Proverbs & Expressions”) These expressions you should also transcribe onto individual cards, for learning purposes, paying particular attention to the “link phrases” that the examiners are so keen to see and hear you using. (See this DELEhelp blog-post for more on the importance of vocabulary:

Click on the IMAGE to go to this blog post

8.   PRONUNCIATION

pronunciationIt cannot be stressed enough that lexis + pronunciation is the true key to being understood.

You have to practice the physical traits of mouth/jaw/tongue involved with pronouncing Spanish, and you have to liberate your mind and muscles from the rigid culture-cast and ego constraints – adopt your alter-ego and just go for it (it’s Pepe being loco, after all – not you!).

You should also be aware of the problem of the human mind over-riding the human ear – with our minds suggesting to us that we are indeed pronouncing as we intend / would like to, whereas the truth is most often very different.  YOU THEREFORE NEED TO RECORD YOURSELF, to hear accurately how you truly sound when you are practicing your pronunciation. During your Skype sessions, your tutor will constantly be focusing on improving your pronunciation.

Once again, TV soap operas and talk radio are excellent tools for picking up the correct way to pronounce words.

During your DELE exam online tutoring sessions there will be time allocated to listening comprehension tasks, working through video clips (from YouTube) to help you attune your ear.

9.   CORRECT GRAMMAR & SPELLING

Like most things in life, Spanish grammar becomes easier once you have an understanding of the history of the language, as well as of its evolution from ProtoIndo-European, through Vulgar Latin, to the vibrant Romance language of today.  You need also to understand the grammatical structure of Spanish (for instance, the importance of determining the correct modus or mood, before deciding on which tense to use).

We believe that foundational knowledge of this kind should be conveyed in the student’s own language – in this case, plain English, devoid of unnecessary academic jargon and stuffy terminology.  Signing up for tuition with us, you will receive our Workbook #1: History and Origins of the Spanish Language and Workbook #2: De-Mystifying Spanish Grammar:

10. EXAM SIMULATION

The key tool which we will be using to prepare you for your specific level of DELE, is the model exam. We use as departure point, the e-book series of model exams “Nuevo Examen DELE” written by Prof. David Giménez Folqués of the University of Valencia in Spain, which can be bought online and downloaded from Bubok publishers in Spain. David has been a member of the official DELE tribunal since 2005 (he kindly reviewed our in-house workbooks).

There is no better exam preparation than doing these model papers and assignments, because it provides your tutor (and yourself) with insight into your level / needed areas of extra focus, and it familiarizes you with the exam format as well as the nature of the challenge.

11. TYPICAL STUDY PLANS

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To give you an idea of what our online tutoring study plans typically look like, here are two plans, from both ends of the spectrum – one for A1 level, and the other for C2 preparation:

Level A1

Hola ABC

 Thank you for your patience through the diagnostic phase.

 As discussed with you today, it is clear that we have to allocate time to improving all four elements of communication as tested in the DELE: reading and listening comprehension, as well as written and oral expression. It is also clear that we have to focus on all four the evaluation criteria, namely expanding your linguistic scope, the correctness of language use, coherence and fluency (the first and last requiring most attention, in your case).

The study plan is based on at least 7 hours of active self-study and 3 hours of Skype interaction per week (i.e., not including passive immersion such as having talk radio / TV on in the background, and leisure reading).  It stands to reason that listening to and speaking Spanish is going to be the form of communication you most use in the real world, and it is also true that most people who fail DELE, do so for failing the oral expression exam. We therefore believe that we must allocate as much time as possible during the Skype sessions to oral interaction, because it helps you with gaining fluency as well as with your listening comprehension, listening to your tutor. It also permits immediate corrective intervention regarding pronunciation and grammar correctness, and shows up gaps in vocabulary/lexis knowledge. Furthermore, it is the one element that you cannot easily practice by yourself as part of your self-study (the written exercises you can evidently do as part of your self-study homework).

The program that we therefore suggest for the three one-hour sessions per week, is as follows (keeping in mind that, from time-to-time, we will deviate from this in order to include mock exams):

 Monday:

  • 30 minutes vocabulary/lexis flashcard review;
  • 30 minutes conversation class based on news items covered on the PracticaEspanol.com website during the previous week.

 Wednesday:

  • 30 minutes of revision of grammar / written homework you’ve sent in by the previous Monday evening (try and do one chapter per week of “Step-by=Step”, up to chapter 12, doing all the exercises and sending them in – this way we should finish with the DELE A1 curriculum’s prescribed grammar in three months, with time left for revision before the exam);
  • 30 minutes conversation class based on one of the videos from the attached prescribed list, which you need to preview during self-study (please view 2 videos per week).

Friday:

  • 30 minutes of reading comprehension review, from your reading comprehension prescribed book (1 chapter per week);
  • 30 minutes of conversation class based on the Spanish books you’re reading (links below) doing 7 chapters per week.

 Please remember, when you are reading, to read out loud and tape yourself, so that you can review your pronunciation. Also jot down all new words in your flashcard system. Please send us your updated flashcard list every Monday morning. You should prioritize incorporating the words and expressions from our two Workbooks 4 & 5 into your flashcard lists a.s.a.p.

I am also including a link to the Kindle version of a useful little vocab book, which has at the back categories of words like family, food, shops, professions, animals etc.  

 The book links are:

Model exams:

Nuevo Examen DELE A1“. This e-book was written by Dr. David Giménez Folqués, professor at the Universidad de Valencia, Spain, and member of the DELE tribunal since 2005. It is directly downloadable and very affordable (some US$11).

Grammar:

One of the best handbooks for learning Spanish is called “Easy Spanish step-by-step” by Barbara Bregstein, published by  McGrawHill. You can buy the Kindle version from Amazon (i.e., it will download on your iPad and your laptop as well, with the free Kindle app) for US$7.22 .  We have it in the office, so you and your tutor can work off the same page on Skype.

Reading Comprehension:

For reading comprehension practice, we recommend another book which you can download from Amazon Kindle, called Practice Makes Perfect: Spanish Reading Comprehension.

General reading:

La isla del Tesoro / Robert L. Stevenson Zig-Zag (Kindle):

Stories from Mexico / Historias de Mexico (dual text = print edition) Side-by-side bilingual books:

1001 most useful Spanish Words / Seymour Resnick (Kindle):

For audio comprehension practice, we have selected a number of video clips freely available on YouTube, at A1 level – please see the attached list.

We will periodically be doing mock exams, usually the last Friday of the month, using the model exam e-book listed above – the oral expression part we will do on a Friday, instead of the regular conversation class that day (your interviewing examiner will be one of our tutors not familiar to you, i.e., not Monica).  Please do the written portions over the week-end, in one go (as in the real exam, simulating the conditions as close you can). Scan with the CamScanner smartphone app and send to us for review; we will then discuss the following Wednesday during the homework review slot.

 ¡Buena suerte!

 Salu2

 

Level C2 (prepared for an advanced student already very strong on grammar and pronunciation, and needing only familiarization with the exam format and a bit of “polishing”)

 Dear XYZ

 After the diagnostic we’ve just completed, let me first state that we believe that you should go directly for the DELE C2. You’ve certainly got the potential, and doing C1 first won’t really add much in the form of experience, since you will be doing sufficient mock exams during your preparation anyway.

 In planning your exam preparation, we need to be guided by the exam components, as well as by the exam scoring criteria.

 As regards the four exam components, we see you as being well versed in each – written & oral expression, as well as listening and reading comprehension. The ones probably requiring slightly more attention would be written expression and listening comprehension.

As regards the four main scoring criteria, namely linguistic scope, coherence, fluency and correctness, we believe that you will perform strongly in all of them, particularly in fluency and coherence. What we need to keep expanding is linguistic scope, by exposing you to varied vocabulary, as well as expanding your knowledge of the socio-cultural and historical background of Spanish and Hispanic society (please go through the C2 curriculum document in your DELEhelp Workbook #9.3 very carefully, in the latter regard).

 Having stated above the “what” that we have to do, the real question is the “how”.

 You are evidently an excellent, self-motivated student – so most preparation will have to be done on your own, as self-study (the two hours per week that you have available for Skyping, will have to be focused on problem clarification, and on the aspects that are hard to do at home, such as oral presentation).  How you schedule your self-study will be entirely up to you. Please keep in mind the importance of passive immersion – keeping on talk radio / TV in the background as much you can, and doing lots of leisure reading, especially of the news media.

 As we’ve discussed, because of your already existing level of proficiency we don’t see formal grammar revision in general as necessary.  You should identify aspects of grammar about which you feel uncertain, which we then can address, as and when necessary.  In any event, we believe that the oral and written expression exercises will quickly show up little niggles that need to be rectified, which can be addressed there and then.  We will, therefore, be setting you written expression homework tasks every week, on the one hand as practice, and on the other to show up grammar and spelling problems, if any.  These you should kindly try and return two days before your scheduled Skype session.

 As part of your “passive” self-study we would encourage you to read as much as possible, and to diligently expand your vocabulary flashcard list from such reading.  Prioritize reading the Spanish-language news media, as indicated in our DELEhelp blogpost on useful links: http://www.delehelp.org/top-dele-exam-resources-links-best-sites/

To expand your background on Spanish history and also your vocabulary on the Moorish era in Spain, please read the Kindle e-book “El Mozarabe” that I mentioned:

 For the listening comprehension, we will have to set time aside during the Skype sessions to do reviews with you (from the YouTube video list attached).  You should also be doing self-study, especially with the videos on the CervantesVirtual YouTube channel of the Instituto Cervantes, that we have asked you to subscribe to.

 The structure of the typical weekly two-hour Skype session will provisionally be:

Review of written expression homework tasks – 30 minutes

Review of listening comprehension videos – 45 minutes

Free-flow conversation – 45 minutes (based on news topics covered during the preceding week in the media, such as reported on the PracticaEspañol website, as well as relating to chapters you have been reading in El Mozarabe); the objective with the conversation sessions will be to identify grammar lapses, vocabulary shortcomings, pronunciation issues and to improve fluency and correctness in general.

 This structure will be open to continuous adaptation as the need arise – the closer we get to the exam, the more time will be dedicated to doing actual model exams and reviewing them (particularly to practice the multiple choice exam format used for reading and listening comprehension testing).

 Please let us have your thoughts on this draft study plan.

 Kind regards

 

So, ladies and gentlemen embarking on your Spanish exam challenge, there you have a comprehensive overview of our online coaching for DELE/SIELE & OPI methodology – of what we do, how we do it, and why we do it this way. Please remember that you can request a free, no obligation one hour exploratory Skype session with us, to see if we appear compatible with you and your needs. Just send us your contact particulars with our convenient Contact Information form that you can access by clicking on THIS LINK.

Good luck with your preparation!

Willem

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Improve your Spanish conversation skills

It’s essential to improve your SPANISH CONVERSATION SKILLS for the DELE/ SIELE exams and the OPI tests

You have to improve your Spanish conversation skills to do well in exams like the DELE diploma or “el examen DELE ” because it’s all about testing the ability to communicate effectively in Spanish, in real-world situations. This is equally true for the DELE’s new online twin, the SIELE exam, and for it American equivalent, the OPI.

Most candidates who fail the DELE exam (some 30% typically do), fail because of having failed the oral test.  In fact, 70% of failures are due to having failed the oral test.

So, how do humans gain the ability to converse? After all, small children achieve that skill, without having had any formal language tuition… What can you learn from neuroscience, to improve your Spanish conversation skills?

How should you as an an adult approach learning, so that you will be able to converse in Spanish? There are many conflicting theories, plus ingrained teaching habits stretching back many generations, regarding how best to achieve proficiency in a foreign language. But of late,  neuroscience has given us very important insights into how the brain actually processes the acquisition of language. This neurological data has taken the debate out of the realm of speculation (where it had lounged for most of history) into proper understanding of the processes involved.

One thing that we have known for some time with certainty, 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 school / college alumni who majored in a foreign language, actually 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.

In this blog post I will introduce some of the latest and best theories and methodologies for developing proficiency at conversing in a foreign language. This introduction of theory is intended only as a quick orientation for the practical advice which comes at the end of this blog post. I will be sharing with you our own battle-tested tips for developing your conversational ability in Spanish, so that you can ace the DELE / SIELE exam or the OPIc.

The Human Instinct for Language:

language instinct coverTo understand how to improve your Spanish conversation skills, you first and foremost have to understand how the human brain functions when it comes to “learning a language” – or, more correctly put – how we acquire a new language: i.e., develop the ability to communicate in it. (Babies don’t set out to “learn a language”; they instinctively acquire the ability to communicate, just as they acquire the ability to walk upright – both much more through PRACTICE than through abstract learning of theory). Understanding this process is certain to help you in cultivating the right mind-set and study methods for making your DELE / SIELE exam and OPI preparation 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 communicate.  Both are vital survival skills. From the survival standpoint the acquisition of mobility is an early imperative.  Walking is also a less complex task than the heavily brain-driven skill of oral communication, so babies master that first. It has been shown, though, that listening to the mother’s voice starts already in the womb. Once the toddler is mobile, the brain’s major developmental focus for the next three to five years shifts almost exclusively to honing the ability to communicate verbally.

The ability to master language has been described by the psychologist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker (in his seminal book “The Language Instinct”) as the “preeminent trait” of the human species, as well as our “most important cultural invention … a biologically unprecedented event irrevocably separating him from other animals.”

For our present purpose, probably the most important observation by Pinker is that language isn’t an academic subject that we are formally taught. Neither do we need, as toddlers, to consciously study it, in order to develop this skill. “Instead, it is a distinct piece of the biological makeup of our brains. Language is a complex, specialized skill, which develops in the child spontaneously, without conscious effort or formal instruction…”

While some cognitive scientists describe language as a psychological faculty or a neural system, Pinker prefers to refer to it as a human instinct, because the term instinct “…conveys the idea that people know how to talk in more or less the sense that spiders know how to spin webs”, which spiders are able to do without having had any formal education in design or engineering, but simply because they have “spider brains, which give them the urge to spin and the competence to succeed.”

“Superior pattern processing (SPP) is the essence of the evolved human brain”

snappa_1467577352In an article in “Frontiers of Neuroscience” (2014; 8:265) Mark P. Mattson used the above title to describe that aspect of the human brain which allows us to do things that other primates or animals can’t. Mattson says: “The types of pattern processing that appear to occur robustly, if not uniquely in the human brain and are therefore considered as SPP include: (1) Creativity and invention … (2) Spoken and written languages that enable rapid communication of highly specific information about all aspects of the physical universe and human experiences;  (3) Reasoning and rapid decision-making; (4) Imagination and mental time travel which enables the formulation and rehearsal of potential future scenarios; and (5) Magical thinking/fantasy… The human brain is remarkably similar to the brains of non-human primates and lower mammals at the molecular and cellular levels, suggesting that the human brain deploys evolutionarily generic signaling mechanisms to store and retrieve large amounts of information and, most remarkably, to integrate information in ways that result in the generation of new emergent properties such as complex languages, imagination, and invention.”

This tendency of the human brain to seek and process patterns has been widely documented in science.  In layman’s terms, Ackerman wrote in Time Magazine on 15 June 2004: “Pattern pleases us, rewards a mind seduced and yet exhausted by complexity. We crave pattern, and find it all around us, in petals, sand dunes, pine cones, contrails. Our buildings, our symphonies, our clothing, our societies — all declare patterns”This was quoted approvingly by Psychiatry professor Bernard Beitman in “Psychiatric Annals” (39:5 / May 2009) under the heading: “Brains seek Patterns in Coincidences” where-in he stated: “Our brains seek coherence, structure, and order. Words and numbers order perceptions. Words and sentences package complex experiences … The brain wants to complete patterns … We can feel its pleasure in making a correct connection.”

“Languages as an advanced pattern encoding and transfer mechanism”

Addressing language specifically (under the above heading) Mattson went on to write: “Language is the quintessential example of the evolved SPP capabilities of the human brain… Language involves the use of patterns (symbols, words, and sounds) to code for objects and events encountered either via direct experience or communication from other individuals. However, despite it being a remarkable leap forward in evolution, language may not involve any fundamentally new cellular or molecular mechanisms; instead, language is mediated by recently evolved neural circuits integrated with older circuits, all of which utilize generic pattern processing mechanisms. Remarkably, the learning of languages and the potentially infinite number of stories (word sequences) that an individual can construct are accomplished using a finite number of neurons that is established during early brain development … Presumably, the synapses involved in language are “strengthened” by repetition (listening and talking, and reading and writing).”

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 didn’t 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 – as in a child saying 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. 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.

First grammar book for an European language - Spanish, 1492

First grammar handbook for an European language – Castilian (Spanish), 1492

The advent of grammar studies:

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 writing.  The first formal grammar book for an European language was only published in 1492, for Castilian, which now is the national language of Spain. 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, with all its 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 patterns).

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 (morphology – for example, the conjugation of words) or the protocols of phrase construction (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.  This analogy very much resembles the DELE  / SIELE exams and the OPI, in which there are no questions on the rules of grammar as such. Instead, all the focus is on the candidate’s ability to apply that theoretical knowledge in real-world communication. (Such tests based on communicative competencies, in any event will quickly enough show the examiner whether you know the “rules”.).

Unfortunately, the traditional school system requires standardized curricula and methodologies. This is so because, in order for school tuition to be feasible in practice, teaching classrooms full of students all at once, there just isn’t scope for individualization.  And there are many other subjects to be taught, in addition to a foreign language. Therefore, for the foreign language student there cannot be the constant immersion in his target tongue that the typical native-speaking toddler is exposed to every woken hour (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 learning a second language).  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 – are by the nature of these limitations focused on imparting theoretical knowledge of rules, and not on the individual coaching required to develop actual communicative ability.

snappa_1467553698As 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 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 groups of students’ knowledge of that which the schools have been teaching, namely theory such as the rules of grammar. 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 and assessing the  skills of 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 itself, be enough.  Because humans instinctively seek for patterns, it is clearly useful that the patterns inherent to any language’s grammar be identified and codified, and also that these be learnt.  It obviously is a faster way of becoming aware of such patterns than simply by absorbing them subconsciously, in the course of years of unstructured immersion. But it is not enough to simply know these rules, if one is to acquire the capacity to communicate effectively. Because while we may be well aware of some rule, if our minds and tongues aren’t practiced in applying it in conversation, then something contrary is likely to slip out – no matter how well we may have “known” that that was the wrong way of phrasing it.

Another major drawback inherent to the traditional way of teaching, is that it inevitably leaves the student with the impression that language consists of individual words, which must be strung together in accordance with set rules, such as that of conjugation – like stringing individual pearls on a necklace.  In reality, though, language for the most part consists of “chunks” of words in the form of well-established phrases with agreed meaning.

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 language, which he called the “lexical approach”.  This approach was 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 Lexical Approach:

Olga Moudria wrote an excellent summation of the Lexical Approach, published by the ERIC Clearing House on Languages of Washington DC. Here are some extracts: “The lexical approach concentrates on developing learners’ proficiency with lexis, or words and word combinations. It is based on the idea that an important part of language acquisition is the ability to comprehend and produce lexical phrases as unanalyzed wholes, or “chunks,” and that these chunks become the raw data by which learners perceive patterns of language traditionally thought of as grammar (Lewis, 1993, p. 95). Instruction focuses on relatively fixed expressions that occur frequently in spoken language, such as, “I’m sorry,” “I didn’t mean to make you jump,” or “That will never happen to me,” rather than on originally created sentences (Lewis, 1997a, p. 212).” (A key concept that Moudria points to here, is that we comprehend and internalize word chunks without first analyzing them – i.e., grammar doesn’t enter into the picture).

She continues: “The lexical approach makes a distinction between vocabulary–traditionally understood as a stock of individual words with fixed meanings–and lexis, which includes not only the single words but also the word combinations that we store in our mental lexicons. Lexical approach advocates argue that language consists of meaningful chunks that, when combined, produce continuous coherent text, and only a minority of spoken sentences are entirely novel creations. The role of formulaic, many-word lexical units have been stressed in both first and second language acquisition research…

“Comprehension of such units is dependent on knowing the patterns to predict in different situations. Instruction, therefore, should center on these patterns and the ways they can be pieced together, along with the ways they vary and the situations in which they occur…

snappa_1467577824Moudria concludes:” Zimmerman (1997, p. 17) suggests that the work of Sinclair, Nattinger, DeCarrico, and Lewis represents a significant theoretical and pedagogical shift from the past … they challenge a traditional view of word boundaries, emphasizing the language learner’s need to perceive and use patterns of lexis and collocation. Most significant is the underlying claim that language production is not a syntactic rule-governed process but is instead the retrieval of larger phrasal units from memory. Nevertheless, implementing a lexical approach in the classroom does not lead to radical methodological changes. Rather, it involves a change in the teacher’s mindset.

Donovan Nagel of the Mezzofanti Guild summed up the lexical approach very effectively in layman’s terms: “Languages are acquired in prefabricated chunks words, collocations and expressions that we hear repeatedly. This is why kids go from babble to speaking – to the amazement of their parents – seemingly overnight. To give you an example, ‘I want’ is a chunk. You’ve used those two words together in that order a multitude of times in your lifetime. It’s a set expression that you heard and learned as a whole, and are able to create an infinite number of expressions by adding another chunk (a name or an action). Thus, ice-cream and to go are other chunks that you’ve also learned. What we do as fluent speakers is essentially put together or insert pieces of prefabricated language. Very little of what we actually say is original content.

“I would go a step further and say that every verb tense you know was learned as a prefabricated item. For example, you didn’t learn the verb write and then learn how to conjugate it. You learned I write, she writes, they write, etc. as whole items and over time you gained an ear for what sounds right and what doesn’t. When you hear something that doesn’t quite sound correct (e.g. they writes, he writed) you immediately detect the error – not because you’re aware of grammar, but because you’re so used to the correct, prefabricated forms that anything else doesn’t sound right.”

Barriers to adults developing conversational competency in a foreign language: The main barriers to communicating effectively, fluently and confidently in Spanish as foreign language can be summed up as follows:

  • Lack of a sufficient memorized and rehearsed lexis (consisting of an ample vocabulary of words correctly pronounced, plus expressions, idioms and common phrase “chunks”, including link phrases);
  • Insufficient knowledge of the grammatical patterns of the language (its word morphology and the syntax for phrase construction), and lack of practice in the instinctive and fluent, correct use of these patterns;
  • Inability to correctly form Hispanic sounds (phonology) because of lack of sufficient guided practice, not adapting the body’s articulation tools to the Hispanic way of forming sounds, plus inhibition; and
  • An un-attuned ear, not able to correctly capture and understand what others are saying, particularly in the case of accents and dialects.

To meet these four direct challenges just mentioned, some related innate ones also have to be overcome.  Foremost is the need to undo unilingual mother-tongue rigidity (which is present in those who don’t yet fluently speak any foreign language). By this is meant that we have been exclusively conditioned from early childhood, to speak in the manner and style of our own cultural peer group, with our mouths knowing only how to form the sounds of our mother tongue. Apart from this physical rigidity, there’s often also a mental one associated with unilingualism, namely that such persons don’t want to see that there are many different ways in which languages can in fact construct phrases – ways that, though different, in themselves do have an internal logic of their own, which is no less logical than that of the familiar structure of their mother tongue.  (This tendency to throw the hands up in the air in frustration and say that “the Spanish way makes no sense” is common among those who are subjected to tutoring based essentially on learning grammar without sufficient emphasis on lexis, and without having been given any explanatory reference framework for the historical why’s and how’s of the differences between the two languages).

Such rigidity restricts conversational mental agility, because we think in our mother tongue and thus first have to mentally translate before we speak. It also inhibits the ability to accept and mentally “own” the lexis, grammatical patterns and structure of Spanish – which sometimes are very different from those of English – as being equally valid and logical in its own right.

Unilingual rigidity also restricts articulation (mouth movement etc.) and body language to one rigid mould. This stems from lifelong conditioning of the body’s articulation tools through having been used in only one cultural/linguistic mode, forming sounds for the letters of the alphabet in one way only. To illustrate – a lifetime of pressure to conform to, for instance, a “stiff upper lip” style of verbal expression will clearly limit one’s ability for sometimes exuberant Latino-style expression, if it is not recognised and consciously addressed. Such rigidity in the tools of articulation negatively impacts ability to pronounce intelligibly (like Orientals having difficulty with “RRR” and Anglos with the letter “J”, saying “HHHoasey” instead of “GGGosy”).

Another important debilitating factor is our inhibitions, related to our adult ego-awareness, because we fear making mistakes in front of others. This causes us not to want to practice conversing with others, and we become part of a wallflower syndrome.

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OUR TOP TIPS FOR HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR SPANISH CONVERSATION SKILLS

The WHAT of becoming proficient in conversation:

The first thing to get right, is mind-set. Your objective should NOT be “I want to learn Spanish” (because that is 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 skill of integrating and applying your knowledge in real-world situations). What you want to be, is an accomplished football player, not just a coach potato football rules boffin.

With your objective clearly defined, it is important next to identify the skills and knowledge sets that are essential 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 something that actually, for the DELE diploma, is one of its four main oral exam scoring criteria, namely a sufficiently ample “linguistic scope”. This means that you do have to know (i.e., have learnt to the point of having committed to memory and thus have fully internalised) the words, expressions and common “word chunks” making up the lexis of the language, so that you can identify them upon hearing, as well as instantly reproduce them 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, and its morphology or form, the latter signifying the way a particular word is morphed (through conjugation, for example) to convey different meanings.

The second DELE oral exam scoring criteria is “correctness”, meaning correct word selection in terms of semantics, correct pronunciation in terms of phonology, correct morphology (in terms of how you have, for example, conjugated a verb), and correct syntax, relating to how you have strung together word chunks to make phrases and sentences.

The DELE scoring guidelines do emphasize that they are not going to be overly finicky about the theory, as long as comprehension on the part of your listener is not made difficult or impossible by your level of incorrectness. This is, of course, how real conversation in a foreign language actually functions (or doesn’t); your listener can, as an intelligent native speaker, compensate for your small errors of syntax or such things as gender accord, even foe wrong verb conjugation – 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.

This is to say that, when it comes to the importance of “correctness” in conversation, knowledge of lexis or vocabulary – that is, of the correct word / phrase – and practiced knowledge of how to correctly pronounce it, are significantly more important than knowledge of the “rules” of grammar. In fact, if you are still obliged when you want to say something in Spanish to first try and remember, 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 in maintaining any kind of conversation. This is the difference between sitting an 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 the patterns of Spanish speech (as you had done as a kid, with your mother tongue). Having internalised 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).

The third DELE oral exam scoring criteria is “coherence”.  Are you making sense to your listener? This doesn’t only involve having an ample linguistic scope and being sufficiently correct in terms of your Spanish, but also involves the normal rules of logic in the ordering of your thoughts, just as would apply in your mother tongue. You must be able to structure your discourse logically, for example with clear introduction, a sensible body of substantiation, and a persuasive conclusion. Coherence demands that your mind must be free to give a logical presentational structure to what you want to say, without your mind needing to be overly occupied with the grammar and lexis of how you need to say it. Again, this comes down to having sufficiently internalized the patterns of the language so that you can reproduce it correctly almost without conscious effort, like you do with your mother tongue.  This, in turn, comes down to expertly guided practice, practice, and then more practice.

The last of the four DELE oral exam scoring criteria is “fluency”. In real life, conversation breaks down when there is no fluency – 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 lexical patterns of Spanish sufficiently internalized. Especially important to the fluent flow of conversation (and also in the DELE scoring) is the appropriate use of link phrases in order to fluently join up different thoughts or sentences – and not end up uttering 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. 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 of the language. These are its lexical patterns, of words and word chunks (including their meaning, pronunciation and the patterns for morphing words to signify different meanings in terms of time, number and the like). There are also the patterns of syntax (how words and phrases are strung together to form coherent sentences). This knowledge of patterns we have to internalize, and practice over and over so that we can reproduce it instantaneously without much conscious thought. Without such internalization of the lexical, phonological, morphological, and syntactical patterns of Spanish, you cannot hope to achieve the sufficiently ample linguistic scope, correctness, coherence and fluency that will be required in order to maintain a meaningful and effortless conversation that can focus on substance, rather than constantly succumbing to getting stuck on form.

The HOW of developing the ability to converse in Spanish:

Developing the knowledge and skill sets required to maintain a conversation in Spanish, take place essentially in the same way as you learnt your mother tongue as a child (meaning from toddler to teen), but with certain facilitating and enhancing tools added which toddlers obviously can’t yet access.

snappa_1467742914Learning the patterns: The basic manner in which your Spanish will develop, will be by means of assimilating patterns. 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 it needs be said that way, but that you know that that’s definitely the way it is).

snappa_1467743277The importance of 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 mother tongue over the space of five to six years of such immersion (reaching school-going age, this knowledge and skill for self-expression just get polished, with the patterns he/she already have internalized being clarified and explained, whilst the child continues to benefit from ongoing immersion).

It is therefore evident that any attempt to learn a foreign language with an approach based just on classroom + homework time (i.e., without the addition of immersion and its parallel of adopting a lexical approach), is not going to result in any better performance than the figure of 0.5% reaching conversation ability, as cited earlier.

The relative importance and correct view of 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 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 while you are still hobbling along, whilst 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 “learning the language”. 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, and 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, you HAVE TO STUDY YOUR GRAMMAR – but do so selectively, as we will show, and with the right mental attitude, i.e. that it is a valuable cheat sheet of essential patterns.

The most vital aspect that you have to focus on in your active learning isn’t grammar.  It is studying the patterns of lexis.


snappa_1467744394Lexis is your top 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). 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. The reason why lexis is deemed more important to conversational ability than grammar, is twofold:

  • As was earlier said, 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 in preparing for the listening and reading comprehension parts of the DELE exam, that “you have to have knowledge of words and the world” (see our earlier blogpost on this subject). 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, as part of a regular 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 knowing 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.
  • When expressing yourself orally, lexis is also of vital importance. You have to know the right word or phrase (to the point of not having to search for it), and you have to be able to pronounce it 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 of grammar – there is simply no way that your conversation can blossom 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. The ACTFL has calculated that, for a student of average aptitude, it 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. For the superior proficiency level that diplomats and the like require, it is generally thought that 1,000 hours of intensive preparation is necessary.

Read, read, read - there's no better way of internalizing language patterns.

Read, read, read – there’s no better way of internalizing language patterns.

What constitutes immersion, in the internet age? The above does not mean that you have to do 1,000 hours that consist solely of classroom + homework time (we’ve already seen where that gets one!). At DELEhelp we see direct tutorial assistance (one-on-one, via Skype) as comprising just one-third of the time you need to dedicate to developing your proficiency in Spanish. The other two-thirds need to be dedicated to active and passive exposure to Spanish, so that you can become familiar with the patterns in actual use. 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 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 lexical mind-set with all the other traditional learning tools.

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 DELEhelp blogpost 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 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.

snappa_1467744793Develop 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.

What you can do, is to concentrate, for the purpose of speaking, on mastering the present, the idiomatic future and the perfect past 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 past 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 tense (futuro idiomatico) is already used exclusively, in place of the traditional conjugated future tense (the idiomatic future tense is constructed by conjugating the verb “ir” + a + the infinitive of the action verb: voy a comer – I am going to eat).  For the idiomatic future tense, you only need to learn the present indicative conjugation of one verb, namely “ir”.

The Spanish perfect past tense (perfecto de Indicativo) is constructed with the present indicative conjugation of the verb “haber” + the past participle of the action verb: he comido – I have eaten. The use of the perfecto de Indicativo for indicating the past is becoming more and more common in general use such as in journalistic Spanish, in Spain in particular; so again – you will not be frowned upon or thought a dunce. Because it resembles the way English is constructed, it will come easier to you – also since there is only one conjugation to memorize. (We must emphasize, though, that this approach works for when you yourself are speaking, but 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 the level to active learning that’s needed for the purpose of own speech, which demands full internalization to enable real-time application).

For proficiency at conversation, you have to practice speaking (and be guided / corrected): The immersion that we referred to above, needs to go beyond you absorbing written and spoken Spanish. To acquire the skill and confidence to maintain a conversation, you have to have guided practice in 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.  One-on-one tuition at a residential institution is prohibitively expensive (the actual private tuition itself is very costly , and then you have to add travel and accommodation costs, plus the opportunity cost of being away from work or business). On the other hand, such one-on-one, personalized tuition based on an individualized study plan that’s custom-designed just for your needs and aptitudes, presented via Skype, is very affordable (at DELEhelp, for example, we charge only US$10 per hour of actual Skype tuition, which includes our free in-house study materials as well as our prep time and the time we spend revising your homework and  model exam answers; there are no hidden costs).

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 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 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.

A useful free supplement for speech practice is the online student exchange, such as iTALKi. This works on the basis that you are connected with a native speaker of your target language, who in turn wants to learn your native language. Of every hour spent with him/her on Skype, you are supposed to speak your target language for 30 minutes while your exchange partner corrects and guides you, and then you switch roles, with you correcting his/her efforts at conversing in English. This is a supplementary resource, because it will at least give you opportunity to practice speaking. The extent to which your exchange partner will really be able to explain things to you, is a matter of pure chance. Take yourself as example – you may well be able to point out to your exchange partner when they make a mistake, and give an example of the right way to say something, but how good is your current recollection of English morphology, syntax and semantics, for really explaining to him/her when they are confounded by something? Nevertheless, the exchange forums are a valuable supplementary resource, and they’re free.

Getting over the ego / fear of failure barrier: 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 proficiency in the form of certification, such as the gold standard DELE diploma of the Spanish education ministry. 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 (during the transition years to full democracy, before I became ambassador for the New South Africa of President Mandela). I’ve also seen it at DELEhelp – one remarkable fellow really got into the swing of things, designing for himself an identity as a Mexican footballer (soccer player) and every time sitting himself down in front of the Skype camera with his enormous sombrero on his head, dressed in his 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 unilingual Anglo mould 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!

sombrero

This has been quite a long blog post, but I believe the importance of the subject merits such substantive treatment. Obviously much more can be said. So, if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to drop me a line – I will do my best to answer, and like everything associated with this blog, my answer will be free and without implying any obligation on your part. You can use the convenient contact form on this page to send me your questions.

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Please ask for our FREE DELEhelp Workbook #9 (DELE / SIELE Exam Orientation and Acing Tips) an e-book of some 96 pages; it is a free sample of our in-house study materials, developed especially for English-speakers.  Ask for this unique DELE exam preparation book using our convenient contact information form (click on image), and I will send the download link to you, gratis and with no obligation.

You can also ask for our FREE exploratory one hour Skype session, in English with myself, in which I will explain the exams such as the DELE / SIELE and OPI, plus our 1-on-1, personalized coaching methods and answer all your questions (you can use the same contact info form to set up the exploratory Skype session).

Good luck with practicing to improve your Spanish conversation skills! (It is expertly guided PRACTICE that makes perfect).

Saludos cordiales

Willem




Spanish History is part of the DELE Exam Curriculum

Spanish history is part of the DELE exam curriculum

The DELE exam’s curriculum doesn’t consist only of grammar – Spanish  history is part of the DELE exam curriculum. It is required that students should have a basic knowledge of the history of the Spanish language, and of Spain and the Hispanic world. Just as with grammar, candidates will not be tested directly on such knowledge in the exam.  The DELE exam, after all, is concerned with your ability to apply knowledge, rather than simply possessing theoretical knowledge. The exam tests practical, real-world ability to communicate, in writing and speech. But communication is not only about expressing yourself. It is also about comprehending. Just as you need to know vocabulary in order to  understand, you also need to know cultural context, if you really want to catch all the nuances.  That is where knowledge of Hispanic history, social norms, and traditions, as well as of their culture in general comes in – and that is why these topics are included in the curriculum of the examen DELE.

In this blogpost I will give you a brief overview of how Spain came to adopt a dialect from its far north, called castellano (Castilian), as its national language. There are other regional languages spoken in other parts of Spain, such as Galician, Basque, and Catalan. The Spanish constitution stipulates that these languages have concurrent official status, together with Castilian, in their respective autonomous regions.  Native speakers of these regional tongues prefer the term castellano for what non-Spaniards commonly call Spanish, since they consider their own languages to be equally “Spanish”. The Spanish Constitution of 1978 uses the term castellano to define the official language of the whole Spanish State, and calls the regional languages las demás lenguas españolas (lit. the rest of the Spanish languages).

The Spanish Royal Academy, by contrast, uses the term español. Its official dictionary states that, although the Academy prefers to use español when referring to the national language in its publications, the terms español and castellano are regarded as synonymous and equally valid.

The Spanish Royal Academy Dictionary attributes the origin of the name español to the word espaignol, and that in turn comes from the Medieval Latin word Hispaniolus, meaning ‘from—or pertaining to—Hispania’. Other authorities attribute it to a supposed medieval Latin *hispaniōne, with the same meaning. It is said (but not proven) that “hispania” derives from the Phoenician word that means “land of rabbits” (which is the reason behind the banner image of this post).

In the following sections you will see why it is that Spanish history is part of the DELE exam curriculum, even if you are not going to be directly tested on it:  having knowledge of the cultural background, will help you with comprehending the situational meaning of words and expressions in their societal context.

Indo-European Pre-History and the Dynamics of Language Evolution

At its root, modern Spanish derives from a common language spoken around 5,000 – 3700 before the Common Era over much of what is today Europe and the Indus Valley in India. This Proto-Indo-European language (PIE) is the common ancestor of the most important modern Indo-European languages (although in Europe and on the Iberian Peninsula other languages not related to PIE do exist, such as Basque). It is believed that PIE may have originally been spoken as a single language (before divergence began) by people living between the Vistula River in Poland and the Caucuses mountains to the East. More precisely, it may have been centered in the Anatolian region of present-day Turkey.  The languages derived from PIE show clear inter-relationship in the roots of verbs and in their grammar. These languages include the old Indian language Sanskrit and classical Greek and Latin. The Indo-European language family today consists of seven main branches:

  • Germanic (German, English, Dutch, Afrikaans, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish) have some 440 million mother-tongue speakers;
  • Indic ( Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Romany – 378M);
  • Slavic (Russian, Czech, Slovak, Slovene, Serbo-Croat, Polish, Bulgarian – 250M);
  • Iranian (Farsi, Kurdish – 73M);
  • Celtic (Welsh, Irish, Breton – (12M);
  • Hellenic (Greek –  10M); and
  • Romance (Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, Galician, French, Romanian and Swiss-Romansch, which together is the most numerous branch at some 670M native speakers).

PIE MapAlmost counter-intuitively, PIE was not a structurally simple, “primitive” language at all, but in fact a hugely complex one – much more so than modern languages such as Spanish, which have undergone significant simplification over the millennia. For example, PIE used three numbers (singular, dual and plural – as opposed to two in Spanish, singular and plural). PIE also used more moods (“mood” relates to the “state of mind” of the speaker; the mood  determines which set of verb terminations to employ when conjugating verbs, such as the imperative mood for giving commands). In modern Spanish everything related to actions that are uncertain, irreal, or that reflect wishes, fears, desires etc., are subsumed into one mood, the subjunctive. PIE, on the other hand, used the subjunctive only for the irrealis, and another mood (with its own conjugations), the optative, for wishes, desires, fears etc. PIE thus had a complex system of morphology. Nouns used a sophisticated system of declension and verbs used a similarly sophisticated system of conjugation.

Guy Deutscher, in “The Unfolding of Language: an evolutionary tour of mankind’s greatest invention” describes how all languages are in “perpetual motion”. We, the people, continuously adapt them. The more people there are speaking a language, especially in a diverse, fast-moving, geographically-spread social environment, the more change there will be. This is because we “cook up” languages, and the more cooks we have, the more variations to the recipe (if your family has no outside contact, you will make and eat tamales like your grandma made them, and so will your great-grandchildren). Therefore, the more primitive, slow to evolve, small in number and limited in space a society of language users is, the more complex and regular (i.e., unchanged over time) the language structure is likely to be – as is well demonstrated by PIE.

All languages continuously suffer the ravages of forces seemingly of destruction, but which at the same time serve also as forces of creation.  The more we live in accelerated time, using a language that is open to impacts from a wide circle, the more marked the evolution of the language will be. An example is the lot that befell the Classical Latin of the Roman elites, from the start of empire in 29BCE, when “Vulgar” Latin – which had always existed side-by-side with Classical Latin – increasingly replaced it to become the official form (“vulgar” here means “common” or of “the people”, this being the language spoken by the general populace and in the colonies).  Classical Latin eventually retained only its written status, mostly in the Roman-Catholic Church. That function, as language of written record, was eventually superseded by the modern regional evolutions of Vulgar Latin, what we call today the Romance languages. Examples of these regional evolutions of Vulgar Latin are French and Spanish, which started appearing in print in the 9th century.

Such evolution is universal, as can be seen also in English (another eventual imperial language with a wide foot-print). A good example is the different versions of the English Bible over time:

1000CE – me ofthingth sothlice thæt ic hi worthe

1400CE – forsothe it othenkith me to haue maad hem

1600CE – for it repenteth me that I haue made them

2000CE – because I regret having made them

A thousand years ago English still had a complex case and gender system, while now it has practically none:

Singular                                                                                  Plural

thæt wæter (the water)                                               tha wæter-u (the waters)

tham wæter-e (to the water)                                     tham wæter-um (to the waters)

thæs wæter-es (of the water)                                    thara wæter-a (of the waters)

An example of remnant impact of gender is the plural of “ox” namely “oxen” – not “oxes” on the pattern of “boxes” – because ox was of the feminine gender and feminine nouns originally ended in the plural on “-en” and not on “-es”.

In fact, English has some 200 irregular verbs, and many more if we add the prefixed forms. The 12 most frequently used verbs in English are all irregular. Irregular verbs – whether in English or Spanish – are not indicative of a language that has stagnated, but of quite the opposite:  they speak of dynamic evolution of the broader language.

Inevitably, in most living languages grammatical structure does change, vocabulary adapts, pronunciation comes to sound very different over time, but more often than not spelling seems to lag behind (because, unlike the free-wheeling spoken language, spelling has for some time now been governed by conventions dictated by committees and enforced in schools). As Deutscher observes: “…one could easily fall under the impression that for some reason changes in (English) pronunciation came to an abrupt halt after 1611. But this is just an illusion… And it is precisely for this reason that English spelling is so infamously irrational…  it is unfair to say that English spelling is not an accurate rendering of speech. It is – it’s only that it renders the speech of the sixteenth century.”

With Spanish also being an imperial language spoken in far-flung parts, the process of simplification and transformation is already in evidence in Latin America, where the “vosotros” form has been discarded and where the future tense is now exclusively constructed idiomatically with “ir+ the infinitive, instead of using the regular Spanish conjugated future tense.

Humans make language, and linguists now know that humans are inherently lazy and quirky – always prone to taking short-cuts, seeking pronunciations that are easier on the tongue, cultivating dramatic effect by using established words in counter-intuitive manner (like “cool”) yet also prone to following fashion and thereby giving impetus and acceptance to such fads. By these means humans are constantly destroying the old and creating afresh. Far from being abhorrent, this is essential to the vitality and continued serviceability of languages. Humans are also prone to ordaining and structuring, to migrating and colonizing – the effect of which, on language, is well demonstrated by the linguistic history of the Iberian Peninsula.

It is only half-jokingly said that the difference between a dialect and a language, is that the latter had an army and a navy behind it.

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Romance / Latin / Italic roots of Modern Spanish

The modern Romance languages (such as Italian, Castilian, Catalan, French and Romanian) form a subfamily of the Indo-European language family. The Romance languages all derive from Vulgar Latin, which co-existed with classical Latin in the Roman Empire. Latin was an Italic language (i.e., Italic referring to the now extinct languages stemming from PIE that were spoken in the Italian peninsula, such as the Latin variants, plus Umbrian, Oscan and Faliscan). Vulgar Latin’s latter-day daughter languages, the Romance languages which took root in the old Roman Empire, are the only survivors of the original Italic languages.

Vulgar Latin (in Latin, sermo vulgaris or sermo pleibus; in English literally “common speech”) was the spoken language of the working class, traders and soldiers who colonized the empire for Rome. Classical Latin was the schooled, written language of the ruling Roman elite. The two forms co-existed side-by-side during the Roman heyday.  As Ralph Penny points out in “A History of the Spanish Language” this is illustrated by words such as those for horse, which in Classical Latin was “equus” (thus equestrian sports) but in modern Spanish is caballo, in French is cheval, in Italian cavallo, and in Portuguese cavalo – from the generic term for horse in Vulgar Latin, caballus, which in Classical Latin would strictly mean a “nag” or “work-horse”.

Linguistic History of Iberia before the domination of Spanish (Castilian)

The modern Spanish language’s Vulgar Latin seeds were brought to the Iberian Peninsula by the common Roman soldiers and colonists at the beginning of the Second Punic War between Rome and Cathage in 209 BCE.  Prior to that time, several pre-Roman languages (also called Paleohispanic languages), which were unrelated to Latin were spoken in the Iberian Peninsula. These languages included Basque (still spoken today, and unrelated to Indo-European), Iberian, and Celtiberian.

The early Iberians left few traces of their language in modern Spanish: Some of these words are: arroyo (small stream), barro (mud), cachorro (puppy), charco (puddle), gordo (fat), García (family name), perro (dog), manteca (lard), sapo (toad), tamo (chaff).

Toward the end of the sixth century before the Common Era (BCE), a nomadic tribe from central Europe known as the Celts moved into the area and mixed with the peninsula’s then inhabitants, the Iberians. The result was a new people called the Celtiberians, and they spoke a form of the Celtic language.  Most of the Celtic words remaining today in Spanish have to do with material things, and with hunting or war. For example: carro (cart), cama (bed), braga (panties, from the typical breeches the Celts wore), camino (road), camisa (shirt), cerveza (beer), flecha (arrow), lanza (lance).

Most of the words of Greek origin found in modern-day Spanish do not come from the pre-Roman period of small-scale Greek colonization along the Spanish Mediterranean coast. They were actually introduced into the Vulgar Latin language later by the Romans adopting from Greek, or were adopted from Greek even later by the Spanish themselves during the post-Middle Ages, to fill the need for scientific terminology. Most of these words refer to education, science, art, culture and religion, like matemática (mathematics), telegrafía (telegraphy), botánica (botany), física (physics), gramática (grammar), poema (poem), drama (drama), Obispo (bishop), bautizar (baptize), and angel (angel).

The Phoenicians – a Semitic, seafaring nation originally from the coast of present-day Lebanon and Syria – founded the city of Carthage on the North African coast (in present-day Tunisia) around a thousand years before the Common Era. By 500BCE, Carthage had evolved into a Mediterranean superpower. During the sixth century BCE the Carthaginians responded to a Tartessian (Iberian tribe) attack on the Phoenician city of Gadir. During this campaign the Carthaginians invaded the Iberian Peninsula and subjugated the Tartessians. The Carthaginians then went on to establish port cities in Iberia, such as Carthago Nova. Meanwhile, Rome had started to emerge as a substantial power in Italy, although its military might had been essentially land-based, as opposed to the maritime strength of Carthage. Inevitably the two powers began to clash, in what became known in the Roman world as the Punic wars.

The first war started in 264BCE, when the Carthaginians engaged an ever-expanding Rome in order to retain Carthaginian control over the island of Sicily. Carthage lost, but wasn’t eliminated as rival power. In 218BCE, the Carthaginians provoked the second Punic war, trying to recover territories that they had lost to the Romans during the first war. As part of this second war the famous Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca invaded Italy, via Spain, crossing the Alps with his elephants and Spanish mercenaries. His brother Amilcar Barca remained in Spain (the city of Barcelona derives its name from its Barca founder).

snappa_1466796034Desperate to force the marauding Hannibal to quit Italy, the brilliant young Roman general Scipio Africanus decided as counter-strategy to cut Hannibal’s supply lines by invading Iberia.  He first attacked New Carthage, which he rapidly conquered. Under Scipio’s inspired leadership the Roman Empire systematically took control of the peninsula, and then invaded North Africa itself (landing in modern-day Libya) at last forcing Hannibal to leave Italy in order to defend his homeland. Scipio went on to decisively defeat Hannibal in 202BCE at Zama in North Africa. This assured Roman hegemony in the Mediterranean and consequently in Iberia – where the Romans forthwith imposed their language. Vulgar Latin became the dominant spoken language of the peninsula, and from it, modern Spanish evolved – but not without some considerable twists and turns, as will be shown below.

It is also very noteworthy that Latinisms in Spanish don’t derive only from the early Roman root stage in its history. After the founding of written Spanish in the 9th century, the modern language very often, throughout the centuries, found itself in need of words to depict the non-material aspects of life. For these it then borrowed abundantly from Latinisms (exactly as did most other modern European languages at the time).  It is said that some 20% to 30% of modern Spanish vocabulary stem from such later borrowing.

The Visigoths invaded Hispania during the fourth century of the Common Era. They were a Germanic tribe originally from eastern Europe, but which had earlier entered Rome, where they had lived under Roman rule. Around the year 415CE they entered Gaul and Hispania and expelled the other eastern European barbarian tribes (such as the Vandals) that had settled in the area. Initially the Visigoths were Roman foederati (i.e., a treaty tribe), but they soon broke with the Roman Empire and, after being expelled from Gaul by the Francs, they established their dominion through most of the Iberian Peninsula, with their capital at Toledo. They did not have any great cultural impact, though, firstly because they were small in number (some 200,000 vs. several million Ibero-Romans), and secondly because their Gothic culture was significantly different and seen as barbaric and repulsive. Another contributing factor was that, by the time they entered Hispania, the Visigoths had themselves become in many ways Romanized. It was the Visigoth king Reccared 1st who converted the Hispanic monarchy to Roman Catholicism from around 589 CE, cementing the position of Latin due to the church’s inextricable links to that language.

The Goths themselves thus left no lasting linguistic imprint on Spanish. It is interesting, though, that – during the Latin-American wars of independence against Spain – it was common for te Hispano-Americans to refer derogatorily to peninsular Spaniards as Godos (thus illustrating the negative way the Goths were likely perceived through the ages).  Indirectly, the fact that the Visigoths had established their capital at Toledo on the central meseta (which endowed that city with a lasting status) in later years benefited the rise to prominence of the Castilian language, when Castile gained prestige among the ranks of Northern Iberian principalities by reconquering Toledo from the Moors.

At different times during its evolution, Iberian Vulgar Latin and later Spanish, also borrowed words from Germanic languages, such as yelmo (helmet), tregua (truce), robar (to steal/rob), jardín (garden), guiar (to guide), ganso (goose), banco (bench), banda (group – of soldiers etc.).

When we take into account that both English and Spanish borrowed from Greek and Latin, and that both English and Spanish share an Indo-European origin, it is no surprise that the two languages actually have near 40% of their vocabulary in common. Pronunciation of these cognate words does vary, as does spelling, particularly the word terminations used. But these terminations actually follow very clear patterns of conversion between the two languages. When you know these fixed patterns for transforming the cognate words from one language into the other, it actually becomes easy to anticipate how such familiar English cognate words will appear in Spanish, and vice versa – and you will have a sizeable instant vocabulary.

Iberia under the Moors

Iberia under the Moors

Arabic-speaking Moors from North Africa conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula from around 718CE. During this Islamic occupation, many of the country’s residents learned Arabic and eventually spoke it exclusively, but Vulgar Latin survived in certain northern kingdoms (such as Asturias) still governed by Christians, as well as among the Mozarabes (the Christians remaining in al-Andalus under Moorish governance, but who were allowed under Islamic law to retain their Catholic religion, due to also being “children of the book”). The Roman-Catholic church exclusively used Latin as language, and was also the font and protector of the written word in the education of the small Christian elites and in church liturgy and correspondence.

The Muslim conquest was at its height under the caliphate of Córdoba, which had united the Muslim lands in Iberia under central reign and elevated the city of Córdoba to Europe’s foremost seat of enlightenment, tolerance and learning. However, the Umayyad royal lineage was usurped by the regent Al-Mansur after the death of al-Hakam II in 976CE. Lacking own royal credentials, Al-Mansur harkened to populists and fundamentalist Muslims to strengthen his power base, and although he attained fame as a successful military commander, Al-Mansur’s campaigns (especially the burning of the iconic cathedral of Santiago Apostol) incentivized the Christian domains of the North of Iberia to fight back, united and ever more vigorously, under what was to become the enduring Spanish war cry of “for Santiago”.

snappa_1466796270After Al-Mansur’s death the central reign of Córdoba over Al-Andalus fell apart, with the Muslim lands splintering into taifas or small separate kingdoms. Coupled with the rise of Muslim intolerance and repression of the indigenous Christians, the table was set for the warrior clans from the north to exact their revenge and re-conquer the whole of the Iberian Peninsula, which they systematically did over the following centuries, culminating in the fall of Granada on the 2nd of January in the eventful year of 1492.

Many Arabic words have, however, entered into Spanish. Today, modern Spanish has approximately 4,000 words with Arabic roots. Most of these words are related to war, agriculture, science and the home, like tambor (drum), alférez (ensign), acicates (spur), acequia (canal, drain), aljibe (cistern, reservoir), alcachofa (artichoke), alfalfa (alfalfa), algodón (cotton), alcoba (bedroom), azotea (flat roof), algoritmo (algorithm), alquimia (alchemy), alcohol (alcohol). The influence of Arabic on Spanish was only on the lexicon (i.e., vocabulary); Spanish did not incorporate any Arabic phonemes into its phonological system. An interesting aspect of the Arabisms in Spanish (which are mostly nouns), is their tendency to start with “al”. This is due to confusion caused among the Vulgar Latins by the very different nature of the Semitic and Latin languages when it comes to the definite article (i.e, “the”). In Arabic the definite article al is invariable in respect of gender and number (thus, always al) whereas in Spanish it is very much variable (el, la, los, las – depending on gender and number). This caused the Iberians to adopt the Arabic noun together with its (fixed) definite article: in Arabic  alfalfal therefore means “the falfal” (the lucerne field), whereas the Spanish “el alfalfal” would literally mean “the the falfal (lucerne) field”.

The rise of Castile and Castilian

The leading force among the Christian principalities of extreme northern Spain in what today is called the Reconquista was Asturias, the north-western redoubt beyond the Cantabrian mountains, whose leaders became known as the kings of Leon (today, the crown prince of Spain still bears the formal title of Prince of Asturias). In this rugged, far-off part of Spain, Romanization had been less intense, and it had also most successfully resisted Visigoth hegemony.  As stated diplomatically by David Pharies: “The inhabitants of this region probably learn a somewhat simplified Latin … The Romance vernacular that arises from this Latin then evolves without the benefit of a strong learned tradition.” This is echoed by Penny: “…Spanish has its geographical roots in … an area remote from the centres of economic activity and cultural prestige in Roman Spain, which was latinized fairly late, and where the Latin spoken must consequently have been particularly remote from the prestige norm (that is, particularly ‘incorrect’)…”

In the tenth century, for the first time, there is reference to the region of the upper Ebro Valley as “Castilla”, the land of the many castles, referring to the numerous fortresses that had been constructed in those parts to safeguard Leon against Muslim attacks. Castile became an independent county in 981CE, and was recognized as a separate Christian kingdom in 1004CE.  Castile truly came to the fore through its conquest in 1085CE of Toledo, the old Visigoth capital of Spain, followed by its part (together with Aragon and Navarre) in the pivotal battle of Navas de Tolosa in 1212CE, which effectively broke Muslim military might in Iberia.

snappa_1466811678As the Moors were driven south, Vulgar Latin once again became the dominant language of Iberia, especially its variant the Castilian dialect. In 1230 Castile absorbed Leon and in 1236 its forces took Córdoba, the erstwhile capital of the Moslem Caliphate – another prestige-enhancing feat. By the middle of the 13th century, after the region of Murcia was re-conquered by the then king of Castile and León, King Alfonso X (who was called “El Sabio” – the wise or learned king), the Castilian language had gained pre-eminence among the Vulgar Latin dialects in Iberia. With large parts of Spain now under his rule, Alfonso X began moving the country toward adopting a standardized language based on the Castilian dialect. He and his court of scholars adopted the city of Toledo, the old cultural center in the central highlands, as the base of their activities. There, scholars wrote original works in Castilian and translated histories, chronicles, and scientific, legal, and literary works from other languages (principally Latin, Greek, and Arabic). Indeed, this historic effort of translation was a major vehicle for the dissemination of knowledge throughout ancient Western Europe. Alfonso X decreed that Castilian be used in his realm for all official documents and other administrative work.

In 1469 another important event in Spanish history took place. Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile married, and united the two main kingdoms of the Peninsula under one monarchy. They also decreed Castilian to be the official language of the realm. This set in motion the creation of the Kingdom of Spain, and the beginning of the modern era in the region.

Columubus brings Castilian to the Americas - 1492

Columbus brings Castilian to the Americas – 1492

In 1492 Columbus took the flag of Castile to the Americas, and thus was born the far-flung Spanish empire. It should be noted, however, that Castilian was most influential in shaping the Spanish spoken in the Americas near its seats of administrative power. In these regional capitals (located mostly in highland areas, such as Mexico City, Antigua Guatemala, Bogota) the dominant influence was from court officials, clergy and academics sent there – they were educated, from Madrid and the north of Spain, and were steeped in Castilian.

When looking more broadly at the type of Spanish spoken in the Americas, it is evident that the dialect typically spoken in Spain’s south-western port city of Seville (then Spain’s largest and wealthiest city, with a monopoly on trade with the Americas) and in the Canary Islands (closely related to the western Andalusian Spanish of the region around Seville, and influential as way-station towards the Americas) significantly shaped the Spanish of the lowlands and the parts of America further removed from the seats of the Castilian-speaking bureaucracy.

Most of the common settlers and soldiers, and especially the women who colonized the Americas were from the poor, less educated regions of the south-west (Andalusia and the Canary Islands)  and their speech quite naturally influenced the areas where they settled, which were often remote from the seats of learning comfortably ensconced on the cooler highlands.  This has given rise to the distinct modern-day speech divergence between Spanish as spoken in the American lowlands and in the highlands – with the lowland variant being more informal, rapid-fire and for example tending not to pronounce the “s”. A common heritage from Canarian / western Andalusian Spanish across all of the Americas, is the fact that ustedes is used without contrast between second-person-plural formal and informal – in clear distinction to the Castilian norm of differentiating.

Another typical speech characteristic distinguishing the Spanish of the Americas from that of Iberia, is the use in the Americas of the “idiomatic” (compounded) future tense construct of ir + verb infinitive, instead of the simple future tense and its conjugations.

 

The Codification of Spanish Grammar

The Gramática de la Lengua Castellana, by Elio Antonio de Nebrija (written in Salamanca in 1492 – the year of the fall of Granada and the discovery of the Americas by Columbus), has the distinction of having been the first grammar handbook ever written for a modern European language. (Similarly, Don Quijote by Miguel de Cervantes was the first ever novel written in a modern European language). According to a popular anecdote, when Nebrija presented his handbook to Queen Isabella I, she asked him what was the use of such a work. He answered that language is the instrument of empire – as he also wrote in his introduction to the grammar, dated August 18, 1492 “… language was always the companion of empire.”

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Very importantly, Nebrija’s first dictum in his handbook was that Spaniards should write (i.e., spell & apply grammar) as they speak, and speak as they write.  Thanks in no small measure to this early stance, Spanish is today fortunate to have easy-to-learn spelling that largely follows the pronunciation of words.

The Real Academia Española (English: Royal Spanish Academy), generally abbreviated as RAE, was founded in 1713.  It is the official royal institution responsible for overseeing the Spanish language. The RAE is based in Madrid, Spain, but is affiliated with national language academies in twenty-one other hispanophone nations through the Association of Spanish Language Academies. The RAE’s motto is “Limpia, fija y da esplendor” (“[it] cleans, sets, and gives splendor”). The RAE dedicates itself to promoting linguistic unity within and between the various Hispanic territories of the world, to ensure a common standard in accordance with Article 1 of its founding charter: “… to ensure the changes that the Spanish language undergoes … do not break the essential unity it enjoys throughout the Spanish-speaking world.”

Quite naturally there are variations in the spoken Spanish of the various regions of Spain, as well as variations throughout the Spanish-speaking areas of the Americas. In Spain, northern dialects are popularly thought of as being closer to the desired standard, although positive attitudes toward southern dialects have increased significantly in the last 50 years. Even so, the speech of Madrid is the standard variety for use on radio and television, and is the variety that has most influenced the written standard for Spanish. There is, however, no notion that any variation originating from, for example, the Americas, is “wrong”. (Consequently, the DELE / SIEL / OPIc exam tests comprehension of all kinds of Spanish accents, and there is NO SINGLE PREFERRED or more “CORRECT” FORM OF SPANISH FOR EXPRESSING YOURSELF IN THESE  TESTS – i.e., you do not have to try and speak / sound like a Madrileño!).

I hope that you have seen now the reasoning behind why Spanish history is part of the DELE exam curriculum. For a better idea of how the rest of the DELE exam curriculum is composed, ask for our FREE in-house Workbook #9 “DELE / SIELE Exam Orientation and Acing Tips“. It is an e-book of some 96 pages, which I would be happy to send you free, as a sample of our study material. Just send me your e-mail address with our convenient contact information form by clicking on the image below (this entails no obligation to register for coaching with us).

Good luck with your exam preparation!

Salu2

Willem

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