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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

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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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TESTED ANSWERS to DELE / SIELE / OPI EXAM FAQs

TESTED ANSWERS to DELE / SIELE / OPI exam FAQs

This Blog post’s Objective: The DELE exam (and its online twin the SIELE, as well as the American equivalent the OPIc) is a very different animal to your typical school or college exam. This is true in terms of practically all its aspects – its goals, its format, curriculum content and assessment criteria / scoring.

Despite this, there unfortunately isn’t that much practical information available in English on the DELE / SIELE exams as such, especially as viewed from the student perspective.  What is available is mostly in high Spanish, written for academics by academics, with a didactic slant dealing with the likes of methodology and desired outcomes i.t.o. the Common European Language Policy Framework, the CEFR. (For the sake of convenience, I’m just going to refer to the DELE from this point on, and not to DELE / SIELE & OPI, since all three systems are founded on the same principles).

For someone who just wants to know what to expect when he/she walks into the exam center, and how best to pass this thing, there isn’t that much on offer. Especially not in English.  As author of this blog post, I am an English-speaker who actually did the DELE C2 exam before I became Director of Studies at DELEhelp (in an earlier life, I i.a. served as ambassador  for President Nelson Mandela and as head of the South African diplomatic academy). I am also the official coordinator of our local accredited SIELE exam center here in la Antigua Guatemala, as well as being an accredited proctor for the OPI tests. Having “been there, done it”, this blog post aims to give practical, battle-tested answers to DELE exam FAQs, culled from real-world experience.

DELE exam FAQS is principally about what you can DO not just know1.  What is the biggest difference between the DELE exam and your typical school or college Spanish language exam?

School mostly tests what you KNOW; the DELE tests what you can DO with your knowledge. The DELE and its sister exams of language proficiency do not ask theoretical questions – they test your actual, applied “communicative competency”. In other words, it grades your ability to COMPREHEND Spanish, both when listening and reading, and to EXPRESS yourself understandably in Spanish, both orally and in writing.

The DELE evaluates your actual ability to express yourself in real-world situations in Spanish, both in writing and orally. It evaluates  your “communicative competency” in terms of four main assessment criteria. These are:

  • how extensive is your linguistic scope (vocabulary and expressions);
  • how correct is your use of the language (grammar, knowing the right word / phrase / pattern of  the language, plus pronunciation in case of the oral, and spelling in case of writing);
  • how coherently are you conveying your message (structure and clarity of meaning); and
  • how fluently do you speak, or how well your writing conforms to the norms for the particular genre (formal / informal letters, journalistic articles etc.)

2.  What does the DELE curriculum consist of?

DELE exam FAQs the curriculum is more than just grammar

The first important point to understand, is that the DELE curriculum consists of much more than just grammar. In fact, grammar is but one of ten main subject fields covered in the curriculum.  Reading through the list, you will understand that some relate to knowledge, and others to communicative skill sets you need to perfect. It all comes back to the fact that the DELE tests what you can actually DO with the knowledge you are required to have.

The grammar curriculum is, of course, extensive and it is important for candidates to know what is required at their particular level. For example, the Subjunctive Mood is only included from level B up, not at Level A (for B1 it is only the Present Subjunctive, while for B2 three further tenses of the subjunctive are added:  Pretérito Imperfecto,  Pretérito Perfecto and the Pretérito Plusquamperfecto).

Other key curriculum components are:

  • PRONUNCIATION
  • SPELLING
  • FUNCTIONAL LANGUAGE USE (abilities such as to ask and give directions, expressing an opinion, to prohibit something, to convey condolences etc. – at level B, for example, there are more than 130 such specific functional usages or “can do” statements listed as required competencies);
  • TACTICS and PRAGMATIC STRATEGIES (construction and interpretation of a discourse, managing modalities such as shifting time-frame, giving focus, upping intensity etc., as well as managing interactive conduct, such as showing and valuing courtesy);
  • GENRES of DISCOURSE and TEXTUAL PRODUCTS (genres of written and oral expression, such as different types of letters, essays, articles, text and e-mail messages, or face-to-face conversation, by telephone, telling a joke, presentations at conferences etc. – for level B2 alone, there are almost 40 such specific genres listed);
  • GENERALIZED and SPECIFIC NOTIONS (managing the expression of notions, which may be generalized, such as of an existential, quantitative, temporal, qualitative, or evaluative nature, or may be specific, such as of personal identity, work, leisure etc.);
  • CULTURAL REFERENCES (general knowledge of the Hispanic countries, their geography, economy and history, politics, religious beliefs etc.);
  • SOCIO-CULTURAL KNOWLEDGE AND BEHAVIOR (background knowledge of Hispanic traditions and customs in the home, the family context, the work-place, school, at leisure etc.) and
  • INTERCULTURAL DEXTERITY (identifying personal perceptions about different cultures and recognition of diversity, plus attitudes towards assimilation of cultures, mediation and interaction).

No language exists in a vacuum. All these topics are important to the socio-cultural situational awareness and communicative skill sets that candidates need in order to be able to express themselves well, and also to do well in the reading and listening comprehension tasks of the exam – but going beyond the exam, to meet the everyday challenges of communicating in real life.

To fully understand the logic behind this extensive curriculum, one needs to comprehend the GOALS or desired OUTCOMES that the DELE system is aimed at. It wants you to be able to function in a real-world Hispanic setting. It’s starting point is the student as “actor in a socio-economic setting”  who needs to communicate. The curriculum therefore covers the essential knowledge and skill sets that one need to possess in order to be able to perform the everyday, real-world communicative tasks you will encounter at your level.  These relate to transacting everyday business ranging from shopping or booking into a hotel to advanced professional transactions at Level C, plus participating in social interactions and producing oral and written presentations – in the case of each DELE level, on subjects related to that particular level’s prescribed scope of outcomes. For more details on the curriculum, see our detailed Blog post on the subject:

For effective DELE / SIELE / OPI exam prep, know the curriculum

PLEASE NOTE: At DELEhelp we have prepared an in-house workbook of some 96 pages, dealing with the DELE’s goals and curriculum as well as with the scoring criteria applied in the exam. This e-workbook is available to you, our readers – completely free and without any obligation – by simply sending me your e-mail address via our convenient contact information form: just click on the image at the bottom of this page.

3.  What is the first thing to do, when starting to prepare for the DELE exam?

DELE exam FAQs first thing to do is get a study plan

If you don’t want to be shooting blindly in the dark, you need a STUDY PLAN.

Your DELE exam study plan needs to start with an inventory of what knowledge and skill sets you will need to perfect for your level, essentially as culled from the curriculum. Against this you have to then check off your existing knowledge and skills.  Where you fall short, that shortfall will need to be the content of your study plan (for example: good pronunciation is clearly an important element, but it may just be that you grew up with Hispanic neighbors and so you have excellent pronunciation, which means that in your case this won’t need to feature in your study plan; on the other hand, you may never have had experience in writing in Spanish, so spelling and knowledge of the different formats or genres of writing will clearly be part of your necessary study content).

Once you’ve determined the required knowledge and skills you still lack, you have to match it against your available time and the resources you will need. These four legs (knowledge you lack, skills you need to perfect, time available and resources required) inform your study plan. Integrating them will give you a practical program that should work for you.

Because the DELE is not a theoretical exam, but one of practical application of communicative skills, it is vital that your current knowledge and skills level be correctly determined by means of an expert diagnostic test at the very outset, and that have available the resources (identified for you by an expert tutor) that you will need to hone your skills.

Properly planned, expertly guided self-study (i.e., learning activity such as studying lexis, and exam-simulating practice, such as of writing) is clearly the key to success, and probably two-thirds of your available time should be dedicated to that.

However, it should be evident that there are aspects tested in these exams that you cannot easily prepare for on your own, just by yourself. First there’s the issue of getting a correct initial (and ongoing) diagnostic test done of your strengths and weaknesses, to help inform your study plan and to keep you on track. Secondly, practicing your written expression skills require interaction with someone qualified. You need expert feed-back and guidance. Most importantly, though, is the ORAL – you can stand in front of the mirror and converse with yourself (and even your Spanish-speaking pals will not be simulating exam situations and giving you expert feed-back). For these elements, but especially the vital oral practice, it is essential to have an experienced DELE exam tutor, 1-on-1, as your key resource, who can give you expert and personal attention. With modern technology such as Skype, you can now benefit from such personalized, expert 1-on-1 tuition in the comfort of your own home, at unbeatable rates.  (At DELEhelp, we charge only US$12 per hour, all inclusive).

Our DELEhelp Blog has a detailed post that specifically deals with how to develop a study plan – to go to it, simply click on this cover:

Click on image to go to blog post

4.  What’s the best general preparation for the DELE exam?

DELE exam FAQs the best prep is to expand your lexis

This is one of the most common DELE exam FAQs. There are two key things that you need to be doing, if you want to be at your best for the exam. The one is to expand your “linguistic scope” as it’s called in the DELE exam scoring criteria. This means expanding your knowledge of Spanish lexis (vocabulary and phrases / expressions). The more words and word chunks you know, the better you will be able to express yourself and the easier you will comprehend what you hear and read.

We have published a DELEhelp blogpost that deals specifically with the importance of vocabulary and how to best expand yours – simply click HERE.

The second is to do as many mock DELE exams as possible. One of the best resources for this, is the ModeloExamen DELE e-books written by our DELEhelp review board member, Prof. David Giménez Folqués of the Spanish department at the University of Valencia, Spain. David has been on the DELE panel since 2006. His books are conveniently downloadable (thus immediately available), and are also very affordable. To access them, click HERE.

5.  What should one be aware of, when registering for the exam?
DELE exam FAQs check out exam center availability

First thing to diarise, would be the exam dates and the deadline dates for registering. There are usually five exam sittings per year, In April, May, July, October and November.  The registrations usually close some five weeks before the relevant exam date. (The SIELE and the OPI can be booked for practically any day of the year, typically at a few days’ notice).

The second thing to check out, would be where your closest exam centers are located. Very important – check whether your particular level of the exam will be offered by the DELE center that you are interested in, on the date you wish to sit it: NOT ALL DELE CENTERS OFFER ALL LEVELS ON ALL DATES. (Once registered, you may NOT change exam centers).

When registering, you obviously need to have your personal photo identification documentation to hand.

The registration fees vary per country and for level of exam taken, but is by no means exorbitant (at exam centers in the USA it will usually range between US$105 for A1 to US$180 for C2).

6.  What should one look out for, in the days immediately leading up to the exam?

DELE xeam FAQs things to do week before

It is a very good idea to visit your exam center in the week ahead of the exam, if just to orientate yourself – especially if it is your first exam.

Speak with the administrators at the DELE exam center about the scheduling of your oral exam session.  Depending on the numbers involved, they may be offering these on the day before the written exam; if you can do the oral on a different day to the written it will help you, because the written exam is intellectually exhausting and doing the oral the same afternoon is no joke.

Ask whether the listening comprehension test will be taken in a communal hall with the audio coming over loudspeakers, or whether each candidate will have their own audio booth with headphones; if you are hearing challenged, you need to point this out in advance – especially if you are told that your particular level’s listening comprehension will be offered in a communal setting, playing over a public address system.

7.  What are the most unexpected practical complications one can encounter, on exam day?

DELE exam FAQs get your writing fingers fit

Some aspects of the DELE experience are not so self-evident and may thus not typically feature among DELE exam FAQs, but are equally important in practice. One of the biggest problems I encountered in preparing for my own  C2, was the painful reality that my fingers had lost the ability to write at length & exam-fast in long-hand. In this age of the keyboard, you have to start practicing well in advance to write long-hand again – to ensure that you can do so speedily yet legibly and, especially, to get your fingers fit again.

Another aspect of writing by hand is that you have to get used to how many words a typical page of your handwriting comes to – the written tasks require that you write a certain number of words for each, and if you have to sit and count each word you wrote in the exam room, you are going to be wasting valuable time.

Time is indeed of the essence in the exam. The time allowed per task is very tight – for example, there’s no way that you will be able to write out a full rough draft of your written expression tasks and then neatly re-write the whole thing. In the oral, it is also important to be able to time yourself so that you can present a coherent, structured argument with intro, body and conclusion in the allotted time. It is therefore essential to bring an old-style watch, since you won’t be allowed to use your smartphone.

8.  How is the DELE oral exam set up?

The oral expression tasks are the one part of the DELE exam that’s examined and scored right there at the exam center, by qualified examiners certified for this purpose (the written portions of the exam are sent to Spain for marking).  The oral scoring is done by two examiners. One acts as the interviewer, and does a holistic assessment. The second examiner sits out of line of sight of the candidate (usually behind) and does a detailed assessment with the aid of what is called the analytical scale.

The oral tasks for all levels starts with a monologue (i.e., a formal presentation), for which the candidate is given time to prepare.  Thereafter, the subsequent oral tasks become dialogues between the candidate and the interviewer, simulating real-world situations.

The oral exam paper explains very clearly what needs to be done, and gives the candidate a lot of guidance regarding what to expect and do – for that reason, it is very important to read the exam paper with utmost care, and ensure that you cover all the aspects required in your presentation.

In the case of the SIELE Oral (S4) and the OPIc (the Oral Proficiency Interview by Computer) the candidate does not speak to a live human interviewer, but to a computer avatar that you see on-screen, since these two exams are done on-line. The principles regarding assessment etc. do, however, remain essentially the same.

 

9.  What are the oral exam interviewers like?DELE exam FAQs oral isn't the Spanish Inquisition

The DELE oral exam is not a modern-day version of the Spanish inquisition. The interviewer is trained to be friendly and facilitating. He or she will at the outset try to put the candidate at ease with an icebreaker conversation (which doesn’t count towards your score). The oral tasks resemble everyday transactions, with the objective of seeing if you can effectively manage them (for example, simulating a conversation where the candidate supposedly is trying to return a defective item to a shop). The DELE orals do not resemble a college oral exam where you are typically asked academic questions with the objective to test your subject knowledge.  The DELE oral primarily tests your practical skill at communicating fluently, coherently and correctly in Spanish.

As in any communicative setting, it is very important to really engage with your interviewer – sit forward, keep eye contact, and remember to smile.

The SIELE/OPIc oral tests have the advantage of using standardized interaction that eliminates the sometimes problematic human factor (although it may at first sound weird to have to speak with a computer avatar, that voice is well modulated and speaks very clearly, and there is no human subjectivity that could skew things). Therefore, a majority of students find it psychologically easier to handle the SIELE/OPIc orals than the live interview of the DELE.

To view our blog post on acing the DELE oral exam, click on the image:

Click on image to go to blog post

10.  Can I make & use notes in the oral exam?

This is another one of the DELE exam FAQs that we commonly get asked. Yes, you may (and absolutely should) make bullet-point notes and prepare a scheme of presentation with a proper structure, so that you can COHERENTLY and FLUENTLY present your argument with a proper intro, a body of proof and a persuasive conclusion. You don’t need to hide these notes during the presentation – it’s fine to have it on the table, as long as you don’t lose eye contact (and thus engagement) with the interviewer by looking down at your notes too much.

What you may not do, is read your notes verbatim.

It’s also a good idea to jot down a list of pre-memorized link phrases (such as: entonces, por eso / por lo tanto / por consiguiente, todavía, mientras, aúnque etc.)  as part of your notes, so that you can be reminded to use them and can easily prompt yourself to do so.  This will help limit the “uhm – ahm” pauses that destroy fluency, as well as give you time to think.

11.  What comes out as most significant in DELE examiner comments on the oral and written expression sessions?

Reviewing examiners’ comments on candidates’ written and oral expression tasks, it is clear that their main concern is the extent to which the candidate communicated effectively.  Small grammatical errors, for example, that don’t interfere with the efficiency with which the candidate is conveying meaning, will not be penalized.  This approach is borne out by the fact that “correctness” (of grammar, spelling, pronunciation etc.) is just one of the four scoring criteria – the others being coherence, linguistic scope and spoken fluency/conformity to written genre. However, if pronunciation or grammar is so poor that meaning cannot be clearly ascertained, then of course the desired communicative outcome cannot be achieved and the candidate will be penalized.

For fluency and coherence, effective structuring of discourse is emphasized, as well as the use of link phrases between thoughts / sentences, to avoid staccato, disjointed presentation (the use of link phrases is mentioned particularly frequently in examiner comments, especially at the lower levels).

An ample linguistic scope (i.e., lexis) is also critically important – if you don’t know the right word or phrase, you won’t be fluent, nor correct or coherent, apart from obviously scoring poorly on the “linguistic scope” criteria as such.  Vocabulary is thus the one issue that impacts each of the four scoring criteria, which makes it a key area for your attention.

In real life as well, if you make a grammatical mistake, your reader or listener usually can compensate mentally for your error and still follow your meaning (such as with wrong gender agreement, for example). If, however, you don’t know the right word or cannot intelligibly pronounce it, your interlocutor cannot really mentally compensate. He or she will likely end up at a loss to understand you, and thus the conveyance of meaning will have collapsed – which in the DELE exam will of course be seriously penalized.

As regards “correctness”, it is therefore first and foremost a question of the correct word or phrase, correctly pronounced (or spelled). Repeated grammatical mistakes that show a lack of command of the basics will also negatively impact your score on this criterion; the most frequently mentioned such niggles are errors in agreement of gender and number, and incorrect use of ser / estar and of por / para.

12.  How long does it take to receive the exam results? The actual diploma?

The DELE marking process takes about three months on average.  The results are published on the Instituto Cervantes website, for which you need to fill in your exam registration number and birth date in order to access yours (so remember to keep your registration number).  The actual diploma takes a couple of months more to reach the successful candidates, since it needs to be signed by some important officials. This is what the actual diploma looks like:

DELE C2 diploma example

This is what the DELE Diploma looks like.

The beauty of the SIELE and the OPI is that their results typically are available within 72 hours, with an immediately-downloadable certificate.

The DELE diploma is valid for life, the SIELE for five years and the OPI certificate for two years.

13.  Do the DELE exam administrators sometimes make mistakes with the marks or with the diplomas?

The examiners and administrators are human, so mistakes do sometimes occur. The DELE system makes provision for a formal review process. This usually applies to candidates feeling hard done by in the scoring of the expression tasks (where human examiners award marks).  Mistakes can, however, also occur in relation to the comprehension tasks – not that the computer had made a mistake in scoring these multiple choice papers, but that the human who must transfer the computer’s score to the candidate’s overall results sheet slipped up. At DELEhelp we actually had such an experience recently. One of our brightest students passed the expression tasks with flying colors, but then inexplicably “failed” the comprehension tasks quite miserably – supposedly obtaining the exact same point for both the listening and the reading comprehension. When we helped the candidate to formally query this, it transpired that the actual marks had been wrongly transferred; this was immediately rectified and our 100% success record with our candidates at DELEhelp was thus duly restored.

I also know first-hand that whole sets of diplomas can get “lost” through being inadvertently sent to the wrong exam center – those for Antigua Guatemala, for example, not so long ago ended up somewhere in Brazil, and took months to find their way to where they needed to go.

In other words, if you feel that something may have gone wrong with your exam results, don’t hesitate to query it (through the right channels, of course).

CONCLUSION: So, there you have some battle-tested answers to DELE exam FAQs we commonly receive.  We would like to keep this blog post updated and also expand this list of DELE / SIELE & OPI exam FAQs, so please send us your questions so that we can answer and include them.

click on image to ask for free workbook

Good luck with your exam preparation, and remember to ask for our free 96-page Workbook #9.2: “DELE / SIELE Exam Orientation and Acing Tips”.  This one-of-a-kind free DELE / SIELE 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 /  SIELE exam. Just click on the image above, to ask for it. (If you want our OPI exam prep Workbook #8, we’ll gladly send you that free, too).

You are also entitled to a free one-hour Skype exploratory session with us, with absolutely no obligation.

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%.

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click on image to ask for free workbook

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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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.”

snappa_1466795761

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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The best DELE exam prep is expanding your lexis

The best DELE exam prep is expanding your lexisThe best DELE exam prep is expanding your lexis of words & expressions

If you wake me up at 4am with a gun to my head and ask what you should prioritize in your Spanish exam preparation, then I will unhesitatingly tell you that the best DELE exam prep is expanding your lexis. This applies also to preparing for the DELE’s new online twin, the SIELE, and to it’s American equivalent, the OPI.

Lexis is the catch-all modern term for knowledge of individual words (vocabulary), fixed “word chunks” (collocations), link phrases and idiomatic expressions.  Think of lexis this way: you may be the most talented, best trained marksman in the world – but if you don’t have bullets for your gun, you can’t function. Words and expressions are the bullets of the world of communication, so that expanding your lexis is the best DELE exam prep – no ifs, no buts.

Exams like the DELE / SIELE & OPI are above all tests of practical ability to communicate. Therefore, even if you know all the rules of grammar but lack sufficient lexis, you will very likely be stuck when it comes to the comprehension tasks, as well as when you have to express yourself in Spanish. To test the truth of this for yourself, just recall your own experiences with foreigners trying to speak to you in your own tongue. If they know the right words and expressions and are thus able to describe what thing or action they are referring to (even if in somewhat jumbled word order), and can pronounce reasonably understandably,  then your brain is perfectly capable of compensating for grammatical errors and arriving at a correct understanding.

However, if the foreigner doesn’t know the words or phrases needed for describing, or pronounces them so badly that you cannot identify them, then there is no way for you to understand – there’s simply nothing sensible that your brain can latch onto, to help you make deductions. Which is exactly why the best DELE exam prep is expanding your lexis.

Sufficiently ample lexis therefore plays a key role in all four real-world communication skills, which form the four components of the DELE /SIELE and OPI.  Accordingly, the time you spend on expanding your lexis is an essential investment in future success, and by far the best DELE / SIELE / OPI exam preparation (because these three are very similar in format and assessment criteria, we will, for convenience and brevity, from here on refer to them collectively by the DELE’s name only).

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How best to acquire an extensive lexis

Expanding your lexis requires four sequential learning activities:

  •  The first is to expose yourself maximally to new words and expressions as they are being used in their everyday, correct context (so that you can better understand their meaning).  This is done through reading a wide range of written Spanish, and by listening to spoken Spanish, and – very importantly – keeping note of new words that you encounter.
  • The second step is to look up the new words in a good dictionary (the online kind – which also gives you pronunciation – is most useful).
  • The third step is to note this word or expression, together with its meaning. In the case of nouns, note also the word’s gender. For verbs you should jot down its peculiarities of conjugation, such as whether it is regular or irregular, plus its gerund and past participle).
  • The last step is to memorize these words, for which flashcards are the best tool.

The best DELE exam prep is expanding your lexis

In our  blog post on the best online free learning resources, we listed links to useful publications in Spanish, as well as to streaming talk-radio stations that you can listen to.  This you should do as part of your “passive learning”, meaning that you should try and have Spanish radio or TV on as background for as much of the day as possible, and read Spanish for relaxation. When you are reading, read out loud, to benefit at the same time from practice in articulating these words and getting your body’s “tools of speech” used to forming Spanish sounds. We also recommended the world’s largest online dictionary, The Free Dictionary by Farlex.

USE FLASHCARDS:

The best DELE exam prep is expanding your lexis

The proven best way of noting and learning vocabulary is by means of flashcards.  These can be of the traditional cardboard type (just make sure that it’s thick enough so you can’t see through the cardboard). However, the digital revolution and the internet now give us free tools that allow for far less boring ways of practicing what may otherwise appear to be a soul-numbing activity (albeit an essential one).

You can download software such as Anki or Quizlet or  Cram.com, where you will have access to thousands of existing Spanish vocabulary lists, or create your own ones. (Cram, which is free, is partnered with the National Tutoring Association of the USA; you can share your Cram url with your tutor, so she can monitor your progress).

The best DELE exam prep is expanding your lexis

A particularly nice and valuable aspect of Cram is its “learning through games” technology. It is really useful when you are a home-based self-study student, without someone else available with whom you can “play” the traditional cardboard flashcards.

When planning your lexis expansion, the next key question is: which words should you be focusing on?  In this, your DELE exam level is clearly pivotal.  At the lower levels, DELE prioritizes vocabulary related to your own life needs (family, work, school, immediate environment and everyday transactions). At the top end, DELE requires you to be able to manage virtually every situation imaginable – the very top C2 diploma refers to “mastery” of Spanish and could be equated to a post-graduate level of linguistic scope and command.  For the higher levels, it is noteworthy that many of the texts used in the exams are actually taken from the heavyweight Spanish daily press, such as El Mundo and El País (and not just from front-page news; more likely the supplements such as on culture, science and art).

Because the examen DELE is so strongly focused on real-life communicative skills (as opposed to purely academic criteria) it is useful to familiarize yourself first with the most frequently used Spanish words.  The reason for this lies not only in the logic of learning these high-frequency words for the sake of their own meaning; it is a reality that most “difficult” words have situational meaning, and these common, high-frequency words typically provide the surrounding (con)text of less frequent, less well-known words. Knowing the high-frequency ones first, will help you to understand broad situations and thus to surmise from their contextual setting, the meaning of unfamiliar words.

Because the best DELE exam prep is expanding your lexis, we’ve developed two in-house Workbooks to help you achieve this

Our in-house DELEhelp Workbooks on lexis – #4 (vocabulary) & #5 (expressions, collocations and link phrases)

Here at DELEhelp we have prepared a Vocabulary Workbook (free to our registered students) which is firstly based on computer studies that identified the most frequently used Spanish words by scanning thousands of soap opera episodes.  With this, at least you will know that the words you are learning have real-world utility.

This Workbook shows you how to set up digital flashcard systems such as Cram.com. It also focuses on the some 38% of high-frequency vocabulary that English and Spanish have in common (the so-called cognate words) and the fixed set of rules that govern their conversion.  You will probably know that Spanish and English are both members of the Indo-European family of languages, so it is not really surprising that they have approximately 25,000 words in common.  By learning the dozen or so conversion rules or patterns, one can acquire a significant instant vocabulary.  An example of such a rule is that cognate words that in English end on “-ce” (police, ambulance) will in Spanish end on “-cia” (policia, ambulancia).

The best DELE exam prep is expanding your lexis

Check out our DELEhelp Facebook page for regular bite-size tips like this

Our Workbook #5 completes the set about lexis and will help you with Spanish link phrases, collocations as well as idioms and expressions. The correct and natural use of such expressions and phrases are important to the ability to idiomatically, coherently  and fluently communicate in Spanish.  Be sure to pay special attention to the first chapter of our WB#5, which deals with link phrases / cohesive devices – just a quick glance at examiners’ comments will show you how intensely they are on the look-out for the correct and sufficient use of these, because of their vital role in ensuring the logical coherence of your arguments and the cohesive flow of your discourse.

Lastly, note also that that language is composed of much more than just individual words and idiomatic expressions. We now understand that there are about three times more collocations (fixed “word chunks” or word pairs) in most languages than the number of individual words in their vocabulary. Examples of these word pairs in English are “good morning”  (which we say whether it’s rain or shine) or saying that someone’s got “blond hair” (not yellow) and that we “make friends” (not get them); these habitual pairings reflect natural native-speaker language (if you say something like “yellow hair”, for example, you will be understood, but you will not sound natural).

The best DELE exam prep is expanding your lexis

To re-cap: lexis is really, truly important to your success in all the components of the examen DELE. The best DELE exam prep is expanding your lexis. To do this, you should immerse yourself as much as possible in spoken and written Spanish, by reading and listening or watching TV at every opportunity. Note new words, phrases, collocations and expressions, look them up in a reliable dictionary (together with their gender or conjugation, and of course their pronunciation) and then include them in your flashcard set. There’s unfortunately no alternative but then to put in the hard effort of memorizing them, by practicing with your flashcards and testing yourself with flashcard games – which can be quite stimulating with the digital flashcard games, as opposed to the mind-numbing exercise of memorizing printed lists.  Motivate yourself with the certainty that far and away the best DELE exam prep is expanding your lexis.

Here’s an Infographic of how to go about it, as a memory-jogger.

Hasta la proxima

Salu2

Willem

As a final point of interest (for the purists), regarding the cover photo of this blog post and its phrase “…all the other saurus“. You may be thinking that it should have read “sauri”, which is the normal plural of “saurus”. However: Dinosaur taxonomic names, when used in their formal (Latin) form should *NEVER* be pluralized. They refer to the taxon, and not to an individual of that taxon (see: re. Saurus Plurals)

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Links to best Spanish exam prep resources

Links to best Spanish exam prep resources

LINKS to best Spanish exam prep RESOURCES

This blog post brings together links to the best Spanish exam prep resources, to help you prepare for the DELE, SIELE or OPIc. We have selected for you, the top free online sites for practicing with relevant exercises graded per level, for doing model exams and for expanding your lexis with digital flashcards, based on appropriate reading, viewing and listening.

In preparing for the DELE exam ( “el examen DELE”), or for its online twin the SIELE, or the American equivalent OPIc, one needs a much wider range of resources than just a good Spanish grammar handbook. This is due to the special nature of these communicative exams, such as the DELE diploma.  It tests your ability to communicate in Spanish – that is, to understand and to make yourself understood – rather than simply testing your knowledge of the rules of Spanish verb conjugation.

It is particularly important for one’s understanding of Spanish (i.e., for the reading and listening comprehension portions of the exam) to have a broad reference framework of Hispanic culture, history, traditions and lifestyle, against the backdrop of which you can contextualize what you read or hear. You also have to get your ear attuned to different Spanish accents. Similarly, your eye/mind must get accustomed to fast-reading Spanish text. At a more specifically exam-orientated level, you need to familiarize yourself with the exam format, and practice the skills it will require of you.

In years past, assembling the necessary DELE / SIELE / OPIc resources for self-study would have entailed frequent trips to the library, or costly subscriptions and book purchases. Fortunately, in today’s modern world of the internet, candidates for exams of Spanish have instant access to some truly excellent online resources, of which practically all are available gratis.

We have assembled a list of links to the best Spanish exam prep resources – websites that we use every day at DELEhelp.org with our own students. Even though we have written an ample set of in-house workbooks (which we make available free to our students) the reality is that preparing for the DELE exam is 1/3  tutoring and 2/3 self-study. For the latter, the resources we list here are as empowering as they are easy to access.  The importance of active self-study, accompanied by passively immersing yourself in a Hispanic culture and the sound of Spanish at every opportunity, cannot be over-stressed.

Links to the best Spanish exam prep resources

Our recommended e-book of model exams

FIRST AND FOREMOST: DOING MODEL EXAMS

To get a true sense of what these very different kind of exams entail, it is critically important to start doing model exams as early as possible. Doing these exams also serve as the most reliable diagnostic tool for assessing the current status of your Spanish competency, which initial diagnostic (we do it FREE) will enable your tutor and yourself to identify and address your weaknesses.  

The only model exams available for preparing for the Spanish exams, are those for the DELE (simply because the SIELE and OPIc are online, computer-based exams for which the question configuration varies constantly, although the formats remain the same). However,  since all three exams are based on the CEFR (the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) using the DELE model exams are excellent and very relevant practice for all three exams, for all four the skill sets tested (reading & listening comprehension plus Written and oral expression).

The particular DELE model exams we use and recommend, are available as e-books. This ensures quick availability (most of the other model exam books exist only in print and are often difficult to obtain via Amazon, needing to be ordered from the publisher in Spain, taking time to reach you). Of the list of resources that we will provide today, this is the only one that isn’t entirely free (however, the e-books we recommend are much cheaper than the print books, being only €9.90 each, which includes its audio tracks and answer keys – for the print books you usually have to buy the answer keys additionally, and pay postage).

Links to best Spanish exam prep resources

ModeloExamen DELE Facebook group

We recommend the Nuevo Examen Dele e-books by our collaborator Dr. David Giménez Folqués, which you can order online via this link.

Being e-books they are up-to-date, easy to use, affordable and available immediately for download.

There is also a Facebook group for these model exam books, which you can join via this link.

PRACTICE SPANISH WITH THE EXAM ADMINISTRATORS

Links to best Spanish exam prep resourcesThe Instituto Cervantes (which oversees the DELE and SIELE exams on behalf of the Spanish ministry of education) runs a marvelously useful joint effort with the Spanish news agency EFE.  It is called Practicaespañol, and it has as objective to provide daily practice to learners of Spanish, based on the news actualities of the day. The exercises are graded in terms of the different DELE levels and contain all the elements tested in the DELE / SIELE, including audio and reading comprehension, grammar tips and vocabulary lists – all with English translation in parallel. One can subscribe to the site, which is entirely free, to receive daily e-mail feeds with exercises and news articles. This truly great resource can be accessed via this link.

Another initiative of the Instituto Cervantes is the Cervantesvirtual online library and video collection. It is a magnificent resource for books in Spanish, and also has a YouTube channel where videos with interviews and cultural excerpts are regularly carried.  These resemble the type of audio material used in the exams for listening comprehension and therefore form a valuable resource for practicing this aspect of the exam.  You can access the Cervantes YouTube channel via this link:

PRESS AND LITERATURE

Logo_ElmundoVery often the Reading Comprehension texts in the DELE exams are taken from the two leading Spanish daily newspapers, El Mundo and El País. These both have free online editions. This is the El Mundo link.

elpaislogo

Remember to not only read the front page actualities, but also the specialized sections on education, art & culture, science and the like. El País has got an edition for the Americas, which can be reached via this link.

There’s a wide range of free e-books in Spanish available today, both from Amazon Kindle and from Free e-Books.net.  As part of your passive learning, reading Spanish books for pleasure is a good way of expanding vocabulary, getting a feel for spelling, and learning about Spanish society’s values and norms.

Free e-Books.net’s Spanish section can be reached via this link.

The free Spanish e-book section on Kindle can be reached via this link.

RADIO AND FILM / YOUTUBE

An important segment of our links to best Spanish exam prep resources, relate to video and radio – because in these exams of communicative competency, the proven most difficult skills are the listening comprehension and oral expression. 

An excellent free resource for attuning your ear, expanding your lexis and mastering the most frequent grammar patterns, is the award-winning 11-part video series “Mi Vida Loca” produced by the Spanish section of the educational division of the BBC. This resembles a telenovela (which makes it interesting to watch), but it is in fact a very well-designed multi-function audiovisual tutorial, well worth watching.Links to best Spanish exam prep resources

To really immerse yourself in the sound of Spanish, there’s no better way than keeping Spanish talk radio on in the background. We selected one channel each from Spain, Argentina and Mexico, which have live streaming via the internet.  These channels will give you opportunity to attune your ear to different accents, and have the advantage that they are spread through different time zones. Listening to them will also keep you abreast of current affairs in the Hispanic world, as well as giving you an insight into the Hispanic outlook on life.

SPAIN: RNE Radio5 todo noticias (http://www.rtve.es/radio/radio5/)

MEXICO: Metropoli 1470am (http://www.radioformula.com.mx/) select “radio en vivo”

ARGENTINA: Radio Mitre (http://player.cienradios.com/Mitre_AM790)

Listening to the radio in the background is a largely passive learning exercise. More active listening and viewing can be achieved by looking at Spanish film and soap operas. Netflix has a wide range of material in Spanish, from children’s programmes (which would suit the beginner levels) through comedy to serious drama. It is often possible to view these with English subtitles. If you aren’t subscribed to Netflix, many Spanish-language soapies are available free on YouTube.

One of the best telenovelas for more advanced students, is “la Reina del Sur”, based on the acclaimed novel by top Spanish author Arturo Pérez-Reverte. This series provides good exercise in following different accents (such as the Mexican/Sinaloan, North African, Andalusian and Galician).    

Links to best Spanish exam prep resources

EXPANDING YOUR LEXIS (VOCABULARY & EXPRESSIONS)

One of the main purposes of listening to radio / TV and reading books and the news media, is to expand your lexis: your vocabulary, link phrases, collocations and expressions. It is impossible to express yourself properly without an ample lexis, and equally impossible to comprehend fully what you read or hear, if you do not possess a substantial “knowledge of words and of the world”. This latter phrase was stated as the key to succeeding in comprehension tests, by one of the leading experts in the field (see our blog post with tips for acing the reading comprehension portion of the DELE exam, for more on the critical importance of an ample lexis).
Links to best Spanish exam prep resourcesProbably the greatest tool for researching the meaning and correct use of the new words that you encounter in your reading and listening, is the world’s largest online dictionary: Farlex-theFreeDictionary.  It helps you identify words that you may not have the exact spelling for, and gives the meaning and uses of words in Spanish, as well as giving it in English. You can also listen to a correct pronunciation. The Free Dictionary by Farlex can be accessed via this link.

Once you have clarified the meaning and use of a new word, it is essential to memorize it.  The best means of doing so is by using flashcards – either the old-fashioned cardboard ones, or (preferably) the new digital versions. You can download flashcard software, such as ANKI.com or Quizlet (paid). Links to best Spanish exam prep resourcesOr you can access free online flashcard repositories that already have thousands of sets of Spanish words available, such as Cram.com (you can also create your own sets on Cram, which has a very nice selection of flashcard games with which you can learn your words while playing, rather than having to rote learn them and bore yourself to close to death).

Anki can be downloaded via this link.

Cram.com’s existing Spanish word flashcard sets can be accessed via this link.

The links we have provided above are all for your PC/laptop; these sites also have apps, which you can download on your mobile device.

Links to best Spanish exam prep resources

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ONE OF THE TOP LINKS TO BEST SPANISH EXAM PREP RESOURCES: OUR FREE  DELEhelp WORKBOOK:

At DELEhelp we have created in-house Workbooks to supplement the public resources such as the above, filling gaps in the latter’s scope with regard to students’ needs. These workbooks are available free to our registered students. Some of them are also available free to the readers of this blog (see image above). You can ask for the download link to our 95-page Workbook #9.2: DELE /SIELE Exam Orientation and Acing Tips, free and without obligation to register for classes – simply click on the image to access our easy contact form

This free sample e-book is the only DELE/SIELE exam preparation book to explain in detail, in English, the DELE/SIELE’s exam goals, structure, curriculum inventory and scoring criteria. You can unsubscribe at any time, so why not give it a try and receive this valuable resource as a free gift.

So, there you have our curated links to the best Spanish exam prep resources. To learn more about our personalized DELEhelp online exam prep coaching services, please access our page on the website of our mother institution, Excellentia Didactica, by clicking on the image below. With us, you can study in the comfort of your own home (which is both convenient and cost effective), with your own personalized study plan based on our comprehensive initial diagnostic (which is free), enjoying the experienced and expert guidance of your 1-on-1 coach – all at the unbeatably low rates that our being based in low-cost Guatemala makes possible.

Gracias por su atención

Hasta pronto

Willem

Links to best Spanish exam prep resources

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Focus your DELE / SIELE / OPI exam Preparation

Focus your DELE / SIELE / OPI exam preparation

To properly focus your DELE / SIELE / OPI exam preparation you need a study plan

Since most students’ time is at a premium, you need to focus your DELE / SIELE / OPI exam preparation. Hitting the bull’s-eye (whether for the DELE, or for its online twin the SIELE or the American OPI) depends a lot on having a proper STUDY PLAN. Approaching these exams in a similar way to how you would learn for a school or college exam, simply won’t do – because they test for very different things: school or college test your abstract academic knowledge, where-as these exams are all about the four communicative skills – about what you can actually DO.

So, what data do you need, to be able to plan properly – to correctly focus your DELE / SIELE / OPI exam preparation? And, with the  data in hand,  how do you go about crafting your study plan? This blog post will answer those key questions. (Since the DELE and SIELE share the same curriculum and scoring criteria, and that of the OPI package of tests is very similar, we will – for brevity and convenience – from this point on, refer to the three exams only by the name of the DELE).

WHAT DO YOU NEED FOR PLANNING:

To plan properly, you need to know and understand the knowledge and skill sets that  the  “examen DELE ” curriculum requires of candidates at your level.  Hand-in-hand with that, you need to identify your own shortcomings in relation to those knowledge and skill sets, as measured in a proper diagnostic, against the four scoring criteria that examiners will use to assess you. Then you have to identify the resources that you will require to overcome your shortcomings.  Lastly you have to build in a feedback mechanism, to assess whether your draft plan is adequate, and thereafter to monitor your progress (so that you can continuously adapt, as and when necessary).

To comprehend the knowledge and skill sets that DELE requires, you firstly have to be very clear about the system’s goals, as well as  the  structure, curriculum, and scoring criteria for your level of the exam. Our free DELEhelp Workbook #9 entitled “DELE / SIELE Exam Orientation and Acing Tips” is a great resource for these topics; this one-of-a-kind DELE exam preparation book is in English, which helps a lot  because the original curricula and scoring guidance documentation are written in high Spanish (by academics, for academics).

Focus your DELE / SIELE / OPI exam preparation

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Secondly, once you know the DELE exam system inside out, you have to look at the other side of the planning equation – namely the extent of your own existing knowledge and skills. This you then have to measure gainst all the things listed as required in the curriculum inventory and scoring criteria (because your plan evidently needs to focus on learning what you don’t yet know, and practicing what you cannot yet do i.t.o. communicative skills). But this is one of the most difficult things to do on your own – how do you know what you don’t know? How well are you actually communicating?

This essential initial diagnostic input is an important part of the value that an experienced tutorial service with expertise in DELE exam prep can add. Without clarity about the shortcomings in your  knowledge of Spanish, plus clarity about the curricular and scoring requirements for your level of DELE, your “planning” will be like shooting blindly into the dark (see our blog post about the need to know the DELE curriculum for more on this).

Focus your DELE / SIELE / OPI exam prep

To Focus your DELE / SIELE / OPI exam preparation, know the curriculum

Be aware, though, that in preparing for the DELE exam, planning how to acquire the relevant knowledge of Spanish and its cultural context that you still lack, isn’t enough. This is because of  the unique nature of the DELE system. It isn’t so much WHAT you know that’s tested (in other words, it’s not your typical school exam format).  Rather, it’s your ability to APPLY that knowledge in real-world communicative settings, that’s being assessed.  Therefore, in addition to acquiring the relevant knowledge, you particularly need to plan to acquire and practice those communicative skills as well.

THE “DEMAND SIDE” VERSUS THE “SUPPLY SIDE” OF YOU PLAN:

It is only once you understand WHAT you have to learn about Spanish and the Hispanic world, as well as how you will be MARKED, plus what SKILLS you have to hone,  that you will have assembled all the ingredients required to draw up what we may call the “demand side”  of your own individualized DELE exam preparation plan.  Remember that your plan needs to help you to meet all of the knowledge and skills demanded by the four sets of pruebas (tests) of which DELE consist.  Because in order to pass the exam, you have to obtain a pass grade for each section (i.e., for each of the four skills) namely reading comprehension, listening comprehension, expression in writing and oral expression.

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With the demand side of your plan drawn up,  you next have to look at the “supply side” – you have to identify appropriate RESOURCES for acquiring the relevant knowledge and for helping you hone the required skills. Here it is important to keep in mind that your DELE preparation plan needs to be much more than merely scheduling hours of study; above all, you have to practice applying that knowledge. Because the DELE is first and foremost a practical test of your ability to actually communicate in Spanish, and not of merely possessing theoretical knowledge about it.

By matching the supply/demand and resources elements of the equation to your available time, you will arrive at a draft DELE exam preparation plan.

FOCUS YOUR DELE / SIELE / OPI EXAM PREPARATION – BUILD IN A FEEDBACK LOOP:

But how will you know whether your draft DELE exam preparation plan is appropriate? You can wait for the exam results to come out, and then judge – but that may mean that you had  invested a lot of time and effort, preparing on the basis of a defective plan that missed key requirements, or which wrongly assessed your own strengths and weaknesses.

To be safe rather than sorry, you need expert assessment and feed-back at the very start on both your current level of Spanish and on your draft plan. You need this BEFORE you start investing time and effort in preparation based on perhaps an inadequate plan. Thereafter, once you’re practicing what you’ve planned, you need regular assessment and feed-back about how well your preparation is actually going, so that you can adapt where necessary. Ideally, therefore, you need experienced guidance from the word go in setting out designing the right DELE exam preparation plan for your particular needs, followed by regular feedback during your implementation of it, showing how well your preparation is progressing. You don’t want to be bluffing yourself…

The good news is – there’s no need to re-invent the wheel with regard to all of this, trying to do it all on your own. It is sensible to get help.  DELEhelp.

Who are our typical DELEhelp students? They are independent, self-motivated individuals, who can do things for and by themselves. They are way beyond needing to sit in a classroom, in order to learn something. They want to study in the comfort of their own homes, without having to abandon family, business or workplace for any stretch of time just to go back to some school to muddle along with laggards in group classes.  Neither do they want the additional cost of travel and accommodation that goes with attending classes at a residential school. What they want to do is guided self-study, with access via Skype to an expert tutor for regular assessment, guidance, practice and feed-back.

Our students want their tutors to be practical and goal-orientated, trained to view the DELE challenge from the student’s perspective, not that of the typical Spanish grammar maestra.  Their time is valuable, so our students  want quality time with their tutor, who must provide personal attention based on an individualized study plan designed for their particular needs. Because they are busy, our students want flexible time schedules. And because our students know that money doesn’t grow on trees, they want affordable rates (which we can offer, being based in competitively-priced Guatemala – only US$14 per hour of actual Skype time, with our study material made available free and including the initial diagnostic). For more detail on our 1-on-1 coaching services, check out our secure website by clicking on this image:

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DRAWING UP YOUR EXAM PREPARATION PLAN:

In coming to grips with the demand side of the plan, it is important to know that the DELE system is part of the Common European language learning policy framework (the CEFR). This includes a very well developed, highly detailed curriculum inventory for each DELE level. Contrary to what is commonly believed, this curriculum isn’t limited to grammar and spelling.  These are the actual curriculum inventory chapters for Level B: (1) Grammar; (2) Pronunciation; (3) Spelling; (4) Functional Language Usage – i.e., the important “can do” statements; (5) Tactics and Pragmatic Strategies; (6) Genres of Discourse and Textual Products; (7) Generalized and Specific Notions; (8) Cultural References; (9) Socio-Cultural Knowledge and Behaviour; and (10) Intercultural Dexterity.

It is unfortunately true that the original source documents are in academic Spanish that may be beyond the grasp of most students. Our FREE Workbook #9 summarizes the curriculum plus scoring criteria in English, in some 96 pages – it is available free and without obligation, as a download from DropBox (if you haven’t yet done so, you can click on the book promo image above,  or on THIS LINK, and use the convenient contact form to ask for it).

To properly assess one’s own existing knowledge and skills levels in relation to what’s required i.t.o. the curriculum, so as to see what you don’t yet know / can’t yet do, is extremely difficult on your own, just by yourself.  The best way is by doing a properly moderated diagnostic of all four skills, using an actual DELE exam at the appropriate level. For  this you will need the assistance of a qualified tutor, because an important part of the exam consists of assessing your ability to express yourself orally and in writing. This means that someone with the appropriate experience and expertise (i.e., your DELEhelp coach) will have to listen to you speaking, and read what you’ve written, and judge from it your strengths and weaknesses. Even the comprehension portion of the exam – which consists of multiple choice questions – requires the guidance of a tutor if you want to understand why certain answers are correct, and others not.

This need for a personal coach goes beyond just the initial diagnostic: doing as many model exams as you can fit in, needs to be an important part of your DELE exam preparation – but to be optimally effective, expert guidance and feed-back are essential. Not only is doing model exams the best way of familiarizing you with what to expect, but it also is the best diagnostic tool for ongoing assessment of your progress and thus for guiding adaptations to your preparation plan, where necessary.

RESOURCES AND TIME ALLOCATION:

In addition to the reference materials regarding the curriculum and scoring criteria that we’ve already mentioned, you will have deduced by now that one of your principal resources will be a good personal, 1-on-1 tutor. This is true not only for initial and ongoing assessment, but also for assisting you with grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary, Hispanic history and culture, and ESPECIALLY for practicing the very essential written and oral presentation skills that you will need. A tutor will be able to help you with your shortcomings in grammar, suggesting suitable resources and guiding your grammar practice. For making your practicing of the written and oral expression tasks functional, the tutor as your “exam interviewer” is obviously indispensable. Fortunately these services are readily available from us, on flexible schedules via Skype, for as little as US$14 per hour.

Our emphasis on the need for expert guidance and practice with your tutor must not leave the impression that DELE exam preparation can be sufficiently accomplished by merely sitting at the feet of some guru.  Two-thirds of your available preparation time should still be allocated to SELF-STUDY. One of the  real keys to success in the DELE exam is having a sufficiently ample LEXIS – knowing the right word / collocation, link phrase or expression, plus how to pronounce it, and how to spell it. That is why we say, in the blog post linked to below, that the best single thing you can do as prep for the DELE exam is to EXPAND YOUR LEXIS (click on the image to go to the blog post)

Your self-study will take two forms – passive and active. For expanding your vocabulary and your background knowledge of the Hispanic world, you need to expose yourself as much as possible to spoken Spanish, having talk radio or TV on for as much of the day as possible, and  reading Spanish for relaxation whenever you have a free moment (when you read, read out loud – it helps you practice articulating at the same time).

On the active side, you need to reserve lots of time for researching new words and expressions you’ve encountered while reading/listening, recording them on flashcards, and memorizing them. You also have to actively do grammar exercises, do comprehension tests, read up on Hispanic traditions, culture and history as prescribed for your level in the DELE curriculum, plus practice your oral and written presentation skills. An excellent resource for familiarizing yourself with the Hispanic background prescribed in the DELE curriculum, is the MS-Office “Smart Lookup” tool – our Workbook #9 covering the curriculum inventory is structured in such a way that you can highlight any given keyword in the curriculum text (i.e., something like Iguazu waterfall), right-click on it, and then click on “Smart Lookup” in the drop-down menu, which will immediately give you a succinct description of the event, place, person or issue, plus links to more detailed resources.

We have also developed a comprehensive series of in-house workbooks, in English, to cover essential aspects –  these workbooks our students receive FREE, upon registering with us for personalized exam prep coaching. Here are the covers of just two of them:

Focus your DELE / SIELE / OPI exam preparation

TOOLS & TIME NEEDED:

For practicing your oral presentation skills, a recording device is essential (most modern phones can capture video, or at least audio). You need to include ample practice time for oral presentation (recording yourself, and then reviewing it). This is in addition to the guided presentation practice that you will get with your tutor, simulating with her the oral expression tasks in the model exams during your 1-on-1 Skype sessions.

Doing the initial diagnostic exam needs to simulate as realistically as possible the actual exam time constraints. Ideally, you need to set aside a sufficient block of time on some day of the week, to be able to do the entire exam in one sitting (as you will eventually have to do at the exam center). This is essential for practicing your timing of doing the different tasks – the DELE exam can rightly be described as a race against the clock. Especially at the upper levels these exams are  also intellectually draining, so by continuing to do model exams while observing the time constraints, you will get “fit” for concentrating for the duration (and not in the least to get your fingers used once again to writing for extended periods by hand – given that in our modern world we are used to text or type, rather than write longhand).

So – how many hours of preparation do you need for the DELE exam? There can be no rule of thumb, because every plan needs to be individualized, based on the strengths and weaknesses of the particular candidate, as well as on how high he or she wants to try and reach (the DELE exam levels need not be taken in sequence – one can enroll straight away for the highest level C2, without being near that level yet; the preparation will then need to be so much more extensive and intensive, but it can and has been done).

To properly focua your DELE / SIELE / OPI exam preparation, the best advice is to start well in advance of your targeted exam date, working with your coach to do the diagnostic and draft your personal study plan, and ten to commence your guided preparation and assess your progress as you advance. The experience you gain of how fast you are progressing, and seeing in practice how much time you actually have available per week,  will allow you to realistically adjust your preferred exam date (fortunately there are now many exam sittings through-out the year, particularly with the SIELE and the OPI packages, which can be set down for practically any day). For the self-study student this would be the most practical approach, allowing the necessary preparation time to be spread over the time actually available to you, taking into account work and other obligations.

DELE C2 diploma example

This is what the DELE Diploma looks like.

THE NECESSITY OF EXPERT GUIDANCE AND FEED-BACK:

We understand and respect that self-study students have a life and therefore have many obligations to juggle, whilst having the will to succeed on their own. However, because of the nature of these exams that test your “can do” skills rather than book knowledge, it is important to have someone expert to practice with, to guide you and give you feed-back.  (This, incidentally, is why attending group classes for DELE exam prep typically isn’t effective, because of the limited opportunity for practice and the lack of personal attention).

If you want to know more detail about the didactic foundation of our tutoring methodology and see examples of personal study plans, then please have a look at this blog post:

Focus your Dele / SIELE / OPI exam preparation

Key elements of our 1-on-1, personalized online coaching methodology

The post will give you more detail on how we can help you to focus your DELE / SIELE / OPI exam preparation,  It explains the didactic approach that your personal DELEhelp exam prep coach will adopt in guiding you, and ends with actual examples of study plans.

As a concluding summary, we have prepared an INFOGRAPHIC which succinctly sets out the steps for planning and practicing your exam preparation.

Thanks for reading – we look forward to your questions and comments!

Salu2

Willem

Focus your DELE / SIELE / OPI exam preparation

 

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Mastering ser / estar and gender in Spanish

Mastering ser / estar and gender in Spanish

Mastering ser / estar and gender in Spanish

For English-speakers, mastering ser / estar and gender in Spanish are among the hardest grammar challenges. Yet master them one must, because in the marking of exams such as the DELE / SIELE or the American OPIc, one of the four main assessment criteria that the examiners apply is called “correctness”, which refers to accuracy in language use: pronunciation, spelling and grammar.  And, for better or for worse, correct use of ser and estar, and ensuring concordancia of gender, remain among the most evident indicators of grammar correctness that examiners pick up.

In a bit more detail: the “correctness”  criterion covers how grammatically and semantically accurate the candidate uses the Spanish language in the written and oral expression exam tasks. The semantically correct part refers to the apt and faultless use of words and idiomatic expressions – that is, a question of lexis. This goes hand-in-hand, in the oral, with pronouncing the words correctly, and in the written tasks, spelling them without mistakes.

The grammatically correct part refers essentially to avoiding common mistakes which are easy for examiners to pick up. Two of the most common of these, are the incorrect use of the verbs “ser” and “estar” (two distinct verbs in Spanish, but which both translate in English into “to be”). As regards the correct use of nouns, the most challenging issue for speakers of English (which no longer uses gender) is to ensure that nouns and their definite articles or related descriptors such as adjectives, agree in gender (called concordancia). In this blog post, we will explain the origins, so that you can understand the logic behind the Spanish forms.

To be or not to be… why does Spanish have both ser and estar?

English-speakers are often said to be confused by the fact that “Spanish has two verbs for expressing to be”. But is it really correct that English expresses all states of being with simply “to be”?  How do English and Spanish differ in this regard? To understand when to use “ser” and when “estar”, one needs to understand the distinct roots and meaning of each. But firstly, it is important to understand how and why English evolved differently.

Our starting point on the journey to understanding the divergence between English and Spanish, is the different root forms of “to be” that existed in our common Proto-Indo-European ancestor language.  Discovering these roots will help explain why “to be” in English ends up being so very irregular (I am, you are, she is, he was, they will be, we were, etc.), with a mixed bag of sounds that one will not typically associate with being conjugations of just one, same verb.

Mastering ser / estar and gender in Spanish

The fact that, in all Indo-European languages, the verb for “to be” happens to be their most irregular verb, stems from two main reasons. The first is that it has the highest frequency of use (thus more incentive and opportunity for simplification). Secondly, in its simplification, its original composite parts tended to be rolled into one or two so-called conglomerate verbs (meaning that each new simplification is a hodgepodge of bits and pieces from different ancestral verb roots, thrown together by the vagaries of everyday common usage).

So, which were the PIE roots from which modern-day Spanish “ser” and “estar” derive, as well as the English “to be” with its many seemingly unrelated variations (is, are, was, were, am, been etc.)?  We cannot be absolutely sure about pronunciation, but the following root verbs are today widely recognized:

 “sta-” : In PIE this appears to have meant “to stand”. In classical Latin, “sto / stare” retained this meaning, but in the everyday or Vulgar Latin of the common Romans, it came to be used as a copula (i.e., as a “to be” verb that couples something to its status – “the sky is blue”). The PIE verb “sta-” is the root of one of the two modern-day Spanish copula verbs, namely “estar”. This PIE root is also at the origin of the modern word “status” (a Spanish and English cognate word, which is to say it has the same meaning in both languages).

“es-” :  The English “is” traces its roots to this verb, as do the Latin “est” and Spanish “es” (the latter a present indicative conjugation of the other Spanish copula verb, namely “ser”).  It appears that the PIE root “es-” meant much the same as modern-day “is”. The word “essence” also derives from this root.

“bhu-” : The original meaning of this PIE verb probably was “to grow”, or “to become”. It has survived in English as the infinitive be and the participle been. In Latin,  the PIE sound “b” transformed to /f/, giving us the Latin fuī, which today is one of the past tense (pretérito) conjugations of the Spanish verb “ser”.

“wes- : In PIE this may have meant “to live”. It is the root for the modern English “was” and “were”.

“er-” : The modern English word “are” seems to derive from this, apparently via Old Norse, with probably at its far origin the PIE root “es-”.

 What one can easily see from the above, is that the English “to be” is in fact far more of an irregular conglomerate than the two Spanish copulae of “ser” and “estar”. So how does English, with only one verb for the many nuances of being, convey these different nuances? It is common in English to use adjectives to describe the status or essence of something or someone: “Paul is bored” describes Paul’s current status, but “Paul is boring” describes Paul’s essence – an essential characteristic of his.

The Spanish way of conveying such a distinction is different, because the adjective stays the same but the copula (i.e., the choice of verb “to be”) is chosen according to whether we want to signal a status or an essence: I am bored = Estoy aburrido, I am boring = Soy aburrido.

We have looked at the PIE roots of the English and Spanish “to be” verbs, in order to show first the causes for the divergence of English. Now, for an understanding of the meaning of the Spanish “ser” and “estar” we must move forward in time from the PIE stage to Vulgar Latin, from which Spanish most directly evolved.  The Spanish verb “ser” is derived from the Latin “essere” (the root of the English word “essence”) and “estar” from the Latin “stare” (the root of English words such as “state” and “status”).

In Spanish, “ser” is used when the fundamental essence of something or somebody is described, and “estar” when something or someone’s status (state of being) is described.  It is sometimes said that “ser” relates to a trait that is “permanent” and “estar” to something “temporary”, to a “condition”. This distinction often has casual validity, but “essence” and “state” are the true indicators – permanent and temporary can, in themselves, be confusing, for example when you deal with a concept such as death (a “state of being”, but one that’s definitely not temporary!). As Sam Gendreau explained in the lingholic blog: So for example, if we were to talk about somebody who died, in Spanish we would not say “es muerto” (he’s dead, using ser), but rather “está muerto” (he’s dead, using estar). Being dead is a state, albeit a permanent one. But no one is dead in “essence”. (Well, if you were to talk about a zombie, or Dracula, you could probably use “ser” instead of “estar”, since in this case, they are truly dead in essence).”

To further illustrate the difference between “ser” and “estar”, let’s look at this example:

With ser: “¿Cómo es tu madre?” – what is your mother like?; and

With estar: “¿Cómo está tu madre?” – how is your mother feeling?

In these examples, “ser” evidently relates to the mother’s essential characteristics – her personality traits. Is she generous by nature, or selfish? Tender or aggressive?  On the other hand, “estar” relates to her state – is she well, or is she ill?

 To sum up – in English we would select the right adjective with which to indicate whether we are describing the essence of something or someone, or on the other hand his/its status.  In Spanish, however, we would convey this distinction by selecting the right copula verb, using “ser” for essence and “estar” for state.

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Having placed you hopefully in a state of full understanding of the essential differences between “ser” and “estar”, we can now proceed to seeking agreement on the role of gender in Spanish (which is important, because of the rule that there must be concordancia – agreement – in Spanish between the gender of the noun and that of the definite articles, adjectives etc. used with it).

 Gender concordancia: Female libido and male dilemmas

Grammatical gender is a system of noun classification present in approximately one fourth of the world’s languages. In languages with grammatical gender, each noun is assigned to one of the gender classes. Most such languages have from two to four different gender classes, but some have up to 20!

The key thing to understand, is that “gender” as used in linguistics in fact is not tied up with biological sex – as Steven Pinker explains in “The Language Instinct” in relation to the 16 genders of Kivunjo, a language belonging to the Bantu (South & Central African) linguistic family:  “In case you are wondering, these ‘genders’ do not pertain to things like cross-dressers, transsexuals, hermaphrodites, androgynous people, and so on…  To a linguist, the term gender retains its original meaning of ‘kind’, as in the related words generic, genus, and genre.  The Bantu ‘genders’ refer to kinds like humans, animals, extended objects, clusters of objects, and body parts. It just happens that in many European languages the genders correspond to the sexes…” (in the case of most Indo-European languages, gender classes have labels such as male, female and neuter).

In gender-based systems, gender is considered an inherent quality of nouns, and it affects the forms of other related words through a process called agreement (Spanish = concordancia). This means that nouns and for example adjectives that qualify them, must agree in their gender class, as well as in number (meaning plural or singular). Nouns may be considered the “triggers” of the process of agreement, while other words will be the “target” of these prescribed variations, impacting their endings. The word endings have to harmonize with the noun and thereby often contribute to the harmonic “musicality” of the language (i.e., the ending of the noun and the adjective will sound the same, both for  instance ending on “-a” in the typical feminine configuration in Spanish).

For modern-day English-speakers the concept of noun gender is foreign, because English, like another modern Indo-European language, Afrikaans, have nearly completely lost grammatical gender (although Old English still had it).

Proto-Indo-European initially had two “genders”, being animate and inanimate (showing thereby, once again, that “gender” in Linguistics has got nothing to do with biological sex). The animate gender in Proto-Indo-European later split into masculine and feminine, thus originating the three-way classification into masculine, feminine, and neuter (i.e., inanimate). Many Indo-European languages retained these three genders, including most Slavic languages, Latin, Sanskrit, Ancient and Modern Greek, and German. However, many languages evolved, reducing the number of genders to two. Some lost the neuter, leaving masculine and feminine; these include most Romance languages, of which Spanish is part. Thus the three grammatical genders of Classical Latin were replaced by a two-gender system in Spanish.

The neuter gender of classical Latin was absorbed by the masculine gender class in Spanish. Nouns in Spanish that denote specifically male persons (or animals) are normally of masculine gender. Those that denote biologically female persons (or animals) are normally of feminine gender. Since all things, and thus all nouns, must belong to a linguistic gender class, those nouns that denote something that does not have any sex have been willy-nilly allocated to one of the two genders classes by common usage, often in apparently arbitrary manner.

Mastering ser / estar and gender in Spanish

Are you aware that the DELE curriculum contains three chapters on history, traditions and culture?

Why do we encounter so much apparent “arbitrariness” in most languages? It should be understood that our present-day fondness of grammar  “rules” post-date the establishment of these languages by centuries, if not millennia. It wasn’t ever a case of a committee on linguistics meeting in some cave dwelling and establishing nice “rules” for their evolving languages, which ancient populations then all dutifully followed. On the contrary, even the latter-day official language committees like the Spanish Royal Academy can at most try to condense generalized codifications from the real-world, idiosyncratic speaking habits of highly diverse populations. Like all human activity and social evolution, the evolution of language also is haphazard and often impacted by outside forces. In the operation of these forces, the notions of linguistic purity and logical consistency rarely were among the strong suits.

In Spanish, nouns that end in o or a consonant are mostly masculine, whereas those that end in a are mostly feminine, regardless of their meaning. These “rules” regarding endings on “-a” and “-o” may override biological reality in some cases: for example, the noun miembro (“member”) is always masculine, even when it refers to a woman, and persona (“person”) is always feminine, even when it refers to a man. But then – quite counter-intuitively – we have “la libido” and “el dilemma”.  (Persons of the female persuasion are normally quite comfortable with allocating “la razon” to their side of the fence, and with having “el problema” assigned to the masculine gender…)

In other cases, though, meaning does take precedence, through varying the definite article (el or la) going with the noun, according to biology : the noun comunista “communist” is masculine when it refers or could refer to a man, even though it ends with -a (i.e., el communista). This is a deviation from the typical rule that the definite article for each noun is fixed according to the noun’s allotted gender class. Another deviation from the norm is that nouns can sometimes vary their termination to indicate a different sex. Thus, in Spanish, niño means “boy”, and niña means “girl”. This paradigm can be exploited for making new words: from abogado “lawyer”, diputado “member of parliament” and doctor “doctor”, it was straightforward to make the feminine equivalents abogadadiputada, and doctora.

In general practice, though, nouns in Spanish generally follow the gender class of the Latin words from which they are derived. When nouns appear to deviate from the rules for gender, there is usually an etymological explanation, related to its origin: problema (“problem”) is masculine in Spanish because it was derived from a Greek noun of the neuter gender (and the neuter was later absorbed into the masculine), whereas radio (“radio station”) is feminine, because it is a shortening of estación de radio, a phrase with as its head the feminine noun estación (or also: la radiodifusión). The same applies to “la moto” (the motorcycle) because “moto” is short for “motocicleta”, which is feminine.

When memorizing noun gender, it will be noticed that the counter-intuitive masculinity of many nouns ending on “-a” is due mostly to them being originally of Greek origin – particularly words relating to science and abstract notions (i.e., not concrete things). As mentioned above, in the original Greek their gender was “neuter” and they were absorbed as such into the Latin “neuter” gender class, when classic Latin had three gender classes. In consequence, when Vulgar Latin / Old Spanish discarded the “neuter” gender and folded it into their “masculine”, these Greek-derived words ending on “-a”, became “male”.

Perhaps the quickest way to undo misconceptions about the supposed male or female gender class of all Spanish nouns is, therefore, to re-affirm that in general it has nothing whatsoever to do with biological gender.  It could just as well have been called red and green nouns, or – more to the point – the “la/las” nouns and the “el/los” nouns.  Like verb conjugations, the correct gender class of nouns has to be learnt through rote memorization, for which flashcards are very useful, whether of the digital or the cardboard type. Just remember to always note on each card, the Spanish noun together with its correct gender and definite article (la or el) and learn the combination.

To relate the above to the  scoring criterion of correctness used  in exams of communicative competency, one can see quite easily how incorrect use of “ser” and “estar” and mistakes in gender agreement would leap in the eye of a native Spanish-speaking examiner. Such errors may often relate to idiosyncrasies that deviate from the norm, but the same applies to English – just think of how quickly you’d spot somebody saying “two oxes” (on the regular model of “two boxes”) instead of “two oxen”. These idiosyncrasies exist in all languages, and there is no alternative to learning them by heart if we want to speak “correctly” (incidentally, “ox” in Old English belonged to the feminine gender class, which in the plural ended on “-en”, which is the reason for its apparent deviation; other similar Old English words have however succumbed to common modern usage, like the old form of “one cow / two kine” which became in modern English “two cows”).

Mastering ser / estar and gender in Spanish

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It is important to note with regard to the DELE /  SIELE exams, that one should NOT over-emphasize occasional small errors of the above kind – as long as the meaning that the candidate tried to convey still could be clearly understood. Examiners are under clear instructions to ignore small grammar mistakes that do not harm clarity of meaning, because these exams are, above all, tests of “can do” communicative ability – and communication by definition is the art of conveying meaning.

In other words, unlike school or college,  these are NOT primarily grammar-based exams, although no-one would want to throw away marks on repeated errors that could have been avoided. It should also be noted that it is perfectly in order to correct oneself during the oral exam, when you realize that you’ve slipped up on something like gender agreement or the choice of ser / estar – according to the official marking criteria, you will actually be positively assessed for such self-correction. Clearly it is better, though, to master it all and to practice during your exam preparation to apply these forms consistently correctly…

I hope that this blog post has provided you with the basics for mastering ser / estar and gender in Spanish.  Fuller explanations of gender agreement and the correct use of ser and estar – together with much more clarification of other puzzling aspects of Spanish grammar – can be found in our DELEhelp Workbook #2 entitled “Demystifying Spanish Grammar”. Just as with our Workbook #9.2 (DELE Exam Orientation and Acing Tips), our Workbook #2 is also available free as a .pdf download from DropBox to any readers of this DELEhelp blog who ask for it via our easy-to-use contact form: just click on the image above promoting the sample book, and the form will pop up.

Mastering ser / estar and gender in Spanish

If you have questions on any of our blog posts, or regarding the DELE / SIELE & OPI exams or aspects of Spanish grammar, don’t hesitate to jot them down in the comment column of this blog – we try to answer all.

For more information on our team and what we can do to help you with your Spanish exam preparation, please visit our website by clicking on the image below. Remember, we specialize in helping English-speaking candidates online, 1-on-1, with their preparation for the DELE / SIELE & OPI exams. Our Skype tuition is convenient, affordable, flexible, personalized and practical. Why not try our one-hour free sample session? (You can ask for it with the same contact form as for the book).

Buena suerte with your Spanish exam preparation

 Salu2

 Willem

 

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