1

DELE / SIELE oral & writing: HOW to learn, and WHAT

The DELE / SIELE exams are very different to traditional school or college exams. The examen DELE / SIELE tests your ability to express yourself in Spanish, coherently, fluently, correctly and with sufficient linguistic scope (i.e., vocabulary / lexis), simulating real-world situations. The DELE  and SIELE are NOT examinations of your abstract knowledge of the “rules” of Spanish grammar or orthography. They test whether you can actually apply your knowledge and maintain proper communication in Spanish. The first questions when one starts prepping for the oral and written expression tests, need therefore be – for the DELE / SIELE  oral & writing: HOW to learn and WHAT to focus on, so that I can acquire the communicative competencies that the DELE / SIELE require. Even if you are not interested in actually sitting exams, but want to know how to attain fluent, coherent conversational ability in Spanish, then the same issues of How to learn and What to focus on, will apply.

These are very fundamental questions, and therefore are very broad in scope. They cannot flippantly be answered in a few bullet points – to really be of help, this blog-post must first provide you with a proper understanding of how humans acquire language and the communication skills associated therewith. In other words, give a conceptual reference framework for understanding why certain things work, and others don’t, when you are trying to gain communicative competency in a new language. This blog-post will, therefore, focus broadly on explaining the language acquisition processes occurring deep inside the brain, as based on significant new research published in early 2018. Rather than simply listing “exam acing tips”, we will today step back a bit, so that we can distinguish the forest from the detail of the individual trees. We need to comprehend what fundamentally is going on inside our heads when we acquire language – so that, with such understanding, we will be better able to focus and adapt our own language learning efforts. So please bear with me through the explanations – I can promise you it will be worth-while in helping you comprehend what you need to do to gain conversational ability in real life, and thus to ace the DELE / SIELE – as much (actually, much more) than any blithe infographic of acing tips would achieve.

In an earlier blog-post I wrote: There are many conflicting theories, plus ingrained teaching habits stretching back many generations, regarding how best to achieve proficiency so that you will be able to converse in Spanish. Just about the only thing that we do know for certain, is what DOESN’T work; it has been empirically proven that the traditional school or college-style teaching of a second language fails miserably in producing alumni with the capacity to maintain even a basic conversation at the end of their schooling. Recent figures from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) show that only 0.5% of alumni achieve that level of competence.  Most students taught the traditional way, give up on learning a second language, and those who do finish, have forgotten practically all they had learnt in just three to four years.

I am very pleased to tell you that, during January 2018, a seminal new study was published that greatly advanced or knowledge of how the human brain enables us to acquire language. We now have the empirical data to resolve the “conflicting theories” I mentioned in the earlier blogpost. This research not only clearly points to what to do, and how, in order to develop your language skills – it also confirms why that which we already knew doesn’t work (namely traditional classroom teaching methods) in fact fail, as proven by the ACTFL survey quoted above.

This significant new study was published online on 29 January 2018, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) under the title: “Child First Language and Adult Second Language Are Both Tied to General-Purpose Learning Systems”. As the title indicates, the two major conclusions of the study are that (a) mother tongue and second language are acquired using the same brain circuits, and (b) these ancient circuits are common to most animals and thus not unique to humans, nor are they uniquely dedicated to language learning. As the senior investigator of the study, Michael T. Ullman (professor of Neuroscience at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.), said in a statement: “Our conclusion that language is learned in such ancient general-purpose systems contrasts with the long-standing theory that language depends on innately-specified language modules found only in humans.”

The perceived difficulty in acquiring another language as adults, lies not so much in the nature of that particular language, as it does in our human nature.  As Steven Pinker and others have demonstrated (see the earlier blog-post), we learnt our own first language instinctively. In our early youth, we acquire language without formal grammar or teaching, because language is the defining “thing” of our species – it is our foremost unique instinct, like that of a spider is to spin webs.

We are programmed and maximally facilitated to acquire language in early childhood. Our brains are strongly focused on it up to about age six (having satisfied also our other differentiating instinct – that of acquiring the skill for walking upright).   Thereafter, however, the brain’s acquisitive capacity of necessity needs to be increasingly focused on other priorities as well, and our ability to acquire other tongues with ease, seem to us to diminish (at least, in our own perception, because it has now been proven that we engage the exact same parts of the brain to acquire any language, as we did for our mother tongue). HOW we in later life strive to acquire language, also changes fundamentally from what happened instinctively during the toddler phase – from the recognition and internalization of the patterns of our mother tongue through casual observation and then constant practicing to speak, we shift to academically “studying” the new language – as  we would study History or Geography or whatever other academic subject where the goal is to abstractly KNOW (i.e., to able to recall facts and interpret them). This is NOT the way that we would, for example, learn to play the guitar, or to play golf, or to master gymnastics, or whatever other competencies that require not just abstractly knowing about, but which requires us to hone the actual ability to fluently, coherently, and correctly DO – to DELIVER OUTCOMES.

How we opt to learn, and under which circumstances we in later life strive to acquire a new language, represent the biggest changes from how we had acquired our native language. Firstly the conditions and priorities have changed fundamentally – instead of instinctively spending our every waken moment for six years focused almost singularly on acquiring the ability to communicate,  whilst our every human need is being taken care of for us, we now have to multi-task complex lives with many competing demands on our attention span; we have to survive economically, physically and emotionally, and try and accomplish our goal whilst being able to invest only a few hours per week, for a limited time. Imagine if you could study a new language every waken hour, 24/7, without anything else requiring your attention, while being fed, cosseted and cared for… How long would it take you then – since, as an adult, you have many more learning tools available than a toddler (such as reading, access to grammar handbooks, and to all the modern digital audio-visual resources)? Six years? No! Certainly not! So, are you still thinking that babies have you beat at acquiring language?

What is true is that these adult circumstances and opportunities available to us since the advent of the age of formal schooling, have changed the way that we traditionally go about acquiring competency at communicating in the second language. It is no longer done instinctively, through observation and practice.  We shift from practice-based pattern recognition, to academically studying the new language. Like for any memorizing activity, right back to ancient times (such as what plants we can eat and which not) we engage for this memory-building activity the declaratory circuit of the brain – the circuit for data storage.  But – by “studying” the new language in this memory-focused traditional way, we are, unfortunately, concentrating on abstractly knowing its “rules”, rather than on building the competency to apply that knowledge in order to be able to PERFORM – to produce coherent, fluent conversation as OUTCOME.

HOW BEST TO GO ABOUT ACQUIRING A NEW LANGUAGE:  To understand how to go about acquiring the ability to communicate in a second language, we first and foremost have to understand how the human brain functions when it comes to “learning a language” – or, more correctly put – how we develop the ability to communicate.  Understanding this process is certain to help you in cultivating the right mind-set and learning methods for making your conquest of conversational Spanish effective.

It is recognized that the two most important abilities that set us humans apart from other primates and the rest of the animals in general, is our ability to walk upright and our ability to comprehensively communicate.  Both are vital survival skills, and both are heavily brain-driven. The ability to walk comes quicker, because it is a much shorter process. There is proof that babies actually start picking up language whilst in the womb. After birth, the brain’s major developmental focus for the next six years is on honing the ability to communicate.

A fundamental question in understanding how we humans acquire language (whether it be our native tongue, or a foreign language) is: what enables humans to have this unique capacity? Is it that we and we alone have a unique “something” in our brains – a circuit, some special DNA – that all other animals lack? This has been a rather logical assumption, and when DNA research became possible and the so-called “speech gene” (FOXP2) was identified, some had thought that it was the eureka moment – until we realized how widespread this gene is, even extending to birds, allowing them to sing. At the beginning of 2018, the result of seminal neurological research was published which once and for all dispelled the notion that we humans possess some unique “speech” part or circuit of the brain, that no other animals have.

It was clearly demonstrated that, no matter our age, and whether it is for acquiring our mother tongue or a foreign language, we use two very ancient circuits of the brain that pre-date homo sapiens and even primates – circuits that are present in most animals. Although it debunks assumptions of structural uniqueness, this neurological research has some extremely important implications for our understanding of how we humans acquire language (and consequently, how it should be taught). The most important revelation is that there are two general-purpose circuits of the brain that are employed in this effort, namely the declaratory as mentioned before, but also – very importantly – the procedural circuit. These circuits aren’t solely dedicated to acquiring language, either, but are vital in our everyday functioning.

The declaratory circuit is engaged when we consciously learn things that we store in our memory, such as how to count, the words of a song, or Spanish vocabulary. The big break-through has been to see how the procedural circuit “lights up” when acquiring language – the same circuit we use for mastering playing the piano, or to perfect our golf swing, or our tennis back-hand. This PROCEDURAL CIRCUIT enables us to PERFORM TASKS, and hones this ability through practice, practice, practice – like athletes building up “muscle memory” of their required moves. For acquiring language, therefore, we now know that it truly is also a case of “practice makes perfect”. We pick up the patterns of the language and internalize them with the objective of reflexive, spontaneous reproduction – and we do so through practice, practice and more practice, without having to think and consciously configure phrases in terms of “rules” we have tried to memorize through the declaratory circuit.

This revelation about the vital role of the procedural circuit of the brain – of actual repetitive practice – in acquiring language, goes a long way towards explaining the ACTFLA survey results, when we consider that traditional language teaching almost exclusively relies on engaging the declaratory circuit. As toddlers we principally engage the procedural circuit to pick up and practice patterns of language, and pass things like vocabulary and pattern irregularities through to the declaratory circuit to be stored. As teenagers or adults, we traditionally try and “study” a new language the other way around, namely by means of engaging the declaratory circuit to try and memorize the “’rules”, with too little opportunity to practice, practice, practice to perfection. The moral of this story, is that you cannot “study” to speak a language from books alone (that is, if you want to meet the communicative criteria of coherence, fluency, linguistic scope and correctness in spontaneous reproduction) without practice, practice, practice – just as the star pianist cannot hope to perfectly render a piece that he/she can easily read off sheet music, without also putting in the necessary practice, practice, practice.

I am not going to repeat here what I said in the earlier blog-post about the importance of pattern recognition in the acquisition of language. It is a vital human ability, and you may want to read that post again to integrate what was said there, with these new research findings about the importance of the procedural circuit and of viewing language not as an academic subject for abstract study, but as a competency that needs to be actually performed, exactly like playing a musical instrument or a sport. It is only necessary to recall one’s own childhood to know that we developed the ability to communicate verbally without any formal teaching. As toddlers, we certainly didn’t formally study grammar – but from about age three and a half, we could construct phrases grammatically correctly.  Where we did make “mistakes”, it usually was when the supposedly “correct” English form deviated from the general pattern we had correctly discerned – such as when a child says two “oxes” instead of saying two oxen, because the regular pattern for forming the plural in modern English is by adding an “-s” (like in two boxes, or two cows).  Oxen is a relic from the past, which has somehow clung on – unlike the word “kine”, which until a few centuries ago was the correct English plural of cow, but which was jettisoned in favor of cows (with “cows” probably before then regarded as child-speak).

As little kids, we didn’t think of particular verbs as being distinct conjugations of some infinitive form – we simply knew that that was the right word for that particular phrase and context, based on pattern recognition. Our ear told us if another child used a word incorrectly, without us being in any way able to explain why it was “wrong”. We developed our language skills by getting to know words as simply words, plus the familiar patterns of stitching them together in phrases.

How to understand what importance to attach to the study of grammar: It is obvious that the patterns of languages weren’t ever formally designed and ordained by committees of elder cavemen laying down grammar “rules”.  Languages grew spontaneously, constantly undergoing local variations and unstoppable evolution at the hand (or rather, tongue) of the common folk.  The first visible signs of language standardization started emerging with the advent of printing.  The first formal grammar book for any European language was only published in 1492, for Castilian (i.e., modern Spanish). In it, its author, Antonio de Nebrija, laid down as first fundamental rule that: “we must write as we speak and we must speak as we write”. What he insisted upon, therefore, is that researchers and academics should not invent language “rules”, but must observe and record that which actually exists, the patterns of speech with all their irregularities (the concept of grammar “rules” is actually unfortunate, because of the connotation that the word “rules” have of being something authoritatively ordained – with hindsight, it would have been better to speak of grammar as a faithful recording of the commonly used patterns of speech).

Because of the natural eagerness of the human mind to create order by means of identifying patterns, it was inevitable that languages would eventually be formally studied. The study of grammar would come to consist of tabulating the patterns evident in any language, such as those for word modification (known as morphology – for example, the conjugation of words) or the protocols of phrase construction (known as syntax).  It is evident that, by learning and knowing these “rules” or rather patterns, one would be able to predict likely constructs. Now, if we take any sport, knowing the rules of the game isn’t – in and of itself – going to make you a great player.  The latter depends i.a. on one’s ability to APPLY such theoretical knowledge instantly and intuitively in actual game settings. Ditto for the guitar player – knowing the score of a song doesn’t guarantee that he/she will be able to render it perfectly at first attempt. This analogy very much resembles the demands of everyday conversation, which is focused on the speaker’s ability to instantly access his/her theoretical knowledge of grammar and vocabulary (i.e., as memorized via the declaratory brain circuit) and then – most importantly – to reproduce it spontaneously in real-world communication (i.e., the practice-embedded “muscle memory” originating with the procedural circuit of the brain).  We don’t simply “know” language, we need and use it to PERFORM communicative tasks.

Speaking is the performance of a communicative task, and requires guided PRACTICE to perfect

Unfortunately, the traditional school system requires standardized curricula and methodologies. This is the case because, in order for school tuition in real life to be feasible when teaching classrooms full of students, there just isn’t much scope for individualization.  They cannot all practice speaking, all at once. And there are many other subjects to be taught in the school year, in addition to (maybe) a foreign language. Therefore, for the foreign language student there cannot be anything like the constant immersion in his new tongue that the typical toddler is exposed to every woken hour in his native environment for at least the first six years. In school and college, time for studying foreign languages is limited – usually only some four to five hours per week, homework time included, is dedicated to acquiring a second language (thus engaging primarily the declaratory circuit of the brain for memorization, without truly activating the all-important procedural circuit for practicing the ability to perform).  Furthermore, it is logical that schools – which are subject to severe constraints of time and organization, whilst dealing with entire class-groups and not individuals – by the nature of these limitations are focused on imparting theoretical knowledge of rules, and not on the individual coaching and practice, practice, practice required to develop actual communicative ability.

As a consequence, schools and colleges are mostly teaching the theoretical foundations of a foreign language, with a focus on reading and writing (all pupils can practice to read or write at the same time, but certainly all can’t practice to speak at the same time). Quite naturally, therefore, schools are setting written exams to test students’ knowledge of the content which the schools have been teaching. Schools are not structured, nor disposed, to focus primarily on the individualized testing of each student’s ability to engage in an actual conversation, one by one.  Which explains why only 0.5% of US students end up being able to converse in the foreign language they have studied.  It’s like teaching and testing football spectators for their knowledge of the rules, instead of coaching actual, competent football players.

The foregoing is not a condemnation of schools – in many ways the traditional grammar-based approach to foreign language teaching was and is what is practically possible, and no informed teacher is under any illusion that it would, in and of itself, be enough.  Because humans instinctively seek for patterns, formal grammar is clearly a very useful tool that helps identify and present for study, the patterns inherent to any language.  It is thus very important that grammar be learnt (particularly because it provides a short-cut to knowing and identifying the irregularities inherent in any language).  It obviously is a faster way of becoming aware of such patterns and their exceptions, than simply by absorbing them subconsciously, over the course of years of unstructured immersion. But it evidently is not enough to simply know these grammar rules, or even to have academic awareness of the patterns, if one wishes to acquire the capacity to fluently, correctly and coherently engage in actual conversation – to communicate effectively and reflexively.

As I said in the earlier blog-post, another major drawback inherent to the traditional way of teaching, is that it inevitably leaves the student with the impression that language consists of rules and vocabulary – of individual words, which must be strung together in accordance with set rules, such as that of conjugation.  In reality, though, language for the most part consists of “chunks” of words in the form of well-established phrases with agreed meaning. These chunks of words and the customary way in which they are strung together, form an important part of the patterns of a language. As kids, we pick up and become skilled in using these “chunks”, like: I am going to school; I am going in the car; I am not going to grandma’s etc. We comprehend that the basic chunk stays the same, we only have to change some words to suit the need of the moment. This truth was recognized some two decades ago by Michael Lewis, who called for a new, complementary approach to the traditional way of teaching foreign languages, which he called the “lexical approach”.  You may want to refresh your memory about this part of the earlier blog-post as well, because in your preparation for the DELE / SIELE, you will notice the emphasis that examiners are placing on the use of “link phrases” to enhance fluency and coherence – and such “connectors” are prime examples of the word chunks that the lexical approach has been focused on. The lexical approach is not intended to replace traditional learning, but to supplement it; Lewis and his followers see it more as an enhanced mind-set, a better understanding of how we actually acquire language, which would broaden the learning methodologies beyond their traditional focus and strive for an outcome of actual conversational competency.

The WHAT of becoming proficient at conversation: The first thing to get right, is mind-set. Your objective should NOT be “I want to study Spanish” (because that is only aimed at acquiring theoretical knowledge about the language). You should consciously decide that “I want to develop the capacity to converse in Spanish” (which entails not only knowing the theory, but the practiced and honed performance skill, of integrating and applying your knowledge in real-world situations, instantly and spontaneously). What you want to be, is an accomplished football player, not just a coach potato football rules guru.

With your mental objective clearly defined, it is important next to identify the skills and knowledge sets that are essential for you to develop, in order to acquire the ability to converse in Spanish.  These elements then become the “to do” list of your preparation plan. The ultimate phase will be to add to this “what to do” list, the very important “how to do” component.

What, then, is necessary, in order to be able to actually maintain a conversation in a foreign language? You must firstly have the ability to understand what your interlocutor is saying to you, and secondly you must be able to make yourself understood.

For both understanding and being understood, you first of all need a sufficiently ample “linguistic scope”. This means that you do have to know (i.e., that you have learnt, to the point of having committed to memory and thus have fully internalized) the words, expressions and common “word chunks” making up the general use lexis of the language. You need to do so with sufficient width and depth, so that you can easily identify the words and word chunks upon hearing or seeing them, and also instantly reproduce them when needed in your own oral expression. This essential knowledge of words and patterns entails knowing the semantics (or meaning) of words, the phonology (or sound) of the word, plus its orthography (spelling, for recognizing it when reading).

click on image to go to this blogpost about expanding your vocabulary

Your knowledge of Spanish words and word chunks  (lexis) is one of the two theoretical knowledge legs upon which real conversation stands (or falls). The other leg is knowledge of the patterns of the language, so that you can string the word chunks together correctly. But lexis may be more vital to conversation,  because your listener can, as an intelligent native speaker, compensate for your small grammatical errors of syntax or of such things as gender accord, even for wrong verb conjugation – however, what he or she cannot compensate for, is if you completely lack the appropriate words to say what you want, or pronounce them so incomprehensibly that your listener’s eyes simply glaze over. When you are preparing for a modern Spanish exams of actual communicative competency, such as the DELE / SIELE, you will know that the amplitude of your linguistic scope is one of the four equally-weighted scoring criteria that examiners will be applying, when scoring you written and oral expression tasks.

However, these two legs of stored knowledge, although clearly required, are not of themselves enough to allow conversation. In order to converse, we now understand that – like any athlete – you will have to practice these legs to perform spontaneously. In fact, if you are still obliged – when you want to say something in Spanish – to first try and remember the right words, and then to calculatedly apply these grammar rules in order to mentally construct a phrase before you can utter it, you will have a serious problem with fluently maintaining any kind of conversation.

This is the difference between sitting a traditional end-of-school written exam, where you have time to calculate how to apply rules, and real-world conversation, which is an instantaneous give-and-take. Instead of relying on calculated application of rules (which usually signify that you are still thinking in your mother tongue and first have to translate from it) you need to have fully internalized – through practice – the patterns of Spanish speech (as you had done as a kid, with your mother tongue). Having internalized these patterns, it rolls out correctly almost without conscious thought as to how to say something (thus leaving you free to focus completely on the really important thing, namely the substance of what you want to convey). From this, you will understand that being grammatically correct is just one part of the “correctness” criterium applied in the DELE / SIELE exam (other elements of correctness being spelling, pronunciation etc.) which means that grammatical correctness is assessed at one-third value of one quarter of the overall scoring under the four equally-weighted main criteria (the other two main criteria, alongside linguistic scope and correctness, being coherence and fluency).

In real life, conversation breaks down when there is no fluency and coherence – when you have to constantly interrupt your interlocutor because you could not understand something that he/she said, or when you yourself cannot find the right words or correct pronunciation or appropriate syntax to comprehensibly say what you need to say. Once again, if you need to first translate for yourself and do a rules-based calculation of how to say something, then there will be no fluency. You need to have the lexis and patterns of Spanish sufficiently internalized. Especially important to the fluent flow of conversation  is the appropriate use of link phrases in order to fluently join up different thoughts or sentences – and not end up uttering, in staccato style, a disjointed series of unconnected phrases.  You know from conversation in your own language, how important link phrases are – words such as “accordingly”, or “on the other hand” or “as you know” or any of the many such devices that we use to fill blank “think time” between sentences, and to link them together, in place of uttering “uhm” and “aah”. These are some of the most fixed and most used “word chunks” in the lexis of any language, and knowing these patterns are essential to fluency.

To recap – the what of Spanish that we need to internalize in order to be able to maintain conversation, are the patterns and the lexis of the language. The latter is the words and word chunks (including their meaning and pronunciation). The patterns are those of syntax (how words and phrases are strung together to form coherent sentences) and of morphology (how we transform words to signify different meanings). This knowledge of lexis and of patterns we have to commit to  memory (i.e, with the declaratory brain circuit), and then with the procedural brain circuit, through guided practice, hone the ability to reproduce it instantaneously without much conscious thought. Without such well-honed internalization of the lexis and phonology of Spanish and of its morphological and syntactical patterns, you cannot hope to achieve fluency.

The HOW of developing the ability to converse in Spanish: Developing the knowledge and skill sets required to maintain a conversation in Spanish, needs to engage both the declaratory and procedural brain circuits (i.e., learn and practice). Luckily, as adults we have access to certain facilitating and enhancing tools which toddlers don’t have available. Adults can read, can follow TV and live stream radio, can do classes (nowadays, also via Skype, from the comfort of the own home). In fact, it may be a misconception to think that babies have an advantage over adults, when it comes to acquiring a language, given the learning tools that adults can access.  The one true benefit that babies have, is that their brains can focus almost exclusively on mastering verbal communication because of their adult-facilitated environment without a care in the world, whereas adults have a huge array of responsibilities between which they must divide their mental energy.

Internalizing the patterns: The basic manner in which your Spanish will develop, will be by means of assimilating patterns and practicing their spontaneous reproduction. You can check with just about any fluent speaker of Spanish as foreign language – they will tell you that they don’t consciously construct sentences based on grammar rules; they speak Spanish the same way as they speak their native English. They do so intuitively and without conscious mental effort, focused on the substance of their message and not on form. They probably will have to do a double take if you start cross-examining them about the intricacies of the morphology or syntax they had just used – the same as you would, if they do the same to you about your native English (you’ll probably respond that you can’t recall why something needs to be said in that particular way, but that you know for sure that that’s the way it’s said!).

The importance of practice/immersion: To discern patterns, and especially to internalize them in this natural manner, we have to be scanning a vast amount of Spanish. This can only be achieved through immersing yourself in an environment where you regularly hear, see and have to speak Spanish, just as a toddler masters the patterns of his/her mother’s speech.

It is therefore evident that any attempt to acquire a foreign language with an approach based just on classroom + homework time (i.e., just employing the declaratory brain circuit without the addition of guided practice via the procedural circuit), is not going to result in any better performance than the figure of 0.5% of U.S. students reaching conversational ability, as cited in the earlier blog-post.

The relative importance of, and correct view of formal grammar: Again, this is not to suggest that formal grammar should or could be substituted. Grammar as we know it is none other than a handy codification of the enduring patterns of a language, as these have been observed over time by qualified linguists.  Using the fruits of their labors will clearly help you identify and understand the patterns (and their “irregular” exceptions) a lot quicker than you would be able to do with just your own random observation. The key, however, is mental attitude – you have to study grammar as a very valuable tool, which will help you spot and comprehend the patterns far quicker and easier.  Do not study grammar as if it represents the language as such, as if knowing the “rules” of grammar could or should be – in and of itself – the ultimate objective. Please realize that knowledge of grammar is no more than a convenient crutch in the early phase of language acquisition, while you are still hobbling along because of not yet having fully internalized the patterns. Just as you did with your English grammar crutch, you will be discarding it (actually forgetting all about it) as soon as you – figuratively speaking – can walk upright with ease and comfort without it.

How many adult native English speakers do you think ever give a moment’s thought to English grammar in their day-to-day conversations?  When last did you, yourself?

Always remember, too, that the language patterns codified under the title of grammar (essentially being word morphology and sentence syntax), are intellectual constructs developed almost organically over ages by communities of humans.  Since grammar “rules” are intellectual constructs, any intelligent man, woman or child can therefore mentally compensate for most errors they hear in your grammar, without losing track of the meaning you are trying to convey. Studying grammar isn’t the be-all and end-all of “studying the language” (this is particularly important to understand when prepping for exams such as the DELE/SIELE, as illustrated by the fact that grammatical correctness is just one element in the “correctness” criterium, with coherence, fluency and linguistic scope each carrying equal weight to correctness). It isn’t even the most important part of such learning (as evidenced by the ability of others to mentally compensate for your grammar errors, as well as by how quickly this crutch is discarded from your active consciousness, once you’ve reached fluency). Nevertheless, don’t be mistaken – until you are fluent through having fully internalized these patterns of morphology and syntax through constant guided practice, you HAVE TO STUDY YOUR GRAMMAR – but do so selectively, as we will show you during your tuition, and with the right mental attitude, namely that grammar is a valuable “cheat sheet” of essential patterns and irregularities.

The most vital aspect that you have to focus on in your active learning (i.e., when pumping that declaratory brain circuit) isn’t grammar.  It is expanding your Spanish lexis.

Expanding your Spanish Lexis is your top active learning priority: By studying lexis is meant acquiring a suitably ample linguistic scope in Spanish for your particular needs (for example, a missionary doctor is clearly going to require a different lexis to a policeman walking the beat in an immigrant neighborhood; a DELE A2 student will need a lesser lexis than a C2 student to pass). Lexis consists of vocabulary and phonology (i.e., knowing words and their meaning, as well as how to pronounce them) as well as the learning of “word chunks” and common expressions and idioms, plus the “link phrases” (conectores) that are so important to ensuring fluency and coherence in speech. The reasons why lexis is deemed so important to conversational ability, are twofold:

  • As was said earlier, to be able to maintain a conversation, you firstly need to comprehend. If you don’t know the meaning of a word or phrase your interlocutor has used, there is no way you can mentally compensate in order to arrive at a correct understanding of what you’re hearing (apart from asking your interlocutor to repeat and explain). It is therefore axiomatic that, to understand, “you have to have knowledge of words and the world”. This is just another way of underlining the lexical approach, which goes beyond the semantics of any given individual word to include its situational context, which helps give it specific meaning within a particular pattern of use. If you don’t have adequate lexical knowledge (i.e., knowing the situational meaning of words and phrases that you hear), and don’t know enough about phonology to be able to correctly identify which words you are actually hearing, you cannot hope to comprehend much in the course of any given conversation. Neither will you be able to do well in the multiple choice listening and reading comprehension tests that make up 50% of the DELE / SIELE exams.
  • When expressing yourself orally, lexis is also of vital importance. You have to readily know the right word or phrase (to the point of not having to break your flow to search your memory for it), and you have to be able to pronounce those word chunks intelligibly. If you don’t readily have the right words and phrases at your disposal, or you cannot pronounce them sufficiently correctly for your interlocutor to be able to identify them, then – even with the best theoretical knowledge of grammar – there is no way that your conversation can blossom, simply because your interlocutor cannot mentally compensate for words that you don’t have and which he cannot divine.  He will be as lost as you are.

At this point it is important to underline that one should have realistic expectations about the time and effort it will require to reach conversational ability in a foreign language such as Spanish, since far more is involved than just learning grammar rules and lists of vocabulary with the declaratory circuit of your brain (you have to engage the procedural circuit through practice, practice, practice to be able to spontaneously produce the right phrases). The ACTFL has calculated that a student of average aptitude will require 480 hours to reach “advanced low” proficiency (A2/B1 level in the European Common Framework such as the DELE diploma). This translates into doing forty hours per week (8 hours per day) for twelve weeks solid. To achieve “advanced high” level (i.e., not yet “superior”), will require 720 hours for the average student, starting from scratch. For the superior proficiency level that diplomats and the like require, it is generally thought that 1,000 hours of intensive preparation is necessary.  The reason for this many hours, is that these institutions (such as the Foreign Service Institute of the USA) aren’t teaching their students the same way as schools or colleges do;  through experience, they have come to understand the vital importance of practice – therefore, a diplomat doesn’t need 1, 000 hours of book study, but rather that total amount of time for both memorizing and guided practice of actual communication.

What constitutes immersion, in the internet age? Immersion doesn’t only signify visiting a Spanish-speaking country and living there for some time.  You can immerse yourself totally in Spanish-language books, films, talk radio and news. This is more focused and productive than merely living in a Spanish-speaking environment, because you can select appropriate themes and you can have your learning tools at hand, such as for jotting down and looking up new words, and adding these to your flashcard list. This combines the mental awareness of the importance of a lexical mind-set and the practice routines of engaging the procedural brain circuit, with all the other traditional learning tools focused on the declaratory circuit.

There is no doubt that the more time you invest in reading Spanish, the more you will internalize the lexis and patterns of the language, as well as getting to know the Hispanic cultural context – especially if you have given sufficient attention to your grammar as a great tool for helping you to quickly spot and understand those patterns. Reading has the huge benefit of seeing the words, but you need to hear them as well for the sake of phonology (you therefore have to maintain a balance between listening and reading). For this reason, the Spanish telenovela (TV soapy) is a great learning tool, especially those that have subtitles for the hard of hearing, so that you can see and hear the word, and also see its situational context playing out on screen.

In any event, whenever you read, read out loud – this provides good practice to your “articulation tools” to adapt themselves to the Spanish sound system, in the privacy of your own home and thus without any risk to your ego. Better still: tape yourself reading out loud, so that you can pick up your pronunciation errors – you will be surprised how different we all sound in reality, as opposed to how we imagine we sound!

Luckily, such “home immersion” in Spanish is nowadays a free option, thanks to the internet.  You don’t have to go live in a Hispanic country anymore (if you don’t want to, that is).  Check out this DELEhelp blogpost for a host of links to free sites, ranging from streamed talk radio, through the major Hispanic print press to free e-books and telenovelas. One needs to differentiate between active learning (such as working on your flashcard lists of lexis and memorizing them, or doing homework exercises in grammar, in reading comprehension or writing) and passive immersion. The latter can form part of your relaxation, like reading a book in Spanish (if you are a beginner, look for dual text books that have Spanish on one page and the English on the opposite). Every possible minute that you can have Spanish talk radio streaming live, or the TV running telenovelas in the background, is useful – even if you can’t really concentrate on their content, you will pick up phonology as well as words, phrases and patterns. Knowing how kids learn, you shouldn’t underestimate the value of this.

One of the great killers of people’s ambition to master a foreign language, is frustration (next to boredom, especially if they just do grammar exercises!). Frustration can really grow very quickly if grammar mastery is (wrongly) seen as the be-all and end-all of gaining proficiency in Spanish.  You may know, for instance, that every Spanish verb can literally be conjugated into 111 different forms, given the number of different moods and tenses in Spanish. If you get stuck on the idea that you absolutely have to memorize each and all of these 111 possibilities in order to be able to converse, the task will seem so daunting that very few will not become frustrated.

Develop your own style of speaking, that’s natural and comfortable for you: Here’s another tip – each of us, no matter our language, have a particular own style of speaking that we’re comfortable with.  We don’t use all the possible tenses in normal conversation (as some writers may do in penning high literature).  Similarly, when conversing in Spanish, you don’t need to have all 111 conjugation options rolling fluently off your tongue. This is especially true in the beginning, while you are still internalizing the basic patterns of Spanish.

Beginners and intermediate-level students, in order to start speaking with coherence and fluency, may choose to concentrate on mastering the present, the idiomatic future and the perfect tense of the Indicative mood.  If you can conjugate these three tenses well, any interlocutor will be able to understand which time-frame you are referring to.  These three tenses correspond very well to the way you are accustomed to use tenses in English, because both the idiomatic future and the perfect indicative in Spanish are compound tenses, using auxiliary verbs (just like in English, which also use compounds with auxiliary verbs to indicate past and future – auxiliaries like “shall” and “have”).

This way of speaking is in fact becoming more common in Spanish, so you won’t be regarded as weird – in the Americas, for example, the idiomatic future (futuro idiomatico) is already used exclusively, in place of the traditional conjugated future tense.  For the idiomatic future, you only need to learn the present indicative conjugation of one verb, namely “ir” (to go). We must emphasize, though, that this approach works when you yourself are speaking; however, because you cannot control the tenses that your interlocutor may choose to use, you have to have sufficient knowledge of the other tenses to at least be able to recognize them, otherwise you may not comprehend what you are hearing or reading. In any event, it is much easier getting acquainted with something to the point of being able to recognize it when used by others, as opposed to the level of active learning and especially practice that’s needed for the purpose of own speech, which demands full internalization to enable spontaneous, real-time reproduction that’s coherent and fluent.

For proficiency at conversation, you have to practice speaking (and be expertly guided / corrected): The immersion that we referred to above, needs to go beyond you simply absorbing written and spoken Spanish. To acquire the skill and confidence to maintain a conversation, you have to have guided practice in actually speaking. This is often a problem for a home-study student living in an environment where there are few speaking opportunities.  Again, though, the internet comes to the rescue, in the form of Skype and its equivalents. Such online tuition and interaction is actually better than what most classroom tuition situations can offer. In the typical classroom, you are part of a group, dragged down by the lowest common denominator and by methodologies and curricula that of necessity are generalized, without focus on your particular needs – unless you are fortunate enough to have one-on-one tuition, such as at our partner residential school in la Antigua Guatemala, PROBIGUA (click on this link for a 2-minute video).

The great benefit of having your own expert, experienced online tutor (apart from the low cost and the convenience of studying in the comfort of your own home) is that you have someone you can speak to, who will know how to record (i.e., tape), correct and guide you. A relationship of confidence soon develops, so that the natural inhibitions of ego fall away and you can really freely practice to speak. We have already mentioned the vital importance of pronunciation – it is clearly very difficult to perfect this if you don’t have a live human being listening to you and guiding you (no matter what the computer-based interactive packages may claim about their pronunciation verification software).  It is also true that interactive computer packages can tell you if you are answering correctly or incorrectly, in relation to simple things like vocabulary, but can they explain to you? Obviously not. The need for expert assessment and guidance in language practice is no different to the same need for the golfer we mentioned, practicing his swing (for both, it is the procedural circuit of the brain that’s engaged). If an amateur golfer (“hacker”) like myself should try and practice my swing on my own, I will just re-enforce my bad habits. I need a pro to video-record me, show me where I go wrong, and guide me to correct it, to make my hours of practice worth-while – the exact same applies to language practice.

Getting over the barriers constituted by the own ego / the “fear of failure”: A last tip with regard to speaking practice, concerns the barrier in the adult psyche constituted by our natural fear of making a fool of ourselves in front of others.  This is perfectly normal, and its inhibiting power is great. There are three distinct ways of overcoming this barrier.  The first is to build a relationship of comfort with a trusted tutor, as I mentioned earlier. Another is to get objective proof of your communicative proficiency in the form of certification, such as the gold standard DELE / SIELE diploma of the Spanish education ministry, or the Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) in the USA. This knowledge that you’ve proven that: “yes, I can!” will boost your self-confidence no end.

A third option (which can be integrated with the first) is to create a situation where you, John Smith, aren’t making the mistakes – “somebody else” is, so it’s no skin off your nose. This approach, which is called suggestopedia, was originally developed in the 1970’s by a Bulgarian psychotherapist by the name of Georgi Lozanov. What it entails, is that John Smith will, for example, arrive at the diplomatic academy, where he will immediately be given a new identity related to his target language – he will become Pedro Gonzalez, a journalist from Mexico City with a passion for football and politics, and an entire back story that John Smith has created for his Pedro identity. All his fellow students and tutors will know John Smith as Pedro, and interact with him as such. This has the benefit of taking John’s ego out of play, plus the benefit of freeing him up to adopt a Latino persona, so that he can escape from his unilingual Anglo cultural and phonological straightjacket and learn to articulate (and gesticulate) like a true Latino.

Suggestopedia isn’t the answer to all the methodological challenges of learning a foreign language – it is simply another tool, to be used in conjunction with others. I have seen its effectiveness during my days as head of South Africa’s diplomatic academy (before I became ambassador for the New South Africa of President Mandela). I’ve also seen it here at DELEhelp – one remarkable fellow really got into the swing of things, designing for himself an identity as a Mexican footballer (soccer player). Every time, sitting himself down in front of the Skype camera, you could see him with his enormous sombrero on his head, dressed in his Mexican club soccer shirt and with a glass of tequila in his hand. It wasn’t difficult for him to really get into his new character, which completely freed him of his uni-lingual Anglo straight-jacket and assisted him enormously in mastering the articulation of Spanish phonology in no time.  If you think it can work for you, give it a try!

Like any endeavor in life, learning a new language requires more than just guts and determination (although a lot of that, as well!). It requires that you understand the challenges, and the science behind what works and what doesn’t. I hope that this rather long blog-post has helped you acquire such understanding. We here at Excellentia Didactica / DELEhelp would be more  than pleased to help you with engaging the procedural circuit of your brain through guided practice, so that you can master the performance art that conversing fluently and coherently in Spanish truly is.

REMEMBER TO ASK FOR OUR FREE 96-page DELE / SIELE EXAM ORIENTION AND ACING TIPS WORKBOOK.

Buena suerte with your learning of the beautiful Spanish language

Salu2

Willem

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

 




The SIELE EXAM is FAST, FLEXIBLE and FAIL-PROOF

The SIELE EXAM is FAST, FLEXIBLE and FAIL-PROOF

In our last blogpost, we compared the SIELE and DELE exams of Spanish language competency. We showed you that – as far as status and content goes – they are twins, sharing the Instituto Cervantes as parent. They have the same curriculum and scoring criteria. The essential difference is in form; the SIELE is the new online version, with all the flexibility and fast turn-around that modern technology makes possible.  As director of studies of DELEhelp and PROBIGUA (the latter our residential arm here in La Antigua Guatemala, which is an accredited SIELE exam center) I am also the official coordinator of the Antigua exam center. Here are some of my observations about how the new SIELE is performing in real life. Summed up: the SIELE exam is fast, flexible and fail-proof.

Our award-winning partner residential school in La Antigua Guatemala, PROBIGUA

FAST: How quickly can you get your results for the new online SIELE exam? SIELE’s promise is within three weeks max. However, we had a candidate do the S3 module (Listening Comprehension + Oral Expression) on a Saturday, and her results were ready on Tuesday! What is noteworthy, is that this particular exam module that she did, included oral – meaning that it wasn’t simply multiple-choice questions marked by computer, but that it needed to be listened to and assessed, in person, by qualified examiners. This turn-around is light years ahead of the DELE’s waiting time of two to three months, plus months more to receive your actual diploma via snail-mail.

Another time-related issue that sets the SIELE apart from its twin, the examen DELE, is that our candidates could register online and receive confirmed times and dates for sitting their SIELE exams, just 48 hours before the exam dates chosen. Instead of the DELE’s limitation to half a dozen fixed dates per year, the SIELE can be taken on practically any date of your choice, and at very short notice, if need be. Very importantly, your SIELE date is immediately and definitively confirmed. In the case of the DELE, on the other hand, candidates need to wait for confirmation at the end of the registration period, which often then results in disappointment (i.e., registration refused) if the particular exam center couldn’t meet the requirements for having oral examiners in place for the candidate’s chosen level, on the set date.

FAIL-PROOF: Are you worried that, since for the DELE you MUST select a particular exam level to attempt, you may aim too high and then fail? Perhaps because of failing just one particular exam unit? This risk is inherent in the DELE, because it is a single-level exam – meaning that it isn’t your general communicative competency in Spanish that is certified, but whether you meet all of the thresholds for the particular level you enrolled for (resulting rather bluntly in either an “apto” or “no apto”, meaning a pass or a fail).

The SIELE overcomes the dilemma of what level to aim for, because it is a multi-level exam. This means that your result for each exam segment is stated as a number (out of 250) which is then translated into your level of competency – for instance, if you score between 125 and 175 out of 250 in the Oral Expression segment, that translates into a B1 grading.  You will get such an indvidualized grading of your level for each of the four communicative competencies – you could, for example, be assessed as B1 for Oral Expression, B2 for Reading Comprehension, A2 for Listening Comprehension, and B1 for Expression in Writing. This is a far more satisfying result than simply hearing you’ve utterly failed B2, if that was the DELE level you had enrolled for. (Again – the levels for DELE and SIELE are exactly the same, as are the curricula and the scoring criteria, and both exams are overseen by Spain’s Instituto Cervantes – see the image below, showing the signature of the Instituto’s Academic Director on a set of actual SIELE exam results).

With our students, we have seen in practice the value of the more flexible yet also more exact certification of SIELE, compared to DELE. It is far better to be told that you actually scored 175 for the oral, and thus be certified at B1 (i.e., you got the top B1 score in this) than to be simply told you’ve failed B2, if you had aimed just one point too high by enrolling for the latter (a B2 grading in the oral starts at 176).

What the above means, is that the SIELE exam is virtually fail-proof. It is like a blood test, which realistically shows where you are placed on the spectrum – not whether you pass or fail a certain arbitrary level. I suppose somebody with no competency in Spanish at all, may in theory fail to obtain even an A1 level, but for the normal student the SIELE’s format eliminates the risk of ending up empty-handed if you had aimed a bit too high (which could have serious consequences, if you urgently needed certification for job advancement, university acceptance or some other formal purpose).

IMPORTANT TIP: While YOU may not be at risk of “failing” the SIELE exam, technology isn’t failproof – as anybody who’s been using Skype, or any internet-based service, can testify. It can – and it does – unfortunately happen that, due to circumstances outside of the control of Madrid or your local exam center, the internet connection fails, making taking (or finishing) the exam impossible at that time. This means the particular segment of the exam needs to be re-scheduled, typically for the next day. Therefore, if you are attending an immersion course at a school that’s an accredited exam center (like our PROBIGUA here in La Antigua Guatemala), don’t leave the exam till the very last day – schedule it for two or three days before your departure, so that it can be repeated if technology failure had occurred.

FLEXIBLE: Another great element of flexibility in the SIELE exam, lies in the fact that you can choose which modules you want to do, on which dates. You can, for example, do the SIELE S2 (Reading Comprehension and Expression in Writing) on one day, and the S3 (Listening Comprehension and Oral Expression), on the next day – or next month, or next year – and thus, together, cover all four communicative competencies; the same four that the DELE tests at a single fixed exam session. If you only need to show proof of your level of ability to speak Spanish, then you simply register for the SIELE S4 exam, which consists of just an Oral Expression test. Having myself experienced just how sapping the DELE C2 exam can be, I can imagine that a bit of a break may do wonders for one’s continued intellectual focus. To read more about the SIELE exam, go to their excellent English website, by clicking on this image:

Link to SIELE website English

It is also important to note that the exam centers for SIELE set their own schedules for exam sessions (which you will see advertised on the www.siele.org website). Local exam center coordinators can add to, or change their schedule of sessions for a given day 48-hours ahead. You could, therefore, reach out to your center of choice (if, for example, you have some reason for needing to do the exam after hours) and see if they would schedule a session convenient for you, which you can then select when you register.  I have been most impressed with SIELE’s support service, which runs 24/7 (keeping in mind that there are exam centers around the world). This high level of back-up is provided by the IT giant Telefonica’s educational division, which is the technology partner of the Instituto Cervantes.

One of the further practical benefits of the SIELE exam format over the DELE, is that you will be doing the exam seated in front of a tested and certified high-powered computer dedicated to just your use, with broadband cable connection (i.e., not wifi) and a set of proper ear-covering earphones with microphone.  This is very useful for the Listening Comprehension part of the exam, which in the case of the DELE is often done in large groups seated together in an exam hall and having to listen to the audio being played over a public-address system.  Because the SIELE exam is offered every day of the week (at our center we offer it Mondays through Saturdays) there is also very little likelihood of the crowding that often goes with the DELE’s handful of fixed exam dates.

If you’ve basically lost the skill of writing legibly by hand (or if your fingers are no longer fit for three hours of such torture!) then the fact that the SIELE exam is typed on a keyboard and not written long-hand like the DELE, is another advantage.

Lest you think that I’m putting down the DELE, let me conclude by saying again that these two exams aren’t in competition – they are twins from the same family. To me (being very proud of my own DELE C2 diploma) it is simply great that the Instituto Cervantes has teamed up with excellent partners, to bring serious students of the Spanish language faster, more flexible options. There will always be a place for the examen DELE (please note, for instance, that the C2 can only be done as DELE). But for students who are under pressure to show certification quickly for college admission, work or the like, the SIELE exam is a great alternative. It is also our recommendation to our own students that they do the SIELE as a stepping stone – a very useful independent diagnostic and familiarization – on their way to eventual top-level DELE success. If you do the demo SIELE exam via this link:  https://siele.org/web/guest/examen I am sure that you will agree that the SIELE exam is fast, flexible and fail-proof.

click on image to ask for free workbook

If you want to know more about the DELE / SIELE exam curriculum and scoring criteria, you may find our FREE 96-page in-house workbook #9 called Exam Orientation and Acing Tips very useful. To receive a download link for this e-book, absolutely free and with no obligation, simply click on the image above to open our contact information form, and send that to me, so that I may then e-mail the link to you.

We also offer a free, one-hour exploratory Skype session, through which you could find out if our exam prep services could be of value to you.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Salu2

Willem

Click on IMAGE to go to our secure website




How do the SIELE and the DELE exam compare

The examen DELE and the SIELE are not identical twins, but they share the same parent (the Instituto Cervantes), have the same curriculum, and enjoy the same status. The only true difference between them, is how they operate. The DELE is traditional, being written long-hand with  a pencil on paper, and is limited to a handful of fixed exam dates. The SIELE is hip and cool, very much into the modern ways of the world – so, it is done ONLINE.

The new SIELE is flexible – you choose your own exam date, plus which of the modules(s) testing the four communicative competencies you want to do on that day. It is quick – you can register up to 48 hours in advance, and get your results within three weeks (as opposed to many months for the DELE).  The SIELE is risk free –  because it is drawn up as a multi-level exam, you WILL get certified, at your correct level (A1, A2, B1, B2, C1), based on the level of communicative competency you demonstrated. This is because, unlike the DELE, you don’t have to register for a specific level, which means in the SIELE there isn’t the DELE’s risk of failing.

The SIELE enjoys excellent technological back-up, because it has the educational division of telecoms giant TELEFONICA as partner. SIELE therefore boasts a very informative website, also accessible in English. There is a truly comprehensive exam guide available in English, for download. If you click on the icons below, it will link you automatically to the website, or to the exam guide, or to four different short videos explaining how each of the four communicative comptencies are tested in the SIELE.

Link to SIELE website English

Download SIELE exam guide

Short video explaining listening test

Video on Reading Comprehension test

Video on the writing skills test

Link to video explaining oral test

So, how do the Siele and the DELE exam compare? I am the official coordinator of the accredited SIELE exam center in la Antigua Guatemala. On the other hand, I am very proud of my DELE C2 diploma. Furthermore, in real life I actually am the father of non-identical twins. So, I feel like a parent who would not want to negatively compare one to the other.  They are from the same pedigreed stable (with the SIELE boasting a cross-continent range of godparents, in the form of the University of Salamanca, the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and the University of Buenos Aires) and they represent the same gold standard for certifying communicative competency in Spanish. They are both based on the Common European Framework, using the exact same curriculum. Level A2 for SIELE is exactly the same standard as A2 for DELE, and so on for all the levels (except for the top C2, which is only offered as DELE).  The fundamental truth is that the only real difference lies in HOW the exams are taken, not in WHAT they test. The difference in the HOW, is simply that – with the SIELE – the Instituto Cervantes and its partners have stepped into the internet age, with all the convenience and flexibility that modern information technology make possible.

For students who need certification in a hurry, the SIELE overcomes the long registration process of the DELE exam, the wait for a fixed exam date to come around, and then the usual two to three months wait for the results to be known (plus months more before the diploma finally arrives!).  In the case of the SIELE, you can register for the date of your choosing (at our exam center here in la Antigua, for example, we offer slots six days per week). You need do so with only 48 hour notice, and you get your results within three weeks – very often our students get theirs the very next day.

With the SIELE it is also possible to mix and match the competencies you want to have tested on any given day. To illustrate – you can do just the oral expression test (the so-called SIELE S4), or you can do the SIELE Global, which tests all four competencies over three hours of examination. The  SIELE Global is thus similar in scope to the DELE. Between these two ends of the spectrum, lie S1, S2 & S3, which are individual combinations of the four competencies:

In addition to the SIELE Global, there is the option of taking individual competency tests, in different combinations.

So, how do the SIELE and the DELE exam compare when it comes to the type of tuition / exam preparation that we do with candidates? There’s practically no difference, because the curriculum and the scoring criteria are the same. It is, after all, the same four communicative competencies that are being tested, to the same standard. We use the same material, whether you are aiming for DELE or SIELE – just familiarising you towards the end with the differing logistical demands of the distinct examining technologies.  Anyone who is familiar with the typical questions of the DELE, will immediately see that the questions in the SIELE are of the exact same ilk. We therefore use the same DELE model exam books in the preparation for both.

We find that the SIELE is an excellent tool for students who have high end goals, but who are unsure of the DELE level they want to tackle on the way there. Instead of breaking your head about what DELE level to register for, do the SIELE Global instead – you will get an authoritative certification of your current level, without the risk of failing, and it will serve as an excellent diagnostic of your strengths and weaknesses,  which one can then address on the way to the ultimate goal.

Evidently, for students who only need, or only want an authoritative report on their oral interaction competency, the SIELE S4 offers the singular focus and opportunity which the DELE (with  its obligation to always do all four competencies) simply doesn’t. The SIELE’s individual permutations also allow for effectively spreading the exam burden over different days – by doing S2 and S3 on different dates, one can amass certification for all four competencies, but achieved at an easier pace.

In the end, though, obtaining the C2 diploma requires doing the DELE, at that level.  The DELE diploma is issued by the Spanish ministry of education, and is valid life-long, whereas the SIELE Global certificate is issued by the SIELE partners, and has a validity of five years.

In the final analysis, the best course for me to steer with regard to how the SIELE and the DELE exam compare, is not to set them up as if in competition with each other (which they certainly are not) but rather to applaud the flexibility and the expansion of options that the introduction of the SIELE has added to the Cervantes family.

The key to succes for Cervantes with DELE / SIELE lies in now being better able to answer to the clearly varied needs and practical circumstances of each individual in the vast collective of students – students who rightly realize that competency in Spanish is a great asset, and who want to obtain the best, most credible certification possible.

In your opinion, how do the SIELE and the DELE exam compare? Please send us your comments and questions – we look forward to engaging with you.

Whatever format of exam you have in mind – buena suerte with your preparation!

Salu2

Willem

click on image to ask for free workbook




DELE SIELE EXAM PREP IMMERSION

Our award-winning partner residential school in La Antigua Guatemala, PROBIGUA

Self-study at home for the DELE exam (or its more flexible new online version, the SIELE and its American equivalent, the OPIc) via Skype is convenient, personalized and affordable. But some of you may want to supplement this with a total immersion in Hispanic culture and conversation (especially during the last week or so before the set date for the examen DELE,  or before your appointment for  doing the SIELE). Think of homestay with a native Spanish-speaking family. Intensive, one-on-one tutoring that follows your existing DELEhelp study plan and methodology. Affordable, and situated in a beautiful and interesting environment…

DELEhelp is partnered with the renowned language school PROBIGUA in La Antigua Guatemala, to offer just such a possibility to our students. One can say that we are the internet arm of PROBIGUA, and they in turn are our residential school arm. In fact, we are the academic content provider to PROBIGUA, so that your existing study plan and preferred learning methodology will be respected and continued with, when you come here for immersion. It is quite likely that you will come face-to-face with some of your DELEhelp Skype tutors, if you choose to do your immersive “pre-exam polishing” at PROBIGUA!

In this Blog-post we will give you more information about PROBIGUA as our recommended DELE and SIELE exam preparation immersion destination, as well as on the beautiful, historic colonial capital city of La Antigua Guatemala (a UNESCO World Heritage site), but if you want to see a quick 1-minute video on the subject rather than read all about it, you can simply click on the image below, and be taken straight to the video:

DELE exam preparation PROBIGUA

Click on image for video

PROBIGUA stands for Proyecto Bibliotecas Guatemala. The school (which is non-profit) is one of the two legs of what is a laudable social responsibility venture. The other leg, is the promotion of learning in rural areas of Guatemala, which PROBIGUA does through building schools, and the running of their famous “libraries on wheels” (converted U.S. school buses) to schools and villages in the countryside. This is done with the aid of the Swiss PROBIGUA Foundation.

Here are some images related to the mobile libraries and the school building project:

:

As you can see, PROBIGUA won the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s prestigious “Access to Learning Award” in 2001, and their efforts were also recognised by pope Francis in 2016.

Furthermore, PROBIGUA is an accredited exam center for the Spanish competency SIELE exams (the flexible new online twin of the DELE) and for the equivalent American OPI family of Spanish language exams.

By coming to PROBIGUA for your DELE / SIELE exam preparation immersion, you will therefore not only be attending a top school, but you will be contributing to job creation for the expert maestras as well, plus you will have the opportunity to see more of Guatemala than just La Antigua and participate in PROBIGUA’s very interesting and laudable social and community activities.

The PROBIGUA language school is housed in the heart of La Antigua Guatemala, 10 minutes from the central plaza and located in the shadow of its most beautiful church – the La Merced. Its facilities offer a pleasant and technologically well equipped learning environment. Classes are one-on-one, in attractive surroundings, as you can see from these photos below. As said, DELEhelp is PROBIGUA’s academic content provider and internet arm, so your existing study plan and methodology will seamlessly integrate.

To go to PROBIGUA’s website, click on the IMAGE above

ABOUT LA ANTIGUA GUATEMALA: Our historic little city was once the capital of all Spain’s imperial possessions between Panama and Mexico. With its cobbled streets and colonial architecture (well preserved, except for the many signs of the might of the region’s earthquakes!)  La Antigua is regarded as the best-conserved colonial city in Central America and is now also the latter region’s most-visited tourist destination.

Historic, plus scenically beautiful in its  green valley among its three volcanos (Volcan Fuego is still active) as well as strikingly cosmopolitan, this little city that seems to have woken up like Rip van Winkle boasts countless excellent restaurants and attractions for its many visitors. La Antigua is also regarded as one of the world’s top centers for the teaching of Spanish as foreign language. This is thanks to the locals naturally speaking correctly, slowly, while articulating clearly and without much of an accent  (the local way of speaking is due to La Antigua having been the capital and seat of the learned bureaucracy as well as of many religious orders and one of the oldest universities in all of the Americas; the locals were therefore formed in the Castilian upper-class way of speaking, unlike the lowland areas of Latin America where the Andalusian accent and tradition of rapid speech was the formative norm).

The reason why La Antigua went into a two-hundred year deep sleep, was probably political – although the great Santa Martha earthquake of 1773 was a destructive reality that provided a convenient excuse. The 1770’s were turbulent times in the Americas, and the Bourbon dynasty in Spain wasn’t that well settled either. In 1773 a new Captain-General was sent to what was then known as Santiago de los Caballeros (la Antigua’s former name) with orders to i.a. dis-empower the very powerful clergy, who exerted considerable political influence from their great cathedrals, monasteries and palaces which dominated almost every square block of the colonial city. Shortly after the new Captain-General’s arrival, the great earthquake flattened much of the city, and he ordered that the capital needed to be moved to the “safer” site of the present-day Guatemala City, some 50 miles away. (A previous earthquake had struck La Antigua some 20 years earlier, from which it had by 1773 mostly been restored to its proper imperial splendour, and most locals had wanted to re-build again, after the  1773 quake, rather than move).

This order to move the capital lock, stock and barrel, had the effect of forcing the once-wealthy clergy not to restore again their imposing edifices, but to abandon them and go and construct anew, from scratch, at the new site, during tough economic times for the Spanish empire. The order to  move was made final by the king in 1775, literally on pain of death, and the city was almost completely abandoned, to the point of losing its name and coming to be referred to as “la Antigua Guatemala” (i.e., old Guatemala). This exodus,  ironically, ensured that it was saved from modernisation. Today the ruins of the once-great edifices still abound, untouched, dotted all over our little city and serving now as awe-inspiring tourist attractions.

For more about La Antigua’s importance as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, you can follow this link:  http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/65

The New York Times recently published an excellent short video (6 minutes) on La Antigua as destination, which will give you a good idea of what to see and do here: http://tinyurl.com/zl8fsk9

Click on this image to go to PROBIGUA Facebook page

So, for an affordable, interesting and academically worthwhile DELE SIELE exam prep immersion ahead of sitting your exam, come to PROBIGUA in La Antigua Guatemala. Here your DELEhelp tuition will continue seamlessly. You can also be part of a laudable social venture with rewarding community interaction opportunities, and you will be surrounded by spectacularly beautiful cultural and natural scenery, while enjoying the perfect climate of the “city of eternal spring”.  To go to PROBIGUA’s own Facebook page, just click on the image on the right.

Saludos cordiales

Willem

click on image to ask for free workbook




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

snappa_1466562656

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

Click on IMAGE to go to our secure website

[]




Improve your Spanish conversation skills

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

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

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

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

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

One thing that we have known for some time with certainty, is what DOESN’T work; it has been empirically proven that the traditional school or college-style teaching of a second language fails miserably in producing alumni with the capacity to maintain even a basic conversation at the end of their schooling. Recent figures from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) show that only 0.5% of school / college alumni who majored in a foreign language, actually achieve that level of competence.  Most students taught the traditional way, give up on learning a second language, and those who do finish, have forgotten practically all they had learnt in just three to four years.

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

The Human Instinct for Language:

language instinct coverTo understand how to improve your Spanish conversation skills, you first and foremost have to understand how the human brain functions when it comes to “learning a language” – or, more correctly put – how we acquire a new language: i.e., develop the ability to communicate in it. (Babies don’t set out to “learn a language”; they instinctively acquire the ability to communicate, just as they acquire the ability to walk upright – both much more through PRACTICE than through abstract learning of theory). Understanding this process is certain to help you in cultivating the right mind-set and study methods for making your DELE / SIELE exam and OPI preparation effective.

It is recognized that the two most important abilities that set us humans apart from other primates and the rest of the animals in general, is our ability to walk upright and our ability to communicate.  Both are vital survival skills. From the survival standpoint the acquisition of mobility is an early imperative.  Walking is also a less complex task than the heavily brain-driven skill of oral communication, so babies master that first. It has been shown, though, that listening to the mother’s voice starts already in the womb. Once the toddler is mobile, the brain’s major developmental focus for the next three to five years shifts almost exclusively to honing the ability to communicate verbally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Languages as an advanced pattern encoding and transfer mechanism”

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

It is only necessary to recall one’s own childhood to know that we developed the ability to communicate verbally without any formal teaching. As toddlers we didn’t study grammar, but from about age three and a half, we could construct phrases grammatically correctly.  Where we did make “mistakes”, it usually was when the supposedly “correct” English form deviated from the general pattern we had correctly discerned – as in a child saying two “oxes” instead of saying two oxen, because the regular pattern for forming the plural in modern English is by adding an “s” (like in two boxes, or two cows).  Oxen is a relic from the past, which has somehow clung on – unlike the word “kine”, which until a few centuries ago was the correct English plural of cow, but which was jettisoned in favor of cows (with “cows” probably before then regarded as child-speak).

As little kids, we didn’t think of particular verbs as being distinct conjugations of some infinitive form – we simply knew that that was the right word for that particular phrase and context. Our ear told us if another child used a word incorrectly, without us being in any way able to explain why it was wrong. We developed our language skills by getting to know words as simply words, plus the familiar patterns of stitching them together in phrases.

First grammar book for an European language - Spanish, 1492

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

The advent of grammar studies:

It is obvious that the patterns of languages weren’t ever formally designed and ordained by committees of elder cavemen laying down grammar “rules”.  Languages grew spontaneously, constantly undergoing local variations and unstoppable evolution at the hand (or rather, tongue) of the common folk.

The first visible signs of language standardization started emerging with the advent of writing.  The first formal grammar book for an European language was only published in 1492, for Castilian, which now is the national language of Spain. In it, its author, Antonio de Nebrija, laid down as first fundamental rule that: “we must write as we speak and we must speak as we write”. What he insisted upon, therefore, is that researchers and academics should not invent language rules, but must observe and record that which actually exists, with all its irregularities (the concept of grammar “rules” is actually unfortunate, because of the connotation that the word “rules” have of being something authoritatively ordained – with hindsight, it would have been better to speak of grammar patterns).

Because of the natural eagerness of the human mind to create order by means of identifying patterns, it was inevitable that languages would eventually be formally studied. The study of grammar would come to consist of tabulating the patterns evident in any language, such as those for word modification (morphology – for example, the conjugation of words) or the protocols of phrase construction (syntax).  It is evident that, by learning and knowing these “rules” or rather patterns, one would be able to predict likely constructs. Now, if we take any sport, knowing the rules of the game isn’t – in and of itself – going to make you a great player.  The latter depends i.a. on one’s ability to APPLY such theoretical knowledge instantly and intuitively in actual game settings.  This analogy very much resembles the DELE  / SIELE exams and the OPI, in which there are no questions on the rules of grammar as such. Instead, all the focus is on the candidate’s ability to apply that theoretical knowledge in real-world communication. (Such tests based on communicative competencies, in any event will quickly enough show the examiner whether you know the “rules”.).

Unfortunately, the traditional school system requires standardized curricula and methodologies. This is so because, in order for school tuition to be feasible in practice, teaching classrooms full of students all at once, there just isn’t scope for individualization.  And there are many other subjects to be taught, in addition to a foreign language. Therefore, for the foreign language student there cannot be the constant immersion in his target tongue that the typical native-speaking toddler is exposed to every woken hour (in school and college, time for studying foreign languages is limited – usually only some four to five hours per week, homework time included, is dedicated to learning a second language).  Furthermore, it is logical that schools – which are subject to severe constraints of time and organization, whilst dealing with entire class-groups and not individuals – are by the nature of these limitations focused on imparting theoretical knowledge of rules, and not on the individual coaching required to develop actual communicative ability.

snappa_1467553698As a consequence, schools and colleges are mostly teaching the theoretical foundations of a foreign language, with a focus on reading and writing (all pupils can practice to write at the same time, but certainly all can’t practice to speak at the same time). Quite naturally, therefore, schools are setting written exams to test groups of students’ knowledge of that which the schools have been teaching, namely theory such as the rules of grammar. Schools are not structured, nor disposed, to focus primarily on the individualized testing of each student’s ability to engage in an actual conversation, one by one.  Which explains why only 0.5% of US students end up being able to converse in the foreign language they have studied.  It’s like teaching and testing football spectators for their knowledge of the rules, instead of coaching and assessing the  skills of actual, competent football players.

The foregoing is not a condemnation of schools – in many ways the traditional grammar-based approach to foreign language teaching was and is what is practically possible, and no informed teacher is under any illusion that it would, in itself, be enough.  Because humans instinctively seek for patterns, it is clearly useful that the patterns inherent to any language’s grammar be identified and codified, and also that these be learnt.  It obviously is a faster way of becoming aware of such patterns than simply by absorbing them subconsciously, in the course of years of unstructured immersion. But it is not enough to simply know these rules, if one is to acquire the capacity to communicate effectively. Because while we may be well aware of some rule, if our minds and tongues aren’t practiced in applying it in conversation, then something contrary is likely to slip out – no matter how well we may have “known” that that was the wrong way of phrasing it.

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

As kids we pick up and become skilled in using these “chunks”, like: I am going to school; I am going in the car; I am not going to grandma’s etc. We comprehend that the basic chunk stays the same, we only have to change some words to suit the need of the moment. This truth was recognized some two decades ago by Michael Lewis, who called for a new, complementary approach to the traditional way of teaching language, which he called the “lexical approach”.  This approach was not intended to replace traditional learning, but to supplement it; Lewis and his followers see it more as an enhanced mind-set, a better understanding of how we actually acquire language, which would broaden the learning methodologies beyond their traditional focus and strive for an outcome of actual conversational competency.

The Lexical Approach:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click on IMAGE to go to our secure website

OUR TOP TIPS FOR HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR SPANISH CONVERSATION SKILLS

The WHAT of becoming proficient in conversation:

The first thing to get right, is mind-set. Your objective should NOT be “I want to learn Spanish” (because that is aimed at acquiring theoretical knowledge about the language). You should consciously decide that “I want to develop the capacity to converse in Spanish” (which entails not only knowing the theory, but the practiced and honed skill of integrating and applying your knowledge in real-world situations). What you want to be, is an accomplished football player, not just a coach potato football rules boffin.

With your objective clearly defined, it is important next to identify the skills and knowledge sets that are essential to develop, in order to acquire the ability to converse in Spanish.  These elements then become the “to do” list of your preparation plan. The ultimate phase will be to add to this “what to do” list, the very important “how to do” component.

What, then, is necessary, in order to be able to actually maintain a conversation in a foreign language? You must firstly have the ability to understand what your interlocutor is saying to you, and secondly you must be able to make yourself understood.

For both understanding and being understood, you first of all need something that actually, for the DELE diploma, is one of its four main oral exam scoring criteria, namely a sufficiently ample “linguistic scope”. This means that you do have to know (i.e., have learnt to the point of having committed to memory and thus have fully internalised) the words, expressions and common “word chunks” making up the lexis of the language, so that you can identify them upon hearing, as well as instantly reproduce them in your own oral expression. This essential knowledge of words and patterns entails knowing the semantics or meaning of words, the phonology or sound of the word, and its morphology or form, the latter signifying the way a particular word is morphed (through conjugation, for example) to convey different meanings.

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

The DELE scoring guidelines do emphasize that they are not going to be overly finicky about the theory, as long as comprehension on the part of your listener is not made difficult or impossible by your level of incorrectness. This is, of course, how real conversation in a foreign language actually functions (or doesn’t); your listener can, as an intelligent native speaker, compensate for your small errors of syntax or such things as gender accord, even foe wrong verb conjugation – what he or she cannot compensate for, is if you completely lack the appropriate words to say what you want, or pronounce them so incomprehensibly that your listener’s eyes simply glaze over.

This is to say that, when it comes to the importance of “correctness” in conversation, knowledge of lexis or vocabulary – that is, of the correct word / phrase – and practiced knowledge of how to correctly pronounce it, are significantly more important than knowledge of the “rules” of grammar. In fact, if you are still obliged when you want to say something in Spanish to first try and remember, and then to calculatedly apply these grammar rules in order to mentally construct a phrase before you can utter it, you will have a serious problem in maintaining any kind of conversation. This is the difference between sitting an end-of-school written exam, where you have time to calculate how to apply rules, and real-world conversation, which is an instantaneous give-and-take. Instead of relying on calculated application of rules (which usually signify that you are still thinking in your mother tongue and first have to translate from it) you need to have fully internalized the patterns of Spanish speech (as you had done as a kid, with your mother tongue). Having internalised these patterns,  it rolls out correctly almost without conscious thought as to how to say something (thus leaving you free to focus completely on the really important thing, namely the substance of  what you want to convey).

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

The last of the four DELE oral exam scoring criteria is “fluency”. In real life, conversation breaks down when there is no fluency – when you have to constantly interrupt your interlocutor because you could not understand something that he/she said, or when you yourself cannot find the right words or correct pronunciation or appropriate syntax to comprehensibly say what you need to say. Once again, if you need to first translate for yourself and do a rules-based calculation of how to say something, then there will be no fluency. You need to have the lexical patterns of Spanish sufficiently internalized. Especially important to the fluent flow of conversation (and also in the DELE scoring) is the appropriate use of link phrases in order to fluently join up different thoughts or sentences – and not end up uttering a disjointed series of unconnected phrases.  You know from conversation in your own language, how important link phrases are – words such as “accordingly”, or “on the other hand” or “as you know” or any of the many such devices that we use to fill blank “think time” between sentences, and to link them together. These are some of the most fixed and most used “word chunks” in the lexis of any language, and knowing these patterns are essential to fluency.

To recap – the what of Spanish that we need to internalize in order to be able to maintain conversation, are the patterns of the language. These are its lexical patterns, of words and word chunks (including their meaning, pronunciation and the patterns for morphing words to signify different meanings in terms of time, number and the like). There are also the patterns of syntax (how words and phrases are strung together to form coherent sentences). This knowledge of patterns we have to internalize, and practice over and over so that we can reproduce it instantaneously without much conscious thought. Without such internalization of the lexical, phonological, morphological, and syntactical patterns of Spanish, you cannot hope to achieve the sufficiently ample linguistic scope, correctness, coherence and fluency that will be required in order to maintain a meaningful and effortless conversation that can focus on substance, rather than constantly succumbing to getting stuck on form.

The HOW of developing the ability to converse in Spanish:

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

snappa_1467742914Learning the patterns: The basic manner in which your Spanish will develop, will be by means of assimilating patterns. You can check with just about any fluent speaker of Spanish as foreign language – they will tell you that they don’t consciously construct sentences based on grammar rules; they speak Spanish the same way as they speak their native English. They do so intuitively and without conscious mental effort, focused on the substance of their message and not on form. They probably will have to do a double take if you start cross-examining them about the intricacies of the morphology or syntax they had just used – the same as you would, if they do the same to you about your native English (you’ll probably respond that you can’t recall why it needs be said that way, but that you know that that’s definitely the way it is).

snappa_1467743277The importance of immersion: To discern patterns, and especially to internalize them in this natural manner, we have to be scanning a vast amount of Spanish. This can only be achieved through immersing yourself in an environment where you regularly hear, see and have to speak Spanish, just as a toddler masters the patterns of his mother tongue over the space of five to six years of such immersion (reaching school-going age, this knowledge and skill for self-expression just get polished, with the patterns he/she already have internalized being clarified and explained, whilst the child continues to benefit from ongoing immersion).

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

The relative importance and correct view of grammar: Again, this is not to suggest that formal grammar should or could be substituted. Grammar as we know it is none other than a handy codification of the enduring patterns of a language, as these have been observed over time by qualified linguists.  Using the fruits of their labors will clearly help you identify and understand the patterns a lot quicker than you would be able to do with just your own random observation. The key, however, is mental attitude – you have to study grammar as a very valuable tool, which will help you spot and comprehend the patterns far quicker and easier.  Do not study grammar as if it represents the language as such, as if knowing the “rules” of grammar could or should be – in and of itself – the ultimate objective. Please realize that knowledge of grammar is no more than a convenient crutch in the early phase while you are still hobbling along, whilst not yet having fully internalized the patterns. Just as you did with your English grammar crutch, you will be discarding it, actually forgetting all about it, as soon as you – figuratively speaking – can walk upright with ease and comfort without it.

How many adult native English speakers do you think ever give a moment’s thought to English grammar in their day-to-day conversations?  When last did you, yourself?

Always remember, too, that the language patterns codified under the title of grammar (essentially being word morphology and sentence syntax), are intellectual constructs developed almost organically over ages by communities of humans.  Since grammar “rules” are intellectual constructs, any intelligent man, woman or child can therefore mentally compensate for most errors they hear in your grammar, without losing track of the meaning you are trying to convey. Studying grammar isn’t the be-all and end-all of “learning the language”. It isn’t even the most important part of such learning (as evidenced by the ability of others to mentally compensate for your grammar errors, and how quickly this crutch is discarded from your active consciousness, once you’ve reached fluency). Nevertheless, don’t be mistaken – until you are fluent through having fully internalized these patterns of morphology and syntax, you HAVE TO STUDY YOUR GRAMMAR – but do so selectively, as we will show, and with the right mental attitude, i.e. that it is a valuable cheat sheet of essential patterns.

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


snappa_1467744394Lexis is your top priority
: By studying lexis is meant acquiring a suitably ample linguistic scope in Spanish for your particular needs (for example, a missionary doctor is clearly going to require a different lexis to a policeman walking the beat in an immigrant neighborhood). Lexis consists of vocabulary and phonology (i.e., knowing words and their meaning, as well as how to pronounce them) as well as the learning of “word chunks” and common expressions and idioms. The reason why lexis is deemed more important to conversational ability than grammar, is twofold:

  • As was earlier said, to be able to maintain a conversation, you firstly need to comprehend. If you don’t know the meaning of a word or phrase your interlocutor has used, there is no way you can mentally compensate in order to arrive at a correct understanding of what you’re hearing (apart from asking your interlocutor to repeat and explain). It is therefore axiomatic in preparing for the listening and reading comprehension parts of the DELE exam, that “you have to have knowledge of words and the world” (see our earlier blogpost on this subject). This is just another way of underlining the lexical approach, which goes beyond the semantics of any given individual word to include its situational context, as part of a regular pattern of use. If you don’t have adequate lexical knowledge (i.e., knowing the situational meaning of words and phrases that you hear, and knowing enough about phonology to be able to correctly identify which words you are actually hearing), you cannot hope to comprehend much in the course of any given conversation.
  • When expressing yourself orally, lexis is also of vital importance. You have to know the right word or phrase (to the point of not having to search for it), and you have to be able to pronounce it intelligibly. If you don’t readily have the right words and phrases at your disposal, or you cannot pronounce them sufficiently correctly for your interlocutor to be able to identify them, then – even with the best of grammar – there is simply no way that your conversation can blossom because your interlocutor cannot mentally compensate for words that you don’t have and which he cannot divine.  He will be as lost as you are.

At this point it is important to underline that one should have realistic expectations about the time and effort it will require to reach conversational ability in a foreign language such as Spanish. The ACTFL has calculated that, for a student of average aptitude, it will require 480 hours to reach “advanced low” proficiency (A2/B1 level in the European Common Framework such as the DELE diploma). This translates into doing forty hours per week (8 hours per day) for twelve weeks solid. To achieve “advanced high” level (i.e., not yet “superior”) will require 720 hours for the average student. For the superior proficiency level that diplomats and the like require, it is generally thought that 1,000 hours of intensive preparation is necessary.

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

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

What constitutes immersion, in the internet age? The above does not mean that you have to do 1,000 hours that consist solely of classroom + homework time (we’ve already seen where that gets one!). At DELEhelp we see direct tutorial assistance (one-on-one, via Skype) as comprising just one-third of the time you need to dedicate to developing your proficiency in Spanish. The other two-thirds need to be dedicated to active and passive exposure to Spanish, so that you can become familiar with the patterns in actual use. Immersion doesn’t only signify visiting a Spanish-speaking country and living there for some time.  You can immerse yourself totally in Spanish-language books, films, talk radio and news. This is more focused and productive than merely living in a Spanish-speaking environment, because you can select appropriate themes and you can have your tools at hand, such as for jotting down and looking up new words, and adding these to your flashcard list. This combines the mental awareness of the lexical mind-set with all the other traditional learning tools.

There is no doubt that the more time you invest in reading Spanish, the more you will internalize the lexis and patterns of the language, as well as getting to know the Hispanic cultural context – especially if you have given sufficient attention to your grammar as a great tool for helping you to quickly spot and understand those patterns. Reading has the huge benefit of seeing the words, but you need to hear them as well for the sake of phonology (you therefore have to maintain a balance between listening and reading). For this reason, the Spanish telenovela (TV soapy) is a great learning tool, especially those that have subtitles for the hard of hearing, so that you can see and hear the word, and also see its situational context playing out on screen.

In any event, whenever you read, read out loud – this provides good practice to your “articulation tools” to adapt themselves to the Spanish sound system, in the privacy of your own home and thus without any risk to your ego. Better still: tape yourself reading out loud, so that you can pick up your pronunciation errors – you will be surprised how different we all sound in reality, as opposed to how we imagine we sound!

Luckily, such “home immersion” in Spanish is nowadays a free option, thanks to the internet.  You don’t have to go live in a Hispanic country anymore (if you don’t want to, that is).  Check out this DELEhelp blogpost for a host of links to free sites, ranging from streamed talk radio, through the major Hispanic print press to free e-books and telenovelas. One needs to differentiate between active learning (such as working on your flashcard lists and memorizing them, or doing homework exercises in grammar, in reading comprehension or writing) and passive immersion. The latter can form part of your relaxation, like reading a book in Spanish (if you are a beginner, look for dual text books that have Spanish on one page and the English on the opposite). Every possible minute that you can have Spanish talk radio streaming live, or the TV running telenovelas in the background, is useful – even if you can’t really concentrate on their content, you will pick up phonology as well as words, phrases and patterns. Knowing how kids learn, you shouldn’t underestimate the value of this.

One of the great killers of people’s ambition to master a foreign language, is frustration (next to boredom, especially if they just do grammar exercises!). Frustration can really grow very quickly if grammar mastery is (wrongly) seen as the be-all and end-all of gaining proficiency in Spanish.  You may know, for instance, that every Spanish verb can literally be conjugated into 111 different forms, given the number of different moods and tenses in Spanish. If you get stuck on the idea that you absolutely have to memorize each and all of these 111 possibilities in order to be able to converse, the task will seem so daunting that very few will not become frustrated.

snappa_1467744793Develop your own style of speaking that’s natural and comfortable for you: Here’s another tip – each of us, no matter our language, have a particular own style of speaking that we’re comfortable with.  We don’t use all the possible tenses in normal conversation (as some writers may do in penning high literature).  Similarly, when conversing in Spanish, you don’t need to have all 111 conjugation options rolling fluently off your tongue. This is especially true in the beginning, while you are still internalizing the basic patterns of Spanish.

What you can do, is to concentrate, for the purpose of speaking, on mastering the present, the idiomatic future and the perfect past tense of the Indicative mood.  If you can conjugate these three tenses well, any interlocutor will be able to understand which time-frame you are referring to.  These three tenses correspond very well to the way you are accustomed to use tenses in English, because both the idiomatic future and the perfect past in Spanish are compound tenses, using auxiliary verbs (just like in English, which also use compounds with auxiliary verbs to indicate past and future – auxiliaries like “shall” and “have”).

This way of speaking is in fact becoming more common in Spanish, so you won’t be regarded as weird – in the Americas, for example, the idiomatic future tense (futuro idiomatico) is already used exclusively, in place of the traditional conjugated future tense (the idiomatic future tense is constructed by conjugating the verb “ir” + a + the infinitive of the action verb: voy a comer – I am going to eat).  For the idiomatic future tense, you only need to learn the present indicative conjugation of one verb, namely “ir”.

The Spanish perfect past tense (perfecto de Indicativo) is constructed with the present indicative conjugation of the verb “haber” + the past participle of the action verb: he comido – I have eaten. The use of the perfecto de Indicativo for indicating the past is becoming more and more common in general use such as in journalistic Spanish, in Spain in particular; so again – you will not be frowned upon or thought a dunce. Because it resembles the way English is constructed, it will come easier to you – also since there is only one conjugation to memorize. (We must emphasize, though, that this approach works for when you yourself are speaking, but because you cannot control the tenses that your interlocutor may choose to use, you have to have sufficient knowledge of the other tenses to at least be able to recognize them, otherwise you may not comprehend what you are hearing or reading;  in any event, it is much easier getting acquainted with something to the point of being able to recognize it when used by others, as opposed the level to active learning that’s needed for the purpose of own speech, which demands full internalization to enable real-time application).

For proficiency at conversation, you have to practice speaking (and be guided / corrected): The immersion that we referred to above, needs to go beyond you absorbing written and spoken Spanish. To acquire the skill and confidence to maintain a conversation, you have to have guided practice in speaking. This is often a problem for a home-study student living in an environment where there are few speaking opportunities.  Again, though, the internet comes to the rescue, in the form of Skype and its equivalents. Such online tuition and interaction is actually better than what most classroom tuition situations can offer. In the typical classroom you are part of a group, dragged down by the lowest common denominator and by methodologies and curricula that of necessity are generalized, without focus on your particular needs.  One-on-one tuition at a residential institution is prohibitively expensive (the actual private tuition itself is very costly , and then you have to add travel and accommodation costs, plus the opportunity cost of being away from work or business). On the other hand, such one-on-one, personalized tuition based on an individualized study plan that’s custom-designed just for your needs and aptitudes, presented via Skype, is very affordable (at DELEhelp, for example, we charge only US$10 per hour of actual Skype tuition, which includes our free in-house study materials as well as our prep time and the time we spend revising your homework and  model exam answers; there are no hidden costs).

The great benefit of having your own expert, experienced online tutor (apart from the low cost and the convenience of studying in the comfort of your own home) is that you have someone you can speak to, who will know how to correct and guide you. A relationship of confidence soon develops, so that the natural inhibitions of ego fall away and you can really freely practice to speak. We have already mentioned the vital importance of pronunciation – it is clearly very difficult to perfect this if you don’t have a live human being listening to you and guiding you (no matter what the computer-based interactive packages may claim about their pronunciation software).  It is also true that interactive computer packages can tell you if you are answering correctly or incorrectly, in relation to simple things like vocabulary, but can they explain to you? Obviously not.

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

Getting over the ego / fear of failure barrier: A last tip with regard to speaking practice, concerns the barrier in the adult psyche constituted by our natural fear of making a fool of ourselves in front of others.  This is perfectly normal, and its inhibiting power is great. There are three distinct ways of overcoming this barrier.  The first is to build a relationship of comfort with a trusted tutor, as I mentioned earlier. Another is to get objective proof of your proficiency in the form of certification, such as the gold standard DELE diploma of the Spanish education ministry. This knowledge that you’ve proven that: “yes, I can!” will boost your self-confidence no end.

A third option (which can be integrated with the first) is to create a situation where you, John Smith, aren’t making the mistakes – somebody else is, so it’s no skin off your nose. This approach, which is called suggestopedia, was originally developed in the 1970’s by a Bulgarian psychotherapist by the name of Georgi Lozanov. What it entails, is that John Smith will, for example, arrive at the diplomatic academy, where he will immediately be given a new identity related to his target language – he will become Pedro Gonzalez, a journalist from Mexico City with a passion for football and politics, and an entire back story that John Smith has created for his Pedro identity. All his fellow students and tutors will know John Smith as Pedro, and interact with him as such. This has the benefit of taking John’s ego out of play, plus the benefit of freeing him up to adopt a Latino persona, so that he can escape from his unilingual Anglo cultural and phonological straightjacket and learn to articulate (and gesticulate) like a true Latino.  Suggestopedia isn’t the answer to all the methodological challenges of learning a foreign language – it is simply another tool, to be used in conjunction with others. I have seen its effectiveness during my days as head of South Africa’s diplomatic academy (during the transition years to full democracy, before I became ambassador for the New South Africa of President Mandela). I’ve also seen it at DELEhelp – one remarkable fellow really got into the swing of things, designing for himself an identity as a Mexican footballer (soccer player) and every time sitting himself down in front of the Skype camera with his enormous sombrero on his head, dressed in his club soccer shirt and with a glass of tequila in his hand. It wasn’t difficult for him to really get into his new character, which completely freed him of his unilingual Anglo mould and assisted him enormously in mastering the articulation of Spanish phonology in no time.  If you think it can work for you, give it a try!

sombrero

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

click on image to ask for free workbook

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

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

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

Saludos cordiales

Willem




HOW THE DELE EXAM ORAL IS SCORED

How the DELE exam oral is scored

Explaining how the DELE exam oral is scored

Do you know how the DELE exam oral is scored? (And the oral of the DELE’s new online twin, the SIELE, or its American equivalent, the OPIc?). What criteria do examiners use? What does a failed effort actually sound like, compared to a candidate who passed? If you don’t know what the examiners are looking for, how can you effectively prepare?

We’ll give you the answers to these questions, and more.

Your result will be certified as being at a certain level of competency at expressing yourself orally in Spanish. You already know that there are six such levels for the DELE diploma exams,  starting at A1 and A2, up through B1 and B2 to C1 and the top C2. The SIELE follows the same curriculum and scoring criteria, but only goes up to C1. Your OPI (Oral Proficiency Interview) score can be expressed i.t.o. this same European scoring system (i.e., according to the 6 levels A1 > C2 just like the DELE), or the OPI certificate can be issued i.t.o. of the ACTFL / Inter-agency Round Table scoring system, which is slightly more detailed, but which follows the same principles.

Discussing how the DELE exam oral is scored at each particular level would be just too much for one blog post. Therefore I’ve chosen to focus here on DELE Level B1, because it’s midway in the range.  The different levels of the examen DELE, the SIELE and the OPI are all marked in basically the same manner, with just increased grades of difficulty and scope between them. Most of the assessment methodology is generic to all levels, with the assessment simply becoming more stringent. Whether you are doing A1 or C2, you will see the same structure and principles as those that we will be explaining here for B1, as regards to how the DELE exam oral is scored.

KNOWING THE FORMAT HELPS YOU UNDERSTAND HOW THE DELE EXAM ORAL IS SCORED

How the DELE exam oral is scored

The B1 “oral expression” competency assessment, which counts for 50% of the total expression part of the exam, consists of four tasks. A candidate is allowed 15 minutes prior preparation time for tasks 1 and 2. During this prep time you may make notes and draw a bullet-point scheme of presentation, which you may consult during the test.

For all DELE exam oral tests, there are two examiners physically present, who will mark your effort in real time, there at the exam center. (This is the major difference in oral exam format between the DELE and the SIELE or OPIc – the latter two tests are done online, with the candidate speaking to a computer avatar, not a live interviewer physically present at the exam center). In the DELE oral, the one examiner is the interviewer, who does the holistic assessment, and the other examiner (who typically sits behind you) does the analytical assessment.

As to how the DELE exam oral is scored by these examiners, both use the same assessment criteria.  However, the holistic assessment carries 40% weight, and the analytical assessment 60%. (The interviewer doing the holistic obviously needs primarily to keep the conversation going and cannot be distracting you by jotting down notes, so he/she makes the assessment based on overall impression – i.e., holistic).

At the beginning of the DELE oral test, the examiner who acts as interviewer will ask some “icebreaker” questions to put you at ease (these don’t count). As said, this examiner does the “holistic” scoring assessment, which simply means that he or she will form an overall opinion based on the rigorous training that all DELE examiners must complete. The second examiner does the more detailed “analytical” assessment, making notes of your performance.

After the ice-breaking, you will be asked to do your formal presentation – a short monologue of a few minutes (in the case of Level B1, it is limited to only two to three minutes). That’s followed by task two, which is a short conversation between you and the interviewer about the theme you just presented – some three to four minutes. In Tarea 3 you will be shown a photo, which you must describe and comment upon, in another two to three minute conversation. The last task is a debate with the interviewer. It is a simulation of an everyday situation (like you having to return a defective product to a shop), where you start with opposing positions and must reach a consensus solution. This also lasts three to four minutes.

THE FOUR ASSESSMENT CRITERIA EXPLAIN HOW THE DELE EXAM ORAL IS SCORED 

As mentioned, the two examiners use the same criteria, but two scales for assessing (scoring) the oral part of the exam, with the analytical being more detailed than the holistic.  Both the holistic and the analytical scales are scored in terms of four ordinal bands, with a top value of 3, and zero being the lowest mark awarded. For both scales, achieving a value of 2 meets the minimum threshold.  Obtaining a value of 3 represents ample achievement. Scoring 1 or 0 means you’ve failed the particular task.

The FOUR SCORING CRITERIA for the DELE oral exam are:

Coherence,

Fluency,

Ample linguistic scope (i.e., lexis, which is vocabulary + expressions),

Correctness (accuracy of pronunciation & grammar)

How the DELE exam oral is scored

I will now present you with the official scoring criteria guidelines of the Instituto Cervantes for the DELE B1 exam oral, which I’ve translated for you from the original “high academic Spanish”. Because of its importance for understanding how the DELE exam oral is scored, I am going to quote it in full.

THE HOLISTIC SCALE

Value 3: Candidate can add required explanations, arguments and relevant examples to the information under discussion. Has a sufficiently ample linguistic repertoire to function without difficulty in the situations postulated, even though commits some errors. Maintains conversations and exchanges information properly, his/her interventions confirm an understanding of detailed information. Collaborates with the interviewer.

Value 2: Provides the information required to meet the objectives of the communicative tasks. Has a basic linguistic repertoire that allows him/her to tackle the postulated situations, with errors, but which do not interfere with the transmission of ideas. Maintains conversations and exchanges information, although he/she may require clarification as well as for part of what the interviewer said to be repeated, in order to confirm mutual understanding.

Value 1: Although candidate can manage simple descriptions and presentations, does not convey enough information to meet the communicative purpose of the tasks. Although a limited linguistic repertoire does allow for the transmission of information on personal matters, on his/her immediate environment and on simple, everyday situations, the candidate has to adapt the message and search for words and repeatedly makes basic mistakes. Participates in discussions and exchanges information, provided that the interlocutor helps.

Value 0: Barely transmits information, and therefore does not meet the communicative objectives of the tasks. The language barriers create difficulties in formulating what he/she means. Requires the interviewer to repeat what has been said, or to rephrase and speak slowly, as well as to assist him/her with formulating what he/she tries to say.


THE ANALYTICAL SCALE

CRITERIUM: CORRECTNESS
Value 3: Produces a clear, coherent discourse, with proper use (albeit limited) of cohesive devices such as link phrases. May show some loss of control over speech, in case of extended exchanges. Maintains a proper conversation, collaborating with the interviewer.

Value 2: Develops linear sequences of related ideas in the form of short simple sentences linked by standard connectors (eg.: «es que», «por eso», «además»). Maintains simple conversations on everyday topics, but sometimes needs clarification or repetition of part of what the interviewer said, to confirm understanding.

Value 1: Speech is limited, made up of groups of words and simple connectors (eg.: «y»; «pero», «porque»). Requires the help of the interviewer to confirm whether is correctly understanding. Is only able to respond to simple questions and statements.

Value 0: Presents confusing speech, composed of isolated statements with few binding/linking elements. Requires that the interviewer often repeat or rephrase his/her statements. Answers do not always conform to the questions asked.

CRITERIUM: FLUENCY
Value 3: Expresses self with relative ease. Despite some problems in making a speech, resulting in occasional pauses and “dead ends”, the candidate is able to move forward effectively. Pronunciation is clearly intelligible, even though a foreign accent may be obvious and there are occasional mistakes in pronunciation.

Value 2: Talks with continuity and is understandable, although there are obvious pauses to plan the speech and to think about grammar and appropriate vocabulary. Pronunciation is clearly intelligible, although a foreign accent may be obvious and mistakes occur sporadically.

Value 1: Makes him/herself understood by means of very brief expressions.  Evidences pauses, initial doubts and reformulations. Pronunciation and articulation are generally quite clear and understandable, although accent and occasional errors may result in understanding requiring some effort.

Value 0: Only manages very brief expressions, disconnected and prepared in advance, requiring many pauses to search for expressions, to articulate less familiar words and to correct the communication. Pronunciation and articulation are only correct for memorized words and phrases. Understanding him/her is difficult.

CRITERIUM: CORRECTNESS
Value 3: Shows a relatively high grammatical control. Makes mistakes that do not cause misunderstanding and which he/she sometimes self-correct.

Value 2: Shows reasonable control of a repertoire of simple structures (eg.: tiempos de indicativo, posesivos, verbo «gustar», perífrasis básicas). Makes mistakes that do not cause misunderstanding.

Value 1: Uses some simple grammatical constructs correctly, but systematically makes basic mistakes, such as confusion of tenses and inconsistencies in gender agreement.

Value 0: Shows insufficient control of even simple structures and of patterns of short, basic sentences: for example, errors in the use of the present tense and in the concordance of subject or verb; uses verbs in the infinitive rather than conjugations. Numerous errors make communication very difficult.

CRITERIUM: LINGUISTIC SCOPE
Value 3: The candidate’s linguistic repertoire allows him/her to describe situations, explain the main points of an idea or problem with reasonable precision and express thoughts on general subjects, be they abstract or cultural by nature, such as music and movies.

Value 2: The candidates’ linguistic repertoire is broad enough to function in everyday situations, allowing them to express themselves (even though somewhat doubtfully and with circumlocutions) on topics such as family, hobbies and interests, work, travel and current events. Commit lexical mistakes and inaccuracies when taking risks.

Value 1: Their limited linguistic repertoire allows them to transmit information on personal matters, on their immediate environment and in relation to simple, everyday situations (basic needs, common transactions), but they have to adapt the message and search for words. Commit lexical mistakes and inaccuracies.

Value 0: Their linguistic repertoire is limited to a small number of memorized words or exponents. Commit mistakes and lexical inaccuracies or there’s interference from other languages, hindering understanding.

HOW THE DELE EXAM ORAL IS SCORED: REAL AUDIO OF LEVEL B1 “PASS”

I’m sure you want to hear what a passing effort in the B1 DELE exam oral sounds like. Please click on the image below, to hear the recording. Afterwards I will give you my translation of the actual comments of the examiners.

Click on image to listen

Examiners’ comments

To really understand how the DELE exam oral is scored in practice, the comments of examiners are very illuminating – here are their observations explaining their reasoning  for scoring (passing and failing) the above two audio clips in the way they did.

Analytical Scale – Coherence: The candidate achieves value level 2, because she elaborates lineal sequences of related ideas in form of brief, simple statements interconnected with habitual connectors («porque creo que con el Internet podemos hacer más cosas…»;  «creo también que por nuestra generación podemos, por ejemplo, ver películas…»; «y en esto caso…»; «un intercambio, por ejemplo, con Facebook»; «pero creo que es…»; «pero también buscar información de la ciudad…»; .«es un poco lo mismo porque creo…»; «no sé de… por ejemplo, de una organización…»; «el problema es que por cada desayuno…»). She exceeds the limited speech typical of value band 1. In Tasks 2, 3 and 4, she could maintain basic conversations on everyday topics. («—[E.] ¿Te parece entonces una zona comercial? —Sí, sí, creo que sí. Es una zona de compras.»; «—[E.] ¿Tú has hecho alguna vez algún viaje organizado? —Sí, pero no con… no en el autobús, en el bicicleta. —[E.] Ah, ¿en bicicleta? —Sí.»; «—[E.] Y, ¿el desayuno? […] ¿tampoco le ha gustado? —No, el problema es que por cada desayuno…»; «—[E.] Pero, es muy extraño porque nosotros normalmente organizamos estos viajes y no tenemos ningún problema. —Ah, ¿sí? ¿En los mismos hoteles?»). The candidate achieves a score of value level 2, because her discourse isn’t limited and because she didn’t require the collaboration of the interviewer in order to answer (as would have been the case in scoring level 1).

Analytical Scale – Fluency: The candidate speaks with continuity and clarity, even though pauses for planning her discourse and thinking about grammar and appropriate lexicon were evident. («… es muy mmmm divertido…»; «… por los mayores aaaaaaa es un poco diferente…»; «… he visto un persona con unaaa… con una cámara.»; «pero no con… no en el autobús»; «Es como un… para mí, es como unaaa… como un grupo de turistas»; «podría ser que es una grupo deee… no sé deee… por ejemplo, de unaaa… de un… de una organización»). Her pronunciation is clearly intelligible, despite her evident foreign accent and her sporadic errors («la televición», «per ejemplo», «dificil»; «dependia», «sofa», «par día»).

Analytical Scale – Correctness: The candidate demonstrates reasonable control of a repertoire of basic constructs («creo que el Internet es más importante…»; «… nuestra generación»; «… mi generación…»; «… hay mucha gente que habla con…»; «… puede ser peligroso…»; «… las turistas pueden comprar cosas…»; «… he visto una persona con una cámara…»; «… la mayoría de las casas son tiendas…»; «quiero viajar solo o con amigos…»; «a mí no me gustan mucho»). The mistakes she made didn’t cause misunderstandings. («*este situación»; «es importante *de compartir»; «hay mucha gente que *viaje mucho»; «que *son una escuela de lengua»; «la gente *mayores»; «muchos *turistos»; «cerca de aquí *es un autobús»; «para que toque *por la gente»; «tienen un poco *el mismo edad»; «*estamos quince personas»; «todo *estuve organizado»; «los hoteles no estaban *limpia»; «*estaban no muy amables»; «no están *limpiada»; «hace [hacía] mucho calor»). She exceeds scoring level 1 in that she did use some basic constructs, but did not achieve a score of 3 because she didn’t demonstrate a relatively high command of grammar.

Analytical Scale – Linguistic Scope: The candidate’s linguistic repertoire is broad enough to function in everyday situations and for her to express herself, though somewhat doubtfully and with circumlocutions, on topics such as family, hobbies, personal interests, work and travel («quince personas, todos en bicicleta…»; «todo organizado, los hoteles, la comida…»; «es un país muy diferente»; «no es como Francia…»; «la cultura es muy diferente»; «estaba muy interesante a ver la cultura… ver la naturaleza…»)  and even though she did make mistakes («*so por mi generación…»; «es también un *entertainment»; «en este *senza…»).

Holistic Scale: The candidate provides the information required in order to meet the communicative goals of the set tasks. In tasks 1 and 2 she ordered and related her ideas, and justified her opinions to explain the differences between the Internet and television, and the Internet as a rival for television. She spoke from personal experience (regarding to for what purpose she uses the Internet and how often, as well as for what she uses social networks). In task 3 and 4 she was able to provide a description of the photo she selected and to maintain a conversation making a complaint. The candidate has a basic linguistic repertoire that allowed her to tackle the postulated situations, without her errors interfering with the transmission of ideas («*por mi generación…»; «creo que *un hora»; «en *el bicicleta»).

HOW THE DELE EXAM ORAL IS SCORED: REAL AUDIO OF LEVEL B1 “FAIL”

How the DELE exam oral is scored

Click on image to listen

Examiners’ comments 

Analytical Scale – Coherence: In the monologue presentation task, the candidate’s speech corresponds to the descriptor of the value band 1: it is limited and consists of groups of words and simple connectors like “y”, “pero” («No me gusta nada música fuerte como rock, eh… rápido, no me gusta y cuando escucho ruido no puedo pensar en nada sí. En Madrid sueleo escuchar las canciones en español pero no me acuerdo cómo se llama y de qué cantante y tampoco todavía no… no entiendo toda la canción que significa»; «Ellos *está en un restaurante, sí… están comiendo pero antes de *comel, *comel, necesitan charlar un rato para no cumplir, no sé… puede ser y… *pensó que son novios y son una chica y un chico bastante joven…»). In the oral interaction tasks he required the collaboration of the interviewer in order to confirm his understanding and could only respond to simple questions and affirmations («—¿Y qué tipo de música era la que fuiste a escuchar? —No sé como se dice es con muchas cosas juntos. Como… ¡Ay! ¿Cómo se llama?  —¿Orquesta? — Más o menos hay un*directo, no, no es un director, dirigir»; «—¿Quedamos en el reloj de la Puerta del Sol? —¿Reloj? Voy a pensar. Ah, sí reloj. —Bueno pues nos vemos esta noche. — Bueno, trato hecho» ; «—Sí, sí, sí, o canción de invierno. Siempre escucho en la calle… hay un peinado… no, no es peinado… tocar. —¿Un músico? —Sí, sí muy bien, para escuchar»).

Analytical Scale – Fluency: As stated in the description for value band 1, the candidate makes himself understood with very brief expressions; pauses are evident, as well as initial doubts and reformulation («Sí, desde… desde llevo, no, no, no, vengo a España…, todavía no he ido alguna vez»; «Voy a pensar, eh… dos. Solo dos. Es que… El prima, el prima vez, es mi profesora llevarnos a restaurante. Me presenta… me presenta que es restaurente es típica, prado ah… y la mesa sencilla más o menos»); «Ellos *está en un restaurante, sí… están comiendo, pero antes de *comel. *comel, necesitan charlar un rato para cumplir, no sé… puede ser»). With regard to pronunciation, his articulation and his occasional errors causes comprehending him to require a certain effort – above all he has problems with pronouncing the /r/ («… no sé cómo se llama, pero el *prado, *la prato, el prato es prado de Galicia»); («*mejol, con mi amigo *mejol»); («están comiendo pero antes de *comel, *comel…»).

Analytical Scale – Correctness: The candidate uses some simple constructs correctly («Yo prefiero la música tranquila…»; «… es que cuando era pequeña, pequeño mi padre ponía la música suave en casa casi todas las noches, pienso que es un hábito desde niño…»; «¿A qué hora quedamos?»; «Sí, pero si no te gusta podemos cambiar»; «No me gusta nada música fuerte, como rock»; «están comiendo pero antes de *comel, *comel, necesitan charlar un rato…») but he systematically commits basic errors, for example demonstrating confusion regarding tenses («Quería *il a un concierto que no haya mucha gente»; «Desde llevo… no, no, no. Vengo a España, todavía no he ido alguna vez»; «… cuando dentro de varios años separan y después encuentran más o menos»; «… después de *comel podemos pedir chupitos para la…») and commits errors regarding the agreement of gender and number («… suelo escuchar las canciones en español pero no me acuerdo como se *llama»; «… mi familia les gustan escuchar el música suave y tranquila, mejor»; «Ellos *está en un restaurante, sí…»; «… *esta restaurante es *típica»).

Analytical Scale – Linguistic Scope: In this as well, he is situated in value band 1; his limited linguistic repertoire only permits him to convey information regarding personal matters, his immediate environment and simple everyday situations such as basic needs and common transactions («*Ayel fui a un restaurante muy cerca de la Puerta del Sol, no sé cómo se llama…»; «Picante, pienso que no le gusta.»; «Yo prefiero la música tranquila, eh… por ejemplo, jazz, etc.»; «… cuando era más pequeña, pequeño, mi padre ponía la música suave en casa casi todas las noches, pienso que es un hábito desde niño…») However, he needs to adapt the message and search for words  («No sé cómo se dice… es con muchas cosas juntos… como. ¡Ay! ¿Cómo se llama?»; «más o menos hay un directo, no, no es un director, dirigir»; «Sí, como, no sé como traducir en español. El verano, canción de verano (…) o canción de invierno»; «Sí, especial, no sé cómo… lan… lan…langosta»). Commits lexical inaccuracies and errors («Siempre escucho en la calle… hay un *peinado… no, no es *peinado, tocar»; «… el piano… una vez *peina mal *tocal muy mal, es que no estudio como los *peinados»; «es que *mi familia les gustan escuchar el música más suave y tranquila…»; «… necesitan charlar un rato para cumplir, no sé…»; «El prima, el prima vez…»; «pienso que quedemos a las 8 o 8 y media»).

Holistic Scale:  With regard to communicative efficiency, the candidate did offer simple descriptions and presentations («No me gusta nada música fuerte como rock, eh… rápido, no me gusta y cuando escucho ruido no puedo pensar nada, sí. En Madrid suelo escuchar las canciones en español pero no me acuerdo como se llama y de que cantante y tampoco todavía no…  no entiendo toda la canción que significa») but did not provide sufficient information to meet the communicative objectives of the set tasks, as evidenced for example in Task #1 («Yo prefiero la música tranquila, eh… por ejemplo jazz, etc. Quería *il a un concierto que no haya mucha gente») and in Task #3 («Ellos *está en un restaurante, sí… están comiendo pero antes de *comel, *comel, necesitan charlar un rato para cumplir no sé… puede ser… y *pensó que son novios y son una chica y un chico bastante *joven y ya está»). With regard to linguistic efficiency, even though his limited linguistic repertoire did permit him to convey information on personal issues, on his immediate environment and in relation to simple everyday situations («*Ayel fui un restaurante está muy cerca de la Puerta el Sol…»; «Eh… es que cuando era más pequeña, pequeño mi padre ponía la música suave en casa casi todas las noches, pienso que es un hábito desde niño, no sé, está bien») he had to adapt the message and search for words, whilst repeatedly committing basic errors («… no sé cómo se llama, pero el *prado, *la prato, el prato es prado de Galicia, después de comer podemos pedir chupitos para la… digestión»). The candidate did participate in the conversation with the interviewer and did exchange information, although he needed her assistance to do so – for example, when in Task #2, the interviewer asked him whether he likes to play a musical instrument («—¿Y te gustaría tocar alguno? —No, no… ¿Para *escuchal? — Para tocar tú. —No, no… el *peinado (piano???»), in Task #4, when he was asked whether he knows any Italian restaurants («—A mí la comida picante por la noche me resulta un poco fuerte. No sé… no sé si te gusta un italiano. —Sí, sí, me gusta. —¿Y tú conoces alguno? —Pasta solo pasta») or in Task #3, when he was asked about the frequency with which the persons in the photo go to that place  («— ¿Y tú crees que estás personas van frecuentemente a este lugar? —¿Perdón? —¿Estas personas van normalmente a este lugar? — Creo que no»).

Click on IMAGE to go to our secure website

So, where are you in your preparation for the DELE exam oral, compared to the examples above? (70% of candidates who failed their DELE, did so because of having failed the oral exam).  Apart from knowing the scoring criteria, do you know how to prepare well? For top tips to help you to ace the oral exam, look at this DELEhelp blog post:

How the DELE exam oral is scored

Click on the IMAGE to have this blog post open in a new window

I hope that my explanation has helped you understand how the DELE exam oral is scored. For more explanation about how the exam as a whole functions, simply ask for our FREE 96-page in-house DELEhelp workbook, (WB #9.2: DELE / SIELE Exam Orientation and Acing Tips) which you can download as an e-book. To ask for it, just click on the image below and use the convenient contact information form. This one-of-a-kind DELE / SIELE exam preparation book covers the DELE / SIELE system’s objectives, the curriculum, exam format, scoring system and assessment criteria, plus our top tips for acing it – all in English, entirely free and without obligation to sign up for tuition.

Good luck with your exam preparation!

Willem

click on image to ask for free workbook




Our DELEhelp Team, our Town, our Value Proposition

THE DELEhelp TEAM and the value we can add to your DELE / SIELE / OPI exam preparation

Have you ever wished to have a native Spanish-speaking tutor as well as a native English-speaking one, when you started learning Spanish? I know that I did! A Spanish one for pronunciation and for practicing speaking idiomatically. An English one for explaining tough concepts, and for understanding questions one can’t yet formulate in understandable Spanish.

Have you ever wished for a tutor who had actually sat the DELE exam him/herself? Especially when you’re trying to figure out how, and for what exactly, to prepare – beyond being pumped full of grammar? (Again, I did every day, because my early tutors were stuck on grammar and mostly incapable of explaining the examen DELE / SIELE curriculum, their formats, objectives and the scoring criteria to me).

Now it goes without saying that one needs a native Spanish-speaking coach. We are fortunate that our head tutor and her team are experienced, knowledgeable and dedicated. Mónica has been teaching Spanish as foreign language since 1997, after studying at the Rafael Landivar university in Guatemala. She’s a native of the beautiful old colonial city of La Antigua Guatemala. Mónica speaks in the well articulated, measured and very correct manner that’s typical of the inhabitants of this former capital of all of Spanish Central America (which is one of the reasons why La Antigua is the pre-eminent place for studying Spanish as foreign language – our students don’t have problems with tutors who speak too fast or with heavy accents).

In addition to her tutoring role, Mónica also happens to be my dear wife – yes, we are a family business, not a huge corporation, so we can offer you our bespoke services, giving personal attention to you as individual and not just as a number.

That said, I must now introduce myself. My name is Willem Steenkamp. I’m the Director of Studies of Excellentia Didactica. My past experience includes being a former head of the South African diplomatic academy (I also had the honor and privilege to have served as ambassador for President Nelson Mandela). In addition to my PhD, I’m a qualified lawyer. I speak five languages, and can read a few more. As to Spanish, I passed the DELE C2, so I know it first-hand. I’m also up-to-date with IT, having won Panama’s Plan de Salto (which rewarded me with a sponsored study tour of Silicon Valley and its big-name campuses).  More recently, I’ve also obtained certificates from Cambridge’s Assessment English division in the science of teaching online, as well as from the University of Southampton / British Council on “Understanding Language Learning  and Teaching”.

I’m telling you this not to brag, but to show that I’ve “been there and have done it” – I’ve experienced first-hand all of the challenges that you are now confronted with, and therefore can understand your needs all the better. It also shows that we at DELEhelp have the academic expertise and the practical experience to develop the study material, methods and individualized study plans that our students need. I’ve published a few novels, as a hobby, because I like writing. The in-house Workbooks we provide our students with, free, come from my pen. They have been written specifically for English-speaking students who are preparing for these very different kind of exams.

You can read more about us and our terms of service on our eDELE website, which also explains the different course packages we offer as part of our flexible, personalized 1-on-1 online language coaching.  Click on the image below, and our website will open up in a new window:

In addition to the DELEhelp  course that’s specialized in Spanish exam preparation, we have others such as FLEXI-Spanish (relaxed conversational classes), Vocational Spanish (especially for medical professionals, diplomats, and those serving in religious capacities), plus INGLÉShelp (the Spanish equivalent of DELEhelp, where I help Spanish-speakers preparing for their English exams like the IELTS, TOEFL, OPIc and Cambridge).

.

Monica in her "office with a view"

Mónica coaching via Skype from her summertime “office with a view”

OUR VALUE PROPOSITION TO YOU:

The unique skills, experience and knowledge that we can offer candidates preparing for the DELE / SIELE / OPI, are:

  • individualized, one-on-one coaching via Skype, with a customized study plan developed for you as unique individual, based on your personal strengths and weaknesses (as identified with a FREE comprehensive initial diagnostic of all four skills).
  • Free in-house study material, in English, i.a. explaining the DELE / SIELE curriculum, format, desired outcomes and objectives, as well as the exam scoring criteria (in other words, those vitally important things that are so hard to find info on, in English, on the internet).
  • Assistance and tutoring provided in Spanish and in English, as needed, both at native-speaker level.
  • Spanish tutors from an environment where the language is spoken slowly, clearly and correctly, who are all trained and experienced in exam-coaching Spanish 1-on-1, online.
  • A philosophy that views the exam preparation challenges primarily from the student’s perspective.
  • Familiarity with IT and its real-world applications, optimizing benefits and resources for home-based students studying online.
  • Battle-tested methods that grew from own, first-hand practical experience of these exams (both as exam center coordinator / proctor and as successful DELE C2 candidate), coupled with our top-level academic expertise.
  • A practical rather than theoretical coaching approach, with concrete exam acing tips, aimed first and foremost at positive exam results.
  • Affordability, because of being based in low-cost Guatemala.
  • Ease and security of payment, via PayPal (no bank transfer fees, no sales taxes – no hidden extra costs).

Willem and Monica at the famed ancient Maya city of Tikal, Guatemala.

Willem and Mónica at the famed ancient Maya city of Tikal, Guatemala.

OUR RESIDENTIAL PARTNER SCHOOL  & SIELE / OPI EXAM CENTER:

Our residential arm for immersion tuition here in La Antigua is the award-winning Spanish Academy PROBIGUA (just as eDELE is their online tuition arm, they’re our residential arm). I am actually the director of studies for both. PROBIGUA is a non-profit, which has received the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Award and was recognized by pope Francis for its charitable work bringing education opportunities to Guatemala’s rural poor. It is also the accredited SIELE exam center of La Antigua, of which I am the official coordinator, as well as being official proctor for the American OPI / OPIc package of language tests. To get an idea of the immersion experiences we can offer, click on the image below to go to the PROBIGUA website:

OUR TOWN:

Our home town of La Antigua Guatemala is relevant to the uniqueness of what we can offer our students, for a number of reasons.

La Antigua is firstly steeped in history, with exceptional natural and cultural beauty that has made it a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most visited destination in Central America. Its beauty can be appreciated from these photos:  http://tinyurl.com/zezlx9j or by watching this 6-minute video produced by the New York Times: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nhGSGXFAiMY&t=53s

For centuries La Antigua was the capital of all of what was then Spain’s Central American empire as located between Panama City and Mexico City.  Situated in the highlands at some 1,500 meters above sea level, the city attracted administrators, clergy and academics from the ambit of the royal court in Madrid.  These learned men implanted a very correct and classical form of speech, with proper articulation and without local regional accents, which has endured among the population to this day. In short, they naturally speak slowly, clearly and correctly – exactly what students pray for in their tutors. No wonder that La Antigua is recognized as one of the principal places in the world for studying Spanish as foreign language (which means that we have lots of experienced tutors that we can draw upon).

A quick aside – you may have heard of the phenomenon of “lowland” and “highland” Spanish: the two quite distinct versions of Spanish that is commonly encountered in Latin America.  This distinction has got nothing really to do with altitude, which as such obviously has no influence on people’s speech. What happened is that the Spanish imperial bureaucrats tended to establish their capital cities in the highlands to avoid the heat and tropical diseases.  Commerce, though, was mostly based at the port cities along the coast.  The bureaucrats and clergy were mostly from the Madrid elite, speaking pure Castilian. The folks in the lowlands, though, were largely from the southern Spanish province of Andalusia (particularly from around the port city of Seville) and from the Spanish Atlantic islands, who transmitted their distinct dialect and accent to where they settled in the Americas.

In addition to the benefit of an ample supply of well qualified, experienced tutors who speak slowly, clearly and correctly, La Antigua also offers an excellent infrastructure for language learning, with large modern DELE & SIELE plus OPI/OPIc exam centers and good internet connections for Skype classes.

The third major benefit that La Antigua Guatemala offers, is financial. Guatemala’s cost of living is very low (compared to the USA and Europe) which means that we can offer one-on-one, personalized exam coaching at only US$14 per hour. This includes our free in-house study material, as well as our time preparing classes and reviewing homework or model exams. Payment is quick, secure and easy, with PayPal.

I hope this quick introduction has given you a more concrete and personal idea of who we are, where we’re from, and what we can contribute to your DELE / SIELE & OPI exam preparation.  To allow you to get to know us even better, we offer a FREE one hour exploratory Skype session, with absolutely no obligation. All you need to do is use our quick &  convenient CONTACT FORM to drop me a line, so that we can set up a date and time.

click on image to ask for free workbook

To get an idea of our in-house study material, use the same contact form and we’ll send you for free (and again without any obligation), a link for downloading our 96-page Workbook 9.2: DELE /SIELE exam orientation and acing tips.  This unique DELE / SIELE exam preparation book explains the curriculum, the system’s objectives and the exam scoring criteria, with battle-tested tips for acing the reading and audio comprehension as well as how to put your best foot forward in the written and oral expression tasks. (If you are preparing for the OPI / OPIc, then please ask for our Workbook #8 “Prepping for the OPI” which is also FREE).

Buena suerte with your exam preparation – I hope your efforts will be crowned with success.

Willem

This is what the DELE C.2 Diploma looks like.

This is what the DELE C.2 Diploma looks like.

Click on IMAGE to go to our secure website




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).

click on image to ask for free workbook

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)

Click on IMAGE to go to our secure website




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

click on image to ask for free workbook

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

Click on IMAGE to go to our secure website