This weekend I sat an online language exam. An official CEFR C2 exam (CEFR is the European Union's standard and C2 is the highest possible level) that will result in an internationally-recognized certificate, not one of those online self-tests. It was an inspiring experience, since fellow participants came from all over the world and there were even in-person exams happening in various cities like Bogotá, Seoul, Sapporo, Paris, Sabadell, Moscow, Zaozhuang, Juiz de Fora and so on. The language I was sitting an exam for was Esperanto and in the following I will share my ideas on how to prepare for such an exam for ANY language.
Fellow participants in Seoul
Why take a language exam?
Most people take language exams in order to have an outside authority certify that they do speak the language at a high level - this is often needed, or at least a plus, when applying for jobs or university programs. A second group of people (a lot of polyglots) takes language exams in order to have a goal and deadline to work towards.
For me, I often have fluent conversations in Esperanto about everyday topics and I even co-authored the beginner course "Teach Yourself Complete Esperanto", but when talking about less common topics (like political issues), I noticed some gaps in my vocabulary and way of expression. So I decided to try to remedy that, with the exam serving as the moment of truth and deadline. I studied nearly 50 hours of Esperanto this month, which I wouldn't have done without the exam.
Improve your level
Once you have decided to take an exam, the first priority is to figure out where you still have gaps. In my case, I was certain that vocabulary was one of those areas, so I started to study an Anki deck with advanced vocabulary every day. However, language exams (at least the CEFR-aligned exams for European languages) don't just require a good command of vocabulary and grammar, they also expect you to be able to express your views in an increasingly sophisticated way on increasingly difficult topics. There are some differences regarding the topics depending on the authority developing the course, but in general one can say:
A1/A2: topics include yourself, your family, your job...
B1: topics include travel, traditions, anecdotes, summarising the plot of books/movies...
B2: topics include the news, sports, nature, issues at work, talking about the advantages and disadvantages of e.g. different forms of transport or of a particular trend
C1: topics include housing, the food industry, NGOs, the role of the police, any kind of social problems with their causes and possible solutions
C2: similar to the above, but including also long and complex works, and the ability to write print-ready editorials and literary reviews.
Since my exam was for the C2 level, I also started to translate or write articles about social issues in Esperanto and giving little speeches about these, because I wanted to get some experience with that before needing to do it for the exam. (Certainly a valid criticism of these exams is that native speakers who have never learned to research and argue an issue, or who are generally not interested in social issues, will probably not pass the higher levels of these exams for non-natives.)
Check your level
Around half-way through my preparation time, I decided that it was time to check whether I would be able to pass the exam.
There are official mock exams online for this purpose - I don't mean "test your language level" sites but the websites of official examination institutions like Goethe Institut or Assocation Française that offer exams and that also provide mock exams (typically in PDF form, less shiny but a lot more realistic and accurate than those dime-a-dozen online tests). Try to solve them under the same conditions that you would have during the exam - in one sitting, not using dictionaries or Google, and so on - and ideally have a teacher grade them. It will be invaluable in order to figure out what your biggest weaknesses are right now compared to the exam's demands. Then you can use the remaining days to work specifically on those weaknesses.
Prepare for the experience
High-level exams can be grueling. The C2 Esperanto exam - and this is quite typical also for other high-level CEFR exams - comprised:
- a 3.5 hour (!) written exam, half of it dedicated to reading comprehension and half to written production (a formal letter and a report for a magazine)
- a listening comprehension exam of 90 minutes, during which we had to answer questions on two 5-10 minute audio clips and then produce a written summary of a 20-25 minute conference lecture
- a speaking exam which progressed as follows: choosing one out of two random social topics, having 20 minutes to prepare a "6-8min speech at a scientific conference" on this topic without using any books or the internet, giving that speech, and then answering questions for another 6-8 minutes.
The speaking part was the easiest to prepare for: almost every day I chose a topic at random, did the 20min preparation and then tried to speak about it. Whenever I was missing vocabulary or expressions, I'd prioritize learning them.
The listening comprehension exam was harder to prepare for, because apart from the language skills it also requires good memory and focus, which are harder to improve in the short term. Of course you can still practice, and your note-taking skills will probably improve quickly, which helps so that you don't have to keep as much in memory.
For the written exam, vocabulary, grammar but mainly endurance is the biggest obstacle. If you have been out of school for a while, you probably haven't recently had to sustain a high level of concentration for a stretch of 3.5 hours. Plan ahead:
- what shall you eat and drink during this time (and before)
- which unobtrusive, quick, physical exercises can you do to help your blood circulation and improve your oxygen flow after sitting for a while
- how will you clear your mind, relax, and renew your focus in-between tasks
- calculate how much time you will have for each task or section of the written exam
Finally, also carefully review what you are supposed to bring to the exam (probably some kind of proof of identity, exam code, food and drink, maybe also a dictionary) and plan to be there with a lot of time to spare. If the exam is online, do a lot of technical tests. Arriving out of breath and still thinking about the problems you just had to solve is not a good state in which to take an exam.
Initially I was in two minds about taking this exam, given that I don't need to prove my level. Looking now in hindsight, I am really happy I did, because it gave my language a huge boost and forced me to address some gaps that I had had. Also, the whole experience was so positive, doing an activity together with participants from around the world, and the edukado.net examiners being so friendly and helpful, ensuring everyone had everything they needed in order to perform at their best. Now waiting for the results...