Last Wednesday I sat my first French exam. It’s a first in that it’s the first time I’ve sat an exam in many, many years rather than it being the first of several. It’s also the first exam I’ve sat for a language which has been spoken anytime in the last 1000 years. And let me just say right now: it was tough, damed tough, and quite unlike any previous language exam I’ve sat for.
The exam is comprised of four parts: oral comprehension (listening, in other words), written comprehension (reading), written production (writing) and oral production (speaking and interacting with others). Each section is allotted between 25 and 45 minutes, depending on complexity and the entire thing takes about 2 hours to complete.
The format and level of the exam accords to the Common European Framework for Languages, which lists six levels of language competency from absolute beginner (A1) to complete mastery and fluency (C2) at a level that many native speakers do not achieve. The level of my exam is B1 or “independant.” It’s description is this:
Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. Can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. Can produce simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest. Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes & ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.
Unlike the previous language exams I’ve endured (such as Latin and Anglo-Saxon), this exam concentrates on your ability to use that language in “real world” situations rather than simply your knowledge of the grammar. Defining problems and solving tasks using the language seems to me a better way of testing language competence than conjugating verbs.
For example, one of the tasks in the reading portion involved the task of picking a novel for a friend who has certain tastes. You have to choose which of four book blurbs meet the criteria. The language tasks here are to read and understand the requirements then to read and evaluate the information presented in the book blurbs. Sounds simple, I know, but the subtlety of the language used in the book blurbs makes it quite tough to puzzle out.
By the end of all of this, I was drained but I’m quietly confident that I’ll pass.
The real problem is that I’m still not as fluent as I would like to be. I still have trouble understanding French films because the language spoken is anything but “clear standard input” and the dissonance between what’s said and what’s put in subtitles warps my brain at times. Slang and the contractions and usage in daily street life still escape me although (thanks to my French IM buddies) I’m improving. I can think in French and I have dreamt in French – supposedly these are key signs of fluency. But I’ve come to believe that no one can truly understand a language or have any real degree of fluency without living it daily and for several months at a time.
Because I have no plans to live and work in a French-speaking country in the near future (Kathi won’t allow it), I intend starting another language and after much debate, the choice falls to Italian. I’ll keep up with my French by attending all the event I can at the Alliance Francaise, reading French history and comics, and chatting with my froggy mates here and overseas.
Update: I passed. Now I have a fancy certificate which says I’m competent. Yay me!