Less than ten days left are in July, but I thought I would return to topic of language learning before other commitments take me away from this blog. I have a new challenge on the horizon but before that I want to stress the importance of holding on to what you already have.

Call me rash, foolhardy or ambitious but I have a new goal coming up that involves a language proficiency test in French. While this will naturally involve scheming, studying and socialising in the language, I feel that this is as good a moment as any to make a few clarifying points on language proficiency tests in general. I am definitely not an expert, having only sat one of them in my life, but my arguments here are generic so I believe they will stand-up. My point with this post is not to try and discourage others from sitting such exams but to highlight the fact that reaching and maintaining an advanced level in a language is a big commitment.

What they represent

 Some people make the mistake of thinking that passing such a proficiency exam is a permanent record of your knowledge of the language. I freely admit that that is how I saw the DELE exam before I sat it, but really I think we need to consider such exams in a different way as they purely show the proficiency you had at the time you sat the exam. Put in a different way, it shows you reached preceding the exam, but nothing about whether you have maintained the same level since then.

 I may have passed an exam that says I have an advanced level, but I am not going to claim for one moment that means I am done learning the language. There are still a lot of things I need to learn, such as specific terms, or revise as may be the case. In my experience there will always be grammar points that you will need to look up in a grammar reference. The only way to avoid making this an ordeal is to try and keep the language you have as polished as you can. That means revising vocabulary, practising speaking and workbook exercises.

Use it or lose it

As the old maxim says, the more you practice, the better you get. The reverse naturally applies when you stop practicing, which sadly I have noticed over the last few months. To help counter that I have tried to return to some of the regular practice I did in the lead up to the exam. This involves doing exercises on a weekly from El Cronómetro, reading El País online and listening to the news in Spanish. I may not have the energy or the time to do these with the same intensity as a few months ago, but I have found that these exercises have helped immensely and that my Spanish comes back much more fluidly when I have had to use it.

 In all, I think such tests are immensely beneficial at improving your level and that giving yourself an objective helps focus your efforts most effectively. But let us not make the mistake of seeing these tests as the be-all and end-all of language learning. Maintaining a high level that you are ready to employ, either in writing a cover letter or in speaking to a colleague, is far more important than a mere certificate. In the end, language is about communication, so studying a foreign one needs to be focused on the same.

What do you think about such proficiency tests? Feel free to share you thoughts in the comments.

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April is finally here and so is the time for me to set new goals for the next three months. One of these is to post more frequently on this blog and to cover a lot more topics about language learning. But first things first, I want to explain why I blog in the first place.

Using technology to harness the ways we communicate has long since taken on a new form; blogging. Combining the age-old desire to write and the tools of the digital age, it has effectively moved the public sphere away from notebooks and newspaper columns into an area which is accessible to more people than ever before possible. While traditional forms of communication haven’t disappeared, companies are increasingly having to take note of opinions expressed online that are accessible to netizens worldwide, whether they be a hundred-and-forty character tweets or in longer blog posts.

The sheer ease and frequency with which we express ourselves is already taking its toll on the way we communicate. Shortened prose and endless abbreviations are just some of the examples that have spread in common forms of writing as a result of digital communication. With such a significant effect on our mother tongue, surely the study of foreign languages have no place in a sphere where they are likely to be equally affected?

Blogging is good for the soul

Every one can think of over a hundred reasons and even more excuses not to blog. Not to put yourself out there and publish your ideas in a public space. Writing itself can be very therapeutic, as well as an effective exercise in diction and structuring your thoughts. But publishing online? Thousands have done the same, so what good can another blog do?

These arguments have some basis, but they miss the point entirely. I find that blogging is by far most effective in helping you to find your own voice, air your thoughts on whichever topic that happens to interest you. Unlike previous forms of communication, blogging has facilitated an explosion of individual expression, which your own blog can be a small part of. It is quite possible that blogging is a simple win-win situation. Receive negative feedback? Hurray, you offended some one! Some one shares your posts? Well done, you’re already taking tentative steps towards creating a following.

Back to language learning

Learning another language is, for most of us, a lifelong dream that not everybody gets to accomplish. There can be many pitfalls along the way, most notably, procrastination. Publishing your successes and tips, rather than keeping them to yourself, are great ways to help others along the way to realising that dream. Moreover, keeping your blog updated with your progress is an ideal way to motivate yourself to go for the dream, even if it is just publishing your own mistakes! Just as it’s never too late to learn, it’s never too late to blog.

Today will be a short post to give an update on my objectives for the first three months of the year and also some updates.

There are a lot of bad resolutions that people make at the start of the year, but the worst are the ones that don’t make it through the first few months. Things that are that hard to give up, such as smoking, are often the very things that people probably should work harder at.

That said, it’s hard to believe we’re already three months into the year, as it feels like only yesterday that I sat down wrote my list of goals for the first three months and left it at that. I haven’t been half as successful as I would have liked, but I have made some good progress on both fronts; reaching a B2 level of Portuguese and running twenty-five kilometres a week.

An update on the DELE C2

But there are some news items that are best told before others, so I am happy to announce here that I passed the DELE C2 exam! I wanted to be as transparent as possible about it, so while I’m not going to share certain details with you, you can see my overall marks in the image below:Image

As I mentioned in my post after I sat the exam, I found the second exam (prueba 2) by far the most challenging and I’d recommend people take the time to prepare for it. While I highly recommend using sample papers to practice and to structure your ideas, I’d also recommend this book for grammar points you might come across.

As for my goals

I have been working hard over the last few weeks at reaching the B2 level of Portuguese. To be honest, that has been challenging given my other commitments. However, I have been practicing with natives, using Memrise and Anki for vocabulary and using this book for Grammar.

One of the problems that arises from trying to share my objectives here is how I can prove or even demonstrate my progress. Firstly, my objective is to finish the exercises in that book by the end of the month even though it covers intermediate to advanced material. Secondly, I found this language test, which scored me in at a B2 level of Portuguese. Obviously an online assessment is nowhere near getting certified by a language institute, but I am happy with my progress.

Unfortunately, getting back into shape hasn’t gone as well as I hoped. After a slow start, I’ve been struggling to make even fifteen kilometres a week. Given that I have barely a week left in March, it’s going to require a huge, and possibly unrealistic, effort to try and make the target of twenty-five by the end of this month.

So if you’d like to share your thoughts, comments or goals below, feel free to do so. Any feedback is appreciated. 🙂

This week I am going to move away from talking about my personal goals to comment on David Cameron’s recent speech on the UK’s continued membership of the European Union. 

While its content is no longer a secret, based on the overflowing comment pages of the newspapers all around the world this week, the exact meaning of Cameron’s speech is still a matter of debate. Whether you agree with what he said or not, it is clear that this was far one of the most significant speeches of his career and places into question the role his country will play in the European Union or whether it will even remain a member of it. No Prime Minister since the United Kingdom joined the then European Economic Community in 1973, has sought to renegotiate the terms of British membership.

By Giandrea/Ssolbergj at en.wikipedia. Wikimedia Commons

By Giandrea/Ssolbergj at en.wikipedia. Wikimedia Commons

 Whether or not Cameron has been forced by Eurosceptic backbenchers into such a position remains to be seen. However, the timing of this move is reflective of greater disillusionment with the EU as a whole. Needless to say that the Eurozone debt crisis is leading to fundamental change in the way the EU operates, and the British public may be reluctant to go along with such measures. Of course the Union is no longer a mere common market that the UK joined in 1973. But it is no longer the same largely due to the fact that it has to acquire the instruments to administer the single market over time. Only last year, the fiscal compact was introduced in the Eurozone, seeking to correct years of macro-economic mismanagement. In light of the fact that the crisis has been so prolonged, it is easy to imagine that some members of the British public are now more skeptical of the European project altogether. However, support for the European Union has recently risen as media outlets have examined the tangible benefits of being in the Union has for Britain. Figures such as the three percent of GDP that would be wiped out by leaving the Union underlines the importance of reforming its institutions rather than abandoning them.

After having listened Cameron’s speech, I was left in no doubt that in his view the impetus of the European Union must be on the common market and restoring competitiveness. Now, more than ever, his party’s discomfort with the transfer of political power to Brussels is evident, as witnessed by him seeking to have the words “ever closer union” removed from the treaties. This suggestion, just as in his suggestion of a referendum, appears to represent backpedalling on commitments the UK has previously made to the European project. The wording of “an ever closer union” originated in the Treaty of Rome of 1957, and, since joining, the UK has ratified treaties that aimed to fulfil this desire. For example Treaty of Lisbon of 2007, which significantly advanced the framework along these lines, was ratified following legal procedure (and even High Court challenges) in the UK. To put it bluntly, it makes little sense to try and ignore this legacy and legal precedent the way Cameron is doing.

 It is worth adding a small note on Cameron’s view of European project, which, as I understand it, now involves the transfer of political power to Brussels rather than just economic. Cameron’s insistence that power remain with national parliaments, underlies his conception of the European integration as a zero-sum game; power is taken away from member states and given to Brussels. However, this approach is far too simplistic as the EU is best seen, when functioning effectively, as a plus-sum game in which the Union’s five hundred million citizens can speak with one voice rather than twenty seven. Ireland, with only four million people, is an ideal example of a country that has the opportunity to be represented and to have its voice heard by being part of a much larger union.

 Last but not least, Cameron added, without going into great detail, that he aimed to seek concessions or a UK opt-out from EU measures that would otherwise apply to all member states. If these concessions are made, Cameron insists that he will campaign for the UK to remain within the EU. Whether this means Cameron would campaign for the UK to leave the EU if these concessions aren’t is unknown, but it is clearly an attempt to strengthen his hand in the face of isolation from other members. It is hard to see how he will win the support he needs from other member states to achieve these concessions, given that they apply to the UK alone and not the others. Furthermore, if these are made, it will surely set a precedent that other members can follow, thereby undermining the European project.

Finally, we have to remember that concessions have already been made to protect British economic and political interests at the expense of European integration. One need only look at how Britain, by not being part of the Euro or Schengen zone, has far greater control over its own policy than most EU member states. Simply put, failing to acknowledge the concessions the EU has already made risks undermining the entire European project.

So, was Cameron’s speech a great political calculation or a gamble? Has he given the EU a five-year lifeline or five years of uncertainty? Feel free to let me know your thoughts in the comments.

 It’s just another lap around the solar-system, really. With that in mind, I sat down for the first time in many years to think about a list of resolutions, of what I would like to get out of the next few months, rather than of the entire year. I don’t mean this post to be a lecture, but dividing the coming year into separate segments allows you to maximise the amount of time assigned to achieving your goals, rather than pursuing many at the same time. For some, new years resolutions are a way of getting around to things that have long been put off, which will somehow be easier to achieve in the new year once you make a conscious effort to pursue them. Putting the inebriating effects of New Year’s Eve aside, resolutions are more likely to fail without proper organisation and tangible objectives. Which leads to the obvious question, what’s the point in making resolutions if you’re likely to break them?

As I finished writing my list, I realised that over half of my so-called “resolutions” were in fact goals that I aimed to achieve in the new year. Perhaps it’s important to differentiate between the two, as I feel the difference is often overlooked, leading the whole process to become vague. For me at least, a resolution expresses a desire to achieve something. It might be as simple as “getting healthy”, where you make clear your own wish to achieve something. A goal on the other hand is much more tangible, as your focusing your effort towards achieving a specific result. Combining the two allows for all the little steps to reach that goal and keep you on target.

It would be very hypocritical of me to lecture about the importance of keeping resolutions without specifying any of my own and how I plan to stick to them. First and foremost, after a long period of recuperation which prevented me from exercising for the last four months, I am very unfit. While my resolution was to get fit again, I decided to add the additional goal of running twenty-five kilometres a week by March 31st. This will allow me to dedicate three months solely towards this aspect of (re)gaining fitness, allocating time out of every week exclusively towards pursuing this goal. I hope to use this time effectively by taking small steps towards the goal, such as slowly building up the number of kilometres every week while seeking to avoid another injury. Jogging is by far the physical activity that I’ve missed most and the very one I’m eager to get back to.

The second resolution is to work on my languages, which is something I’ve always sought to achieve while not being very concise. As I am still waiting for the results of the DELE C2 exam, my goal is to focus on my second target language, Portuguese. Specifically, I’m aiming for a B2 level of Portuguese, according to the European Common Framework, by 31st of March. I hope to go into this in greater detail in my next post, but I will add here that I am dedicating time out everyday to pursue this goal.

So, I’m looking forward to the challenge, as difficult as it may be. Are these resolutions too easy or too ambitious? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Exam situation

It’s a tough one, but it’s worth it.

It’s been just over a week and a half since I sat the DELE C2 exam in my local Instituto Cervantes. While I meant to write this post earlier, time has really flown since then and I simply didn’t have time while running between one thing and the other. That said, I feel I have an obligation to write up my experience of it for all those who are interested.

Before anybody thinks about sitting it, you best be prepared for a long day (depending on the exam centre of course). While I’ve been told that some centres spread the exams out over the course of a few days, I had it all in the one day which dragged the entire thing out over ten hours! Have plenty of caffeine on hand to keep you going, as you’re likely to need it.

Next, don’t expect an instant exam result (or anything close)! The official website for the DELE says that the results are published “approximately three months” after you’ve sat the exam. While I’d like to share my results here, the fact is I simply can’t until February. That means the remainder of this post is entirely based on my perspective of how the exam went.

How does it work?

In the first exam you are presented with reading comprehensions along with three listening exercises. The key thing to look out for here is the first reading exercise, as it can easily throw you off. The idea of the exercise is that you select the correct word from three options to fit the blank space in the text. Many of the words here are quite literary whose meanings are difficult to guess. Worse, the difference between them appears subtle. The first piece of advice I have is that often two of the possible answers have a similar meaning, which leaves you with one that is usually the correct answer. The second piece of advice is time. Be sure to spend no more than fifteen minutes on each text, as it will complicate matters for you later. By the time you move on to the listening exercises, you won’t have time to go back to it. This was the big mistake I made, particularly with the last text.

The next exam was by far the part I found most challenging and could easily be the same for a lot of people. The first part of the exam involves creative writing based on two (related!) documents as well as an audio recording they give you in the exam. In my case, the aim was to write an article for a student newspaper on the topic of young people and technology. The text only has to be 450 words long, so I recommend you take your time in this part. Be sure to draw up a plan, even if it’s a simple one, on how you’re going to structure what you write. My second piece of advice is to base your text on what they’ve given you, try to incorporate as many ideas and statistics as you can, as that shows you’ve understood them.

Last but not least is the oral component of the exam, the first part of which simply involves summarising four items. Unlike in some of the sample papers, in my case there was only one graph to talk about but I was happy with the theme of urban living. The theme is what is important here and the examiner didn’t seem at all interested in how closely I was sticking to the texts. Be prepared to defend your point of view in the second part of this exercise as the examiner will challenge it, but remember to base your opinions on what’s given. That will not only give weight to your arguments, but it’ll also show how well you understand the text.

Despite being difficult, I was very happy with the exam and would recommend it to anybody willing to expand their knowledge of Spanish. Admittedly, I may or may not have passed it, I certainly have learnt a lot over the last few months and will keep practicing while I await the results.

So, go for it if you’re thinking about it! Feel free to share your views on the whole experience below. Alternatively if you have any questions or comments, feel free to add them.

Note: Today I am going to take a break from writing about language learning and my preparations for the DELE exam. However, I will return to writing on the topic in my follow-up post next week. 

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a debate organised by the Literary & Historical Society in Dublin on the motion “This house believes the European Union is bad for Ireland.” The event was presided over by none other than the President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz as well as several Irish politicians. I thought to take this opportunity to share my thoughts on the points raised, giving that they shed light on the direction the Union is heading towards.

I am not a eurosceptic by any means. In fact, I am very much in favour of many initiatives of the European Union, many of which my generation has benefitted from. One only need consider the consequences of our membership, such as the Erasmus program, free-movement within the Schengen area, funding for infrastructure to see that it has had a positive impact on Ireland. Almost all the speakers came to the same conclusion and as Schulz so passionately proclaimed, such benefits are the natural consequence of the “dream”. The “European dream”, as he so called it, means bringing distinct peoples together to tackle the challenges of the twenty-first century (such as climate-change), that small nations could not tackle on their own.

Needless to say we all clapped our hands raw at Schulz’s remarks as it plain for everybody what a passionate European he was. That said, there was another conclusion that every single member of the opposition arrived at; the need for reform.

The European Union (as well as both its predecessors the EEC and the ECSC) were founded on the principle of promoting regional cooperation and thereby prevent the events of the Second World War from happening again. Yet as the crisis has come to a head and partly as a result of the policies of austerity of the European Council, we have seen the rise of the far-right across the continent (most notably in Greece) as well as the growth of separatism. Accordingly, one needs to ask: how can we tackle the problems of the twenty-first century if we cannot even tackle those of the twentieth?

The framework of the Union as it currently stands, places far too much power in the hands of the heads of government of the member states without power being transferred to the Union itself. Thus the Union possesses a monetary union (embodied in the Euro) without a fiscal one, capable of raising taxes and monitoring the member states’ spending. Elected bodies such as the European parliament don’t possess legislative initiative of their own, hindering its ability to act. Overall these flaws have contributed to the oft-quoted “lack of leadership” which has hampered the Union’s ability to respond to crises, such as the one we are faced with today.

So, could it be said that the EU is bad for Ireland? Only in the sense that it currently has major defects that prevent it from functioning properly and don’t necessarily operate in Ireland’s interest. The recent initiatives to solve the Euro debt crisis go some way towards addressing the economic side of reform of the Union. But I can see no other alternative than that of creating a federal Union, answerable to the citizens and with real powers to take action. However, whether that is what the Europeans (and indeed the Irish) want, is another matter altogether.