Archives for category: Language learning

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.


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. 🙂

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.

Firstly, I haven’t posted anything here lately even though I’ve been meaning to. Unfortunately, I’ve had a case of paralysis by analysis, whereby I started editing and reediting posts until I finally had to move onto something else. I’d like to return to talk about this more in the long term as I’ve learnt a lot over the last few weeks but to do that now wouldn’t do justice to what I’d like to set out today. This post which is to highlight the steps I have taken towards my target: passing the DELE C2 exam by the 9th of November.

With just over a month to go, I’m going to start by highlighting some practical steps I have been taking to reach this target. Firstly, I have been taking online classes three times a week with native speakers from various different countries to practice the oral component of the exam. There are many, many different websites that allow you to find teachers, although the best one I’ve found so far is italki. There is a lot to be said for this teaching method, as you can take advantage of time zones to find a class that fits your schedule, and can also be used for learning various different languages. Depending on the teacher, the rates are quite reasonable and are certainly less than what you would pay in a one-to-one class anywhere else. Not only does it let you schedule and pay for lessons, but you can also set up free exchanges with other users.

As for the content of these classes, I’ve been largely using this book of sample papers printed by EDELSA for the oral component in class, as well as having the teachers correct the sample papers afterwards. I can’t stress enough about the need to familiarise yourself with the exam format beforehand, as many elements only become easier with practice. I personally find the oral part to be the hardest, given that you have barely fifteen minutes to prepare a presentation on an abstract topic. However, with practice with the classes, it has become much easier.

What is great about this book is that it approaches each topic in a thematic way, with plenty of guidelines, lists of vocabulary and sample answers to help you prepare. However, before you go rushing off to buy it, it’s important to bear in mind that the book stocked on Amazon follows the old format for the exam. That said, there is an edition with the new format out there somewhere, and a sample paper can be found here.

Besides the oral component of the exam, one of the most challenging aspects is the amount of advanced vocabulary required. To some extent the exam is about testing your fluency and that includes being able to work around certain words whose meanings aren’t always clear. Yet there are ways to build up your vocabulary in preparation for the exam. What has been of great use to me is the Anki flashcard program (while conceivably any program would do), which I use everyday and has forced me to remember a lot of words that I’d otherwise forget. Apart from that, I’ve been using this vocabulary builder, which although intended for A level students, has been of great help.

Finally, given that I have only a month left and complete immersion isn’t an option, I have been trying to surround myself with the language as best I can. I’ve been attending a Spanish language meetup in Dublin every week to practice speaking. I’ve also made a point of listening to podcasts and reading the news only in Spanish, mainly by listening to this program on Radio Nacional de España and reading El País online.

While I’ve outlined some steps I’ve taken here, I’d encourage anybody thinking about doing the same to find learning techniques that work for them. But most of all, I’d encourage them to be ambitious and to go for it as there’s nothing to lose. While I may not pass in November, I will have improved and will work on the areas I did badly in for next time.

If you have any tips for the DELE or comments about what worked best for you, feel free to comment below. 🙂

Sometimes you’ve just got to aim big, take a breath and throw yourself in the deep end. That is why I have decided to bring up my Spanish to the highest professional level and get it certified by none other than the Spanish language institute Instituto Cervantes. All of this is going to have to be crammed into two months while I look for work and find another internship. Sound like a challenge?

To give you an idea of what’s ahead, the certificate I’m aiming for is called the DELE or Diploma de Español como Lengua Extranjera. It is the ONLY certificate of language competence recognised by the Spanish government (and is widely regarded in South America as well). As you can see from my last post, getting certified in a language is important as it helps clarify ambiguous terms like “fluent” or “advanced” which I have had to use up to now. The level I’m aiming for is “Master or Proficiency” or C2 based on the Common European Framework for Languages.

About my background, I’m afraid to say I’ve been learning Spanish for close on five years now, having taken it as a major in university. Despite that, I only began to speak properly when I went to Spain on an Erasmus programme and experienced full immersion. Since then I feel my progress has been slow and I’ve been stuck at a C1 level. Part of this has been as a result of not being fully immersed in the language anymore, and my own belief that I was not “ready” to sit the exam. I realise now it’s far better to push unprepared self yourself towards your goal than to keep waiting.

It’s worth bearing in mind that this level has a high failure rate, so this is definitely NOT a small challenge. However, it’s been on my to do list, and I’m finally going to go for it. Those who are successful are those who take risks. In the worse case scenario, I will have improved substantially for the exam.

My next post will contain more details about the tools I am using to prepare for the exam, which will hopefully help people interested in sitting it. I’ll also outline my study routine. Remember, you’re supposedly only able to reach C2 after 1,000 hours!!

Programming, web development and even musical instruments – when it comes to developing skills I’ve tried my share. With a challenging job market, it may seem a bit of a strange to suggest language learning when there are many other skills people could be focusing on acquiring. “Coding is the new Latin” as they say and why not be more concerned with passing LSATS and getting into Grad school. With the world becoming a smaller place by the day and so many people learning English, why would you divert you attention to learning another language? While there is some truth to these arguments, there are other factors which should be taken into account when weighing up the pros and cons of spending your time in this way.

(Disclaimer: It is very difficult to write about learning languages in a general context without specific examples. Languages like Chinese or Japanese can take years to master, and even longer to learn how to write whereas artificial languages like Esperanto can be learnt in a matter of months. For this post, I’m going to refer to other European languages like French, German and Spanish that most of us learn in school.)

It shows you’re thinking BIG

Unless your business is completely oriented towards the English speaking market then acquiring a working knowledge of another language will place you at an advantage in the workplace. Depending on the language of course, any employer should see the potential that offers to expand a business towards a certain market and that you’re at ease in a different setting. A job-applicant who has acquired working knowledge of another language clearly shows he’s flexible and willing to expand his horizons. In my last post I mentioned how Miami was oriented towards the Caribbean and beyond, both culturally and economically. With a market working on such a grand scale, it only makes sense to do the same and think towards working with clients from the region. With Spanish being everywhere in the city, I would be placing myself at a disadvantage by not taking every opportunity to practice and develop it while I’m here.

It shows determination

One criticism I come across fairly often is that despite all your efforts, you will never speak it as well as somebody who is naturally bilingual. That may be true and I, for one, have to think about what I am saying much more when I switch languages compared to friends who are naturally fluent in both. But for me such a statement is missing the real point about what language learning shows about you. Natively bilingual people have grown up with this two languages and this is does give them an advantage. However, everybody who wasn’t born with this advantage has had develop it. Mastering a language requires huge effort and even years of practice. To be able to persevere and develop a skill to a high level shows a commitment to your mental development, which must place you in a different category of your own.

It expands your horizons.

Not only does it show your employer you’re ambitious but it also proves to you what you’re capable of once you set your mind to it. For many people learning another language is something that never gets crossed off their to-do list. If you’ve mastered the German declensions or the Cyrillic alphabet, then surely learning how to code can’t be that hard? While that also takes time, having acquired this skill does set the bar very high.

On another level entirely, it exposes you to people you would otherwise not have met. Networking works better when there’s no language barrier and people are almost always appreciative of the fact you’ve made the effort to learn their language.

Language learning may not be as clear-cut of a skill as many would like, but it is a flexible skill that can be applied to a variety of environments. While some people would hesitate to show their future employer they have an interest in languages, I think it’s pretty clear that it’s something you should be proud to put on your CV. I would recommend all those interested in pursuing it to use a framework such as the European one to demonstrate their level and mark their progress. My next post will be about my plans to finally  get accredited in Spanish.