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.

So, my first month in Miami is about to come to an end. While my time here is short and I have by no means seen everything in the city, often a new pair of eyes picks out things that are otherwise overlooked. Remember, first impressions are important in any context, but they are especially so for cities that are trying to promote a certain image. When I was packing my bags at the beginning of January, I had a very different idea of what this city was like, which was (unfortunately) mainly based on what I’d read in tourist guides. Here are a few things I’ve noticed so far that have changed those notions:

Miami is not a “Spanish city” but a Caribbean one

Miami BeachI don’t mean that in an ethnic sense nor do I mean to discredit the large numbers of people from other backgrounds who live here. The simple fact is that Spanish language dominates here in a way that I’ve never seen anywhere else in the U.S., but there are also large numbers of people from Haiti, Brazil and Jamaica as well as Americans from other parts of the country. I’ve read a lot of complaints on forums that areas like Miami Beach and Coconut Grove are English speaking islands, but I’d disagree. However, I would say that with so many people from the region it feels more like a rich blend of America and the Caribbean, which is a nod at both its location and tropical climate. Where else in the world could you go to the Bahamas for the day or weekend by boat?

It’s multilingual

So many people I’ve met are bilingual to a very high degree or even multilingual, especially those who grew up here (regardless of their background). My Spanish is pretty good, but I have been taken aback by getting telemarketing calls and seeing billboards only in Spanish. I understand why it’s written in Spanish given that it has established itself here but it seems absurd to me to limit yourself to catering to only one portion of the population. That said, compared to the other “ethnic neighborhoods” I’ve seen in my travels, Little Havana didn’t have that many monolingual signs nor feel as enclosed. Rather it felt like just another face of the city’s Caribbean character. Furthermore, attitudes to language seem to be changing to reflect changing demographics as many public places now have signs in Creole whilst Portuguese is everywhere in Downtown.

It’s vibrant

Not to sound cliché, but with so many people coming from all over the world seeking to build a new life here, you might forget about all the new ideas they bring with them. One of the best examples of this is the Miami Beach area which has helped turn the city into a big fashion centre internationally. Areas like South Beach also have, for better or for worse, become famous internationally for its extravagant nightlife. That creativity has spread to other parts of the city, such as the design district where street art has been taken to a whole new level.

Good Public transport

It’s not Europe but it’s better than a lot of other cities in the States. Since my time here is going to be short, I have to make do without a car. Here in Miami, that is a challenge but in many other cities in the US that would be impossible! Despite what people might claim about Americans travelling exclusively by car, given the opportunity people really do use public transport over here. While it may take longer, I am able to get to work every morning by metro (and believe me the trains are full during rush hour). The Metromover that runs around downtown is actually free to use and I always see people using it.

The poor side

Despite the glam of people jetting in from the rest of the country, there is another poor side to the city that I think is more visible than elsewhere in the US.  Since I arrived I have seen a lot of poverty and locals have told me that parts of the city have long been this way. While urban decline is nothing new, it stands out much more with so much wealth visible in other parts of the city.

To summarise

I don’t mean to end this post on a down note, so I’d like to reiterate that I’m still finding my feet here and I remain fascinated by the city around me. These are just five things that have significantly changed the image of the city over the month since I arrived and mostly for the better. Hopefully next month will continue bring new things that will alter my view of the city.

I thought I’d learnt how to answer the phone when I was five. In fact, I can still remember the ring of the rotary telephone that we had in our first house in Zambia. Given how indispensable phones in general — especially mobiles and 3G smart phones — have become in everyday life, it’s worth remembering that every single person started off learning how to answer the phone (apart from the few of you who knew how to work this “contraption” instantly).

Fast forward almost twenty years and an entry-level job. Handling phone calls naturally is a key component of an office environment, but having to learn how to do it came as a surprise and I’ve picked out four key lessons so far.

First of all, everything from your tone of voice, tempo and (to my amusement) accent has be adjusted so as not to catch the other person off-guard.  The last thing you want is for the person at the other end of the line to be flustered or to realize that you’re new to this.

Second, there are the key sentences that your employer wants you say “X enterprises, good afternoon.” These have to be on the tip of your tongue and the only way to do that is through practice. Human beings are creatures of habit, so clients are probably expecting to hear that when they call you.

Next, and perhaps most important of all, is being able to decide on the spot and decide what to do. This is particularly important when you’re asked a question that you don’t know the answer to. Saying “Jeez, I don’t know” will not suffice in the working world, and only serve to agitate the client on the other end. Transferring the call or putting the client on hold while you assess the problem is a far better approach.

Last but not least comes passing on a message for a colleague who’s unavailable. This is particularly tricky when you’re not sure of the name of the person who’s calling. Before I got this first job, I would have probably said something along the lines of, “what did you say your name was?” Admitting to your uncertainty and simply asking the client if they can spell out their name has worked for me so far.

It may sound basic, but there it’s clear to me now that there’s a learning curve here that anybody wanting to work in an office will have to cross. I, for one, was far too used to informality before taking the first step into the working world. Like it or not, formality is still a big part of the working world and this is just one way to get used to it. How many people feel like part of them is missing the day they leave their phone at home? Despite our attachment to them and their ever-growing necessity, it’s worth remembering in the end of the day we are still dealing with individuals over the phone.