DELEhelp = Spanish exam prep done right, whether for DELE, SIELE or OPI, with personalized 1-on-1 online coaching

Spanish exam prep done right isn’t always easy to come by.

Especially for English-speakers.

And particularly if your idea of what the DELE / SIELE & OPI is all about, is still (wrongly) dominated by the memory of academic language exams that you may have experienced at school or in college.

Because those typical school or college language exams are truly like chalk from cheese, when compared to modern exams of actual communicative competency in Spanish, such as the “examen DELE”, as well as its online twin the SIELE, plus the equivalent American OPI/ OPIc

What most students find especially hard to come by, is Spanish exam prep done right, at the right price.

Personalized preparation that offers you 1-on-1 coaching, with your own personal study plan. A targeted plan based on a thorough initial diagnostic of your strengths and weaknesses in all four the communicative skills that the DELE / SIELE / OPIc assess – not just relying on some quickie online “level test”.

This blog post will show you how we at DELEhelp can assist you, to ensure that yours will indeed be Spanish exam prep done right: targeted and practical, at the most affordable rates you can hope to encounter for such specialized online personal coaching, anywhere on the internet. If you’ve wondered what exactly we offer, or how to get started, this blog post will explain ir all. We will walk you through all the key aspects, step by step, providing you with top tips.


Many people encounter us by word-of-mouth (thanks to our many satisfied alumni). Or perhaps you have seen us on Facebook. However, most of you would have done a generic online search, looking for expert help with preparation for your Spanish exam – whether that be the DELE, the SIELE or the OPIc. Many such searches lead to this, our acclaimed DELEhelp blog.

In this blog we share with you, entirely free, dozens of top-rated posts with practical, battle-tested tips for acing these exams. This free blog carries what in marketing parlance is called “content-based” marketing, meaning giving away valuable information and insights for free to prospective students, because it serves to demonstrate to you our credibility as truly expert coaches with first-hand knowledge and experience of these exams.

This inside knowledge stems from the fact that we are official coordinators for a SIELE exam center, as well as accredited proctors for the OPIc. I myself, a former head of a leading diplomatic academy and now emeritus director of studies of Excellentia Didactica (of which DELEhelp is a division), am a proud holder of Spain’s top DELE C2 diploma. In addition, I hold five university degrees, including a PhD., and did specialized university courses such as in online language teaching (Cambridge) as well as “language teaching and learning” from Southampton, plus in applied linguistics (Leicester).

To give you an idea of the real-world, exam-simulating essentials that we focus on to ensure practical, effective prepping, have a look at this omnibus of our top blog posts, with quick links to easily access them individually:

Spanish exam prep done right – top tips for acing your DELE, SIELE or OPIc exam, free and convenient

But – once you’ve read our blog posts and then (hopefully) had come to the conclusion that we are indeed expertly yet affordably capable of providing you with the realistic exam-targeted coaching you need – what then?

How do you get in touch with us, and what happens next, to get the ball rolling?


Contacting us is very quick and easy. Just use our concise contact info form, which is linked to on our website and on each blog post: https://www.edele.org/contact-us.html It provides us with only the most basic information necessary to contact you, in order to e-mail you the download links to our free introductory sample e-books, plus to invite you to have a free, 1-on-1, hour-long exam orientation conversation with myself (as director of studies), in English.

We DO NOT harvest e-mail addresses for marketing purposes, and we NEVER engage in unsolicited bulk e-mailing campaigns. Neither do we sell to, or in any way share your particulars for profit with any third parties – EVER. Submitting the contact info form (and with it, requesting the free e-books and free exam orientation briefing) also creates absolutely NO CONTRACTUAL OBLIGATION for you.


Sending us the contact info form also serves as request for the download links to our free in-house sample exam prep workbooks. These we will send you in an e-mail, to the mailing address you gave us, together with basic information about our services and rates. (Since this will be our first e-mail contact, please check your spam filter if you don’t see our e-mail within 48 hours of having submitted the contact info form).

Spanish exam prep done right – click on the image to ask for our free, no obligation exam prep e-book


The introductory e-mail with the e-book downloads, also includes the invitation to provide us with suitable dates/times for a free one hour orientation briefing about your exam, via Skype or Zoom. This briefing will be done by myself 1-on-1 with you in English, and will explain all about your particular exam’s unique nature and scoring criteria, plus the best prepping methods, thus giving practical details about our coaching. It will also afford you ample time to ask all your questions.

The first part of the briefing will explain to you in detail what these exams are all about (again – they are very different from academic school or college exams). I will explain the didactical goals they are set to achieve, their structure, scoring system and the assessment criteria that the examiners use.  Understanding fully the particular nature and requirements of these exams – in other words, what the examiners are looking for – forms one leg of our guidance for Spanish exam prep done right. Because clearly you need to be preparing yourself to give the examiners what they are ACTUALLY looking for – NOT what you may imagine their requirements to be, as based on your previous experience of school or college exams.

The second leg of my briefing on such effective, targeted exam prep methodology, is based on the latest neuroscience. It involves knowing how the human brain actually processes the acquisition of language skills. This orientation is equally as essential as understanding what your examiners want, because it will enable you to adopt the best methods for effectively acquiring the necessary communicative skills, so as to pass your exam. I will explain to you the appropriate methodology in order that you can PRACTICE right, thereby developing the “can do” skills that these exams actually assess. Otherwise, you may embark on “studying” hard, school style, and ending up with no more than just abstract knowledge of the language (which will be entirely insufficient for the purpose of passing).

Spanish exam prep done right – the method must correspond to the particular nature of these exams (not school style)

The last two parts of the orientation conversation will deal firstly with the practicalities of our coaching, such as how the free initial diagnostic is done (using an actual DELE exam paper, at your level), how to book your coaching sessions online, and how to make payments (easily and securely via PayPal). Lastly, it will allow you the opportunity to ask all the questions you may have.

You may ask, at this point, exactly who am I and how am I qualified to brief you on these key issues? Apart from being a retired lawyer, I have a Ph.D. in Social Sciences plus certificates in Applied Linguistics from the University of Leicester, as well as in online language tuition from the universities of Cambridge and Southampton. I had the honour of representing President Nelson Mandela as ambassador and also headed the South African Diplomatic Academy. I hold the DELE C2 diploma and am official coordinator for the accredited SIELE exam center here in la Antigua Guatemala, as well as being official proctor for the OPIc. Apart from that, I am a published novelist and speaker of four languages, understanding a few more. I can, therefore, look at exam prep not only from the perspective of a tutor, but also from that of the student – having “been there, done it” myself.

After this exploratory conversation, and once you have confirmed that you want to come aboard, we will send you our comprehensive “welcome aboard” e-mail as a one-stop reference to the resources we will be using, the initial diagnostic assessment, plus the practicalities of booking.


This unavoidably comprehensive e-mail consists of five parts:

  • Resources (sub-divided into three sections: free in-house workbooks, free “open source” materials available online, and the few 3rd party books you’ll need to purchase);
  • The initial diagnostic;
  • Payment;
  • Scheduling your coaching sessions; and
  • A step-by-step walk-through of what to do when, to set yourself up right for your online classes.

RESOURCES: The bulk of the resources that you will be using, will be our free in-house workbooks, specifically written (in English) for English-speaking students preparing for Spanish exams. These e-books approach preparing for these exams from the student perspective, with emphasis on what you need to do and master, in order to PASS. They contain contextual explanation, so that you understand what needs to be done, and why – rather than having to rely, parrot-style, on rote learning techniques. They also contain practical tips and proven strategies for doing well, gained from own experience of having been a student myself: having passed the DELE at topmost C2 level, and years of real-world observation as SIELE exam coordinator and OPIc proctor.

Workbook #1 is a short backgrounder on the history and origins of the Spanish language (do you know that, of the 12 chapters of the official DELE curriculum of the Instituto Cervantes, only one deals with grammar, whilst three deal with history, culture and traditions?).

Spanish exam prep done right – targeted resources covering all aspects of the exam curriculum

Workbook #2 is entitled “De-mystifying Spanish Grammar”. This it does by relating the Spanish constructs to the English structure that you are familiar with, thus giving you a conceptual reference framework for understanding.

Workbook #3 explains our methodology and its didactical foundations in detail.

Workbook #4 helps you with the essential challenge of developing a “sufficiently large linguistic scope” (one of the four exam assessment criteria) meaning mastering Spanish vocabulary, by explaining the use of modern flashcard systems and the 12 fixed conversion patterns of cognate words. This will immediately give you a large vocabulary of words that you are familiar with in English (more than a third of the words in English and Spanish are such easily-recognizable cognates).

Workbook #5 extends your mastery of Spanish lexis, by helping you record in your flashcard system, the most important expressions, idioms, collocations, and link phrases.

Workbook #6 explains the functioning of the Subjunctive Mood in a readily-understandable manner.

Workbook #8 is a detailed orientation about the OPIc test.

Spanish exam prep done right – get to know your exam: its assessment criteria, scoring system and format

Workbook #9 consist of 96 pages and is titled: “DELE / SIELE exam orientation and acing tips”, which will walk you through these exams’ goals, curriculum, format, scoring and assessment criteria in detail, as well to discuss and guide you regarding proven strategies for doing well in each of the four skills tested, namely reading and listening comprehension, plus oral and written expression.

Of these workbooks, you will get download links for numbers 1, 2, 8 & 9 free as samples, if you reach out to us via our Contact Info Form (LINK) mentioned earlier; the others you will get free when you sign up.

Other free in-house resources that we will make available to you, include our blog posts with acing tips and explanations of key issues, an album of conversation trigger photographs (similar to those used in the oral exams), a verb conjugation practice matrix (for Level C candidates) and a list of selected YouTube videos for listening comprehension practice, for each level.

The free online resources that we recommend are well set out in this targeted blog post, which you can access by clicking on the image below:

Spanish exam prep done right – we provide you with links to top free online resources in this blog post (click on image)

The few 3rd party resources that you will need to purchase should not cost you more than US$40. They include, as grammar reference book, the best-selling language handbook of all languages on the planet, at Amazon (published by McGraw-Hill), plus books of model exams (which will be your staple diet, of course). The details of these we will give you in the “welcome aboard” e-mail.

DIAGNOSTIC: The initial assessment of your pre-existing level plus your strengths and weaknesses will consist of an actual DELE exam at an appropriate level. This serves not only as diagnostic, but as introduction / orientation, showing you what the actual exam looks like. This exam will be attached to the “welcome aboard” e-mail as two separate .pdf’s – one containing the written parts of the exam (to be done either piecemeal or in one go, as you may elect, in your own time) and the other the oral exam. You will be asked to open the latter 20 minutes before the start of your first online coaching session, when your tutor will do the oral test with you (those 20 minutes serve for you to prepare your notes for the first oral exam task, which will be a short presentation / monologue).

It needs to be stressed that the purpose of doing this exam is not to pass or fail you – it is akin to going to a medical doctor; she won’t give you a prescription without first doing a diagnosis, wanting to see your blood tests etc. It’s the same for us – just as you can’t fail a blood test (it simply is what it is) you can’t “fail” our diagnostic; it simply provides us with an essential baseline for designing your own personal study plan.


Our billing is based on the actual number of Skype/Zoom hours taken in a given month, at US$18 per hour – meaning that all our in-house study materials, plus our own time spent on class prep and assignment/mock exam review, is yours at no extra cost (there are no hidden extras such as taxes or bank transfer costs either). 

We bill “the old way” – at the end of each month – so there’s no coupons to buy. However, after your initial complimentary orientation session with me (if then you decide to make use of our services) there is a “good faith sign-up fee” of US$54 to pay. This $54 you will in fact get back in the form of resources and services. This is an honour system, securing our investment in your personalized initial diagnostic and the valuable in-house resources that we make available to you free at the outset. NB: You will get back the $54, in the form of your first three hours of coaching thus being pre-paid. In other words, we will send you the invoice for the sign-up-fee, immediately upon you confirming that you want to work with us – BUT our in-house resources plus your diagnostic test material will only be shared with you once we’ve received the $54 sign-up fee.

Payment of the “good faith sign-up fee” as well as of our monthly invoices is secure and easy, online, using PayPal.

Spanish exam prep done right – and affordable! (Click on image to go to the DELEhelp page of our website)


Our scheduler is online, flexible and convenient. We are open from 7am to 10pm Guatemala time, seven days a week. Scheduling is entirely in your hands. You select from the available slots, in terms of your changing convenience, without being immutably bound to a particular date and time slot, week after week. You can re-schedule or even cancel a pre-booked session, up to one hour before the set time, with no penalty or even questions asked. Please note that our scheduler is standardized on Guatemala time, which is GMT-6 all year round (we do not change for summer / winter time).


In brief, our tutoring via Skype or Zoom is one-on-one, personalized, and highly flexible.

As said, our first step will be to do a proper diagnostic of your individual strengths and weaknesses, from which we prepare a personalized study plan. This is done to avoid wasting time on aspects that you already have mastered, and to ensure that there are no blank spots in your preparation. We go way beyond merely testing your command of Spanish grammar, by covering each of the four communicative competencies that will be tested in the actual exams.

Once we have established your strengths and weaknesses and agreed your personal study plan, you should find that the latter will typically provide for about 2/3 self-study and 1/3 online interfacing with the tutor (i.e., for every hour of Skype/Zooming, we assume two hours of guided self-study). During the first phase of actual coaching, we will thoroughly familiarize you with the exam formats and curriculum. We will inform you about the four scoring criteria applied by examiners in evaluating you in the oral and writing tests, and coach you in the techniques used by examiners in the multiple choice reading and listening comprehension tests. Our tuition is hands-on, simulating exam reality, and is goal-driven (i.e., absolutely focused on helping you to pass the exam). Above all it is practical, informed by first-hand experience of the exam. 

Our 1-on-1 coaching is an intensive effort to help you develop your actual communicative ability in Spanish, so that you can demonstrate the real-world skill sets that the DELE / SIELE’s four equally-weighted scoring criteria evaluate [These being (1) coherence, (2) fluency and (3) demonstration of ample linguistic scope, plus (4) accuracy of pronunciation / spelling and grammar].  Our aim is to help you perform optimally in the exam setting – to develop your “can do” communicative competencies – rather than to simply lecture you school-style about the “rules” of the Spanish language (which merely allows you to “know” in the abstract, instead of enabling you to actually DO).

Once you are properly orientated about the exam requirements, the Skype/Zoom sessions serve to practice the skills identified as your weaknesses, focussing particularly on those that one cannot really practice alone, on one’s own at home – such as practising for the oral expression part of the exam (since you can’t talk to yourself in the mirror). The coaching sessions also serve to give feed-back on the self-study assignments you’ve submitted beforehand (for example, practicing writing in Spanish) and reviewing with you your mock exam results. We include a lot of realistic simulated exam practice – using actual previous, as well as model exams.

If you want to know more about our DELE/SIELE/OPI exam coaching methodology, you may find scanning through this Workbook useful: https://tinyurl.com/y8lz6fg7

To stay abreast of new developments, check out our DELEhelp Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/delehelp/   

(It would be great if you could give it a like 😉).

Buena suerte with your exam prep!

Spanish exam prep done right – click on image to go to the website of our mother organization: Excellentia Didactica


DELE exam dates 2022

Here are the Spanish DELE exam dates 2022 (“examen DELE”) plus the preceding last days for registering for each session.

To register for a specific exam level and particular session to be sat at an exam center of your choice, first go to the website of the Spanish government’s Instituto Cervantes (which administers the exams). You can access the section on exam inscriptions via this link: https://examenes.cervantes.es/es/dele/inscribirse

The site explains the process. In brief, you have to choose at which one of the six levels you want to sit the exam (there are also additional levels for school kids), at which session you want to do it (i.e., the date) and at which exam center. If you wish to do the exam in Spain itself, then you can register online. For doing it at one of the many overseas exam centers, you will have to physically go to the exam center of your choice and complete the registration there.

You can see the accredited exam centers here: https://examenes.cervantes.es/es/dele/donde

Keep in mind that not all accredited exam centers offer all the levels of the exam (as advertised above) at every scheduled session. This is mainly due to centers needing to have suitably qualified examiners for the oral part of the exam, for every level offered, available on the session date at their particular center. Some big centers have such certified examiners as permanent residents, but smaller centers often depend on Madrid to send them examiners – which is only done when the center meets a certain quota of entrants for the particular level. It is therefore important to enquire beforehand, whether the center of your choice is certain to be able to offer the particular level on the date you prefer – otherwise, you may receive an e-mail on the last day of registration informing you that your center no longer will offer that particular level on the given date (which then leaves you stuck, because you cannot easily then register with another center).

The whole procedure is explained in detail in our FREE 96-page DELE exam orientation e-book, which you can request by simply dropping us an e-mail to: [email protected] OR by clicking on our handy contact information form on our website: https://edele.org OR simply by clicking anywhere on the IMAGE below:

DELE exam prep book
click on IMAGE to ask for our FREE workbook

This DELEhelp blog also contains many posts with top tips on all aspects of the DELE exam. If you click on the following link: https://delehelp.org/16-top-blog-posts-on-acing-dele-exam/ it will take you to an omnibus post that will present you with the covers of all the most-visited individual posts. Then you can easily access the ones of your interest by simply clicking on the particular cover.

Buena suerte with your DELE exam preparation!

click on this IMAGE to go to our website

Improve your Spanish conversation skills

It’s essential to improve your SPANISH CONVERSATION SKILLS for the DELE/ SIELE exams and the OPI tests

You have to improve your Spanish conversation skills to do well in exams like the DELE diploma or “el examen DELE ” because it’s all about testing the ability to communicate effectively in Spanish, in real-world situations. This is equally true for the DELE’s new online twin, the SIELE exam, and for it American equivalent, the OPI.

Most candidates who fail the DELE exam (some 30% typically do), fail because of having failed the oral test.  In fact, 70% of failures are due to having failed the oral test.

So, how do humans gain the ability to converse? After all, small children achieve that skill, without having had any formal language tuition… What can you learn from neuroscience, to improve your Spanish conversation skills?

How should you as an an adult approach learning, so that you will be able to converse in Spanish? There are many conflicting theories, plus ingrained teaching habits stretching back many generations, regarding how best to achieve proficiency in a foreign language. But of late, neuroscience has given us very important insights into how the brain actually processes the acquisition of language. This neurological data has taken the debate out of the realm of speculation (where it had lounged for most of history) into proper understanding of the processes involved.

One thing that we have known for some time with certainty, is what DOESN’T work; it has been empirically proven that the traditional school or college-style teaching of a second language fails miserably in producing alumni with the capacity to maintain even a basic conversation at the end of their schooling. Recent figures from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) show that only 0.5% of school / college alumni who majored in a foreign language, actually achieve that level of competence.  Most students taught the traditional way, give up on learning a second language, and those who do finish, have forgotten practically all they had learnt in just three to four years.

In this blog post I will introduce some of the latest and best theories and methodologies for developing proficiency at conversing in a foreign language. This introduction of theory is intended only as a quick orientation for the practical advice which comes at the end of this blog post. I will be sharing with you our own battle-tested tips for developing your conversational ability in Spanish, so that you can ace the DELE / SIELE exam or the OPIc.

The Human Instinct for Language:

language instinct coverTo understand how to improve your Spanish conversation skills, you first and foremost have to understand how the human brain functions when it comes to “learning a language” – or, more correctly put – how we acquire a new language: i.e., develop the ability to communicate in it. (Babies don’t set out to “learn a language”; they instinctively acquire the ability to communicate, just as they acquire the ability to walk upright – both much more through PRACTICE than through abstract learning of theory). Understanding this process is certain to help you in cultivating the right mind-set and study methods for making your DELE / SIELE exam and OPI preparation effective.

It is recognized that the two most important abilities that set us humans apart from other primates and the rest of the animals in general, is our ability to walk upright and our ability to communicate.  Both are vital survival skills. From the survival standpoint the acquisition of mobility is an early imperative.  Walking is also a less complex task than the heavily brain-driven skill of oral communication, so babies master that first. It has been shown, though, that listening to the mother’s voice starts already in the womb. Once the toddler is mobile, the brain’s major developmental focus for the next three to five years shifts almost exclusively to honing the ability to communicate verbally.

The ability to master language has been described by the psychologist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker (in his seminal book “The Language Instinct”) as the “preeminent trait” of the human species, as well as our “most important cultural invention … a biologically unprecedented event irrevocably separating him from other animals.”

For our present purpose, probably the most important observation by Pinker is that language isn’t an academic subject that we are formally taught. Neither do we need, as toddlers, to consciously study it, in order to develop this skill. “Instead, it is a distinct piece of the biological makeup of our brains. Language is a complex, specialized skill, which develops in the child spontaneously, without conscious effort or formal instruction…”

While some cognitive scientists describe language as a psychological faculty or a neural system, Pinker prefers to refer to it as a human instinct, because the term instinct “…conveys the idea that people know how to talk in more or less the sense that spiders know how to spin webs”, which spiders are able to do without having had any formal education in design or engineering, but simply because they have “spider brains, which give them the urge to spin and the competence to succeed.”

“Superior pattern processing (SPP) is the essence of the evolved human brain”

snappa_1467577352In an article in “Frontiers of Neuroscience” (2014; 8:265) Mark P. Mattson used the above title to describe that aspect of the human brain which allows us to do things that other primates or animals can’t. Mattson says: “The types of pattern processing that appear to occur robustly, if not uniquely in the human brain and are therefore considered as SPP include: (1) Creativity and invention … (2) Spoken and written languages that enable rapid communication of highly specific information about all aspects of the physical universe and human experiences;  (3) Reasoning and rapid decision-making; (4) Imagination and mental time travel which enables the formulation and rehearsal of potential future scenarios; and (5) Magical thinking/fantasy… The human brain is remarkably similar to the brains of non-human primates and lower mammals at the molecular and cellular levels, suggesting that the human brain deploys evolutionarily generic signalling mechanisms to store and retrieve large amounts of information and, most remarkably, to integrate information in ways that result in the generation of new emergent properties such as complex languages, imagination, and invention.”

This tendency of the human brain to seek and process patterns has been widely documented in science.  In layman’s terms, Ackerman wrote in Time Magazine on 15 June 2004: “Pattern pleases us, rewards a mind seduced and yet exhausted by complexity. We crave pattern, and find it all around us, in petals, sand dunes, pine cones, contrails. Our buildings, our symphonies, our clothing, our societies — all declare patterns”This was quoted approvingly by Psychiatry professor Bernard Beitman in “Psychiatric Annals” (39:5 / May 2009) under the heading: “Brains seek Patterns in Coincidences” where-in he stated: “Our brains seek coherence, structure, and order. Words and numbers order perceptions. Words and sentences package complex experiences … The brain wants to complete patterns … We can feel its pleasure in making a correct connection.”

“Languages as an advanced pattern encoding and transfer mechanism”

Addressing language specifically (under the above heading) Mattson went on to write: “Language is the quintessential example of the evolved SPP capabilities of the human brain… Language involves the use of patterns (symbols, words, and sounds) to code for objects and events encountered either via direct experience or communication from other individuals. However, despite it being a remarkable leap forward in evolution, language may not involve any fundamentally new cellular or molecular mechanisms; instead, language is mediated by recently evolved neural circuits integrated with older circuits, all of which utilize generic pattern processing mechanisms. Remarkably, the learning of languages and the potentially infinite number of stories (word sequences) that an individual can construct are accomplished using a finite number of neurons that is established during early brain development … Presumably, the synapses involved in language are “strengthened” by repetition (listening and talking, and reading and writing).”

It is only necessary to recall one’s own childhood to know that we developed the ability to communicate verbally without any formal teaching. As toddlers we didn’t study grammar, but from about age three and a half, we could construct phrases grammatically correctly.  Where we did make “mistakes”, it usually was when the supposedly “correct” English form deviated from the general pattern we had correctly discerned – as in a child saying two “oxes” instead of saying two oxen, because the regular pattern for forming the plural in modern English is by adding an “s” (like in two boxes, or two cows).  Oxen is a relic from the past, which has somehow clung on – unlike the word “kine”, which until a few centuries ago was the correct English plural of cow, but which was jettisoned in favor of cows (with “cows” probably before then regarded as child-speak).

As little kids, we didn’t think of particular verbs as being distinct conjugations of some infinitive form – we simply knew that that was the right word for that particular phrase and context. Our ear told us if another child used a word incorrectly, without us being in any way able to explain why it was wrong. We developed our language skills by getting to know words as simply words, plus the familiar patterns of stitching them together in phrases.

First grammar book for an European language - Spanish, 1492

First grammar handbook for an European language – Castilian (Spanish), 1492

The advent of grammar studies:

It is obvious that the patterns of languages weren’t ever formally designed and ordained by committees of elder cavemen laying down grammar “rules”.  Languages grew spontaneously, constantly undergoing local variations and unstoppable evolution at the hand (or rather, tongue) of the common folk.

The first visible signs of language standardization started emerging with the advent of writing.  The first formal grammar book for an European language was only published in 1492, for Castilian, which now is the national language of Spain. In it, its author, Antonio de Nebrija, laid down as first fundamental rule that: “we must write as we speak and we must speak as we write”. What he insisted upon, therefore, is that researchers and academics should not invent language rules, but must observe and record that which actually exists, with all its irregularities (the concept of grammar “rules” is actually unfortunate, because of the connotation that the word “rules” have of being something authoritatively ordained – with hindsight, it would have been better to speak of grammar patterns).

Because of the natural eagerness of the human mind to create order by means of identifying patterns, it was inevitable that languages would eventually be formally studied. The study of grammar would come to consist of tabulating the patterns evident in any language, such as those for word modification (morphology – for example, the conjugation of words) or the protocols of phrase construction (syntax).  It is evident that, by learning and knowing these “rules” or rather patterns, one would be able to predict likely constructs. Now, if we take any sport, knowing the rules of the game isn’t – in and of itself – going to make you a great player.  The latter depends i.a. on one’s ability to APPLY such theoretical knowledge instantly and intuitively in actual game settings.  This analogy very much resembles the DELE  / SIELE exams and the OPI, in which there are no questions on the rules of grammar as such. Instead, all the focus is on the candidate’s ability to apply that theoretical knowledge in real-world communication. (Such tests based on communicative competencies, in any event will quickly enough show the examiner whether you know the “rules”.).

Unfortunately, the traditional school system requires standardized curricula and methodologies. This is so because, in order for school tuition to be feasible in practice, teaching classrooms full of students all at once, there just isn’t scope for individualization.  And there are many other subjects to be taught, in addition to a foreign language. Therefore, for the foreign language student there cannot be the constant immersion in his target tongue that the typical native-speaking toddler is exposed to every woken hour (in school and college, time for studying foreign languages is limited – usually only some four to five hours per week, homework time included, is dedicated to learning a second language).  Furthermore, it is logical that schools – which are subject to severe constraints of time and organization, whilst dealing with entire class-groups and not individuals – are by the nature of these limitations focused on imparting theoretical knowledge of rules, and not on the individual coaching required to develop actual communicative ability.

snappa_1467553698As a consequence, schools and colleges are mostly teaching the theoretical foundations of a foreign language, with a focus on reading and writing (all pupils can practice to write at the same time, but certainly all can’t practice to speak at the same time). Quite naturally, therefore, schools are setting written exams to test groups of students’ knowledge of that which the schools have been teaching, namely theory such as the rules of grammar. Schools are not structured, nor disposed, to focus primarily on the individualized testing of each student’s ability to engage in an actual conversation, one by one.  Which explains why only 0.5% of US students end up being able to converse in the foreign language they have studied.  It’s like teaching and testing football spectators for their knowledge of the rules, instead of coaching and assessing the skills of actual, competent football players.

The foregoing is not a condemnation of schools – in many ways the traditional grammar-based approach to foreign language teaching was and is what is practically possible, and no informed teacher is under any illusion that it would, in itself, be enough.  Because humans instinctively seek for patterns, it is clearly useful that the patterns inherent to any language’s grammar be identified and codified, and also that these be learnt.  It obviously is a faster way of becoming aware of such patterns than simply by absorbing them subconsciously, in the course of years of unstructured immersion. But it is not enough to simply know these rules, if one is to acquire the capacity to communicate effectively. Because while we may be well aware of some rule, if our minds and tongues aren’t practiced in applying it in conversation, then something contrary is likely to slip out – no matter how well we may have “known” that that was the wrong way of phrasing it.

Another major drawback inherent to the traditional way of teaching, is that it inevitably leaves the student with the impression that language consists of individual words, which must be strung together in accordance with set rules, such as that of conjugation – like stringing individual pearls on a necklace.  In reality, though, language for the most part consists of “chunks” of words in the form of well-established phrases with agreed meaning.

As kids we pick up and become skilled in using these “chunks”, like: I am going to school; I am going in the car; I am not going to grandma’s etc. We comprehend that the basic chunk stays the same, we only have to change some words to suit the need of the moment. This truth was recognized some two decades ago by Michael Lewis, who called for a new, complementary approach to the traditional way of teaching language, which he called the “lexical approach”.  This approach was not intended to replace traditional learning, but to supplement it; Lewis and his followers see it more as an enhanced mind-set, a better understanding of how we actually acquire language, which would broaden the learning methodologies beyond their traditional focus and strive for an outcome of actual conversational competency.

The Lexical Approach:

Olga Moudria wrote an excellent summation of the Lexical Approach, published by the ERIC Clearing House on Languages of Washington DC. Here are some extracts: “The lexical approach concentrates on developing learners’ proficiency with lexis, or words and word combinations. It is based on the idea that an important part of language acquisition is the ability to comprehend and produce lexical phrases as unanalysed wholes, or “chunks,” and that these chunks become the raw data by which learners perceive patterns of language traditionally thought of as grammar (Lewis, 1993, p. 95). Instruction focuses on relatively fixed expressions that occur frequently in spoken language, such as, “I’m sorry,” “I didn’t mean to make you jump,” or “That will never happen to me,” rather than on originally created sentences (Lewis, 1997a, p. 212).” (A key concept that Moudria points to here, is that we comprehend and internalize word chunks without first analysing them – i.e., grammar doesn’t enter into the picture).

She continues: “The lexical approach makes a distinction between vocabulary–traditionally understood as a stock of individual words with fixed meanings–and lexis, which includes not only the single words but also the word combinations that we store in our mental lexicons. Lexical approach advocates argue that language consists of meaningful chunks that, when combined, produce continuous coherent text, and only a minority of spoken sentences are entirely novel creations. The role of formulaic, many-word lexical units have been stressed in both first and second language acquisition research…

“Comprehension of such units is dependent on knowing the patterns to predict in different situations. Instruction, therefore, should center on these patterns and the ways they can be pieced together, along with the ways they vary and the situations in which they occur…

snappa_1467577824Moudria concludes:” Zimmerman (1997, p. 17) suggests that the work of Sinclair, Nattinger, DeCarrico, and Lewis represents a significant theoretical and pedagogical shift from the past … they challenge a traditional view of word boundaries, emphasizing the language learner’s need to perceive and use patterns of lexis and collocation. Most significant is the underlying claim that language production is not a syntactic rule-governed process but is instead the retrieval of larger phrasal units from memory. Nevertheless, implementing a lexical approach in the classroom does not lead to radical methodological changes. Rather, it involves a change in the teacher’s mindset.

Donovan Nagel of the Mezzofanti Guild summed up the lexical approach very effectively in layman’s terms: “Languages are acquired in prefabricated chunks words, collocations and expressions that we hear repeatedly. This is why kids go from babble to speaking – to the amazement of their parents – seemingly overnight. To give you an example, ‘I want’ is a chunk. You’ve used those two words together in that order a multitude of times in your lifetime. It’s a set expression that you heard and learned as a whole, and are able to create an infinite number of expressions by adding another chunk (a name or an action). Thus, ice-cream and to go are other chunks that you’ve also learned. What we do as fluent speakers is essentially put together or insert pieces of prefabricated language. Very little of what we actually say is original content.

“I would go a step further and say that every verb tense you know was learned as a prefabricated item. For example, you didn’t learn the verb write and then learn how to conjugate it. You learned I write, she writes, they write, etc. as whole items and over time you gained an ear for what sounds right and what doesn’t. When you hear something that doesn’t quite sound correct (e.g. they writes, he writed) you immediately detect the error – not because you’re aware of grammar, but because you’re so used to the correct, prefabricated forms that anything else doesn’t sound right.”

Barriers to adults developing conversational competency in a foreign language: The main barriers to communicating effectively, fluently and confidently in Spanish as foreign language can be summed up as follows:

  • Lack of a sufficient memorized and rehearsed lexis (consisting of an ample vocabulary of words correctly pronounced, plus expressions, idioms and common phrase “chunks”, including link phrases);
  • Insufficient knowledge of the grammatical patterns of the language (its word morphology and the syntax for phrase construction), and lack of practice in the instinctive and fluent, correct use of these patterns;
  • Inability to correctly form Hispanic sounds (phonology) because of lack of sufficient guided practice, not adapting the body’s articulation tools to the Hispanic way of forming sounds, plus inhibition; and
  • An un-attuned ear, not able to correctly capture and understand what others are saying, particularly in the case of accents and dialects.

To meet these four direct challenges just mentioned, some related innate ones also have to be overcome.  Foremost is the need to undo unilingual mother-tongue rigidity (which is present in those who don’t yet fluently speak any foreign language). By this is meant that we have been exclusively conditioned from early childhood, to speak in the manner and style of our own cultural peer group, with our mouths knowing only how to form the sounds of our mother tongue. Apart from this physical rigidity, there’s often also a mental one associated with unilingualism, namely that such persons don’t want to see that there are many different ways in which languages can in fact construct phrases – ways that, though different, in themselves do have an internal logic of their own, which is no less logical than that of the familiar structure of their mother tongue.  (This tendency to throw the hands up in the air in frustration and say that “the Spanish way makes no sense” is common among those who are subjected to tutoring based essentially on learning grammar without sufficient emphasis on lexis, and without having been given any explanatory reference framework for the historical why’s and how’s of the differences between the two languages).

Such rigidity restricts conversational mental agility, because we think in our mother tongue and thus first have to mentally translate before we speak. It also inhibits the ability to accept and mentally “own” the lexis, grammatical patterns and structure of Spanish – which sometimes are very different from those of English – as being equally valid and logical in its own right.

Unilingual rigidity also restricts articulation (mouth movement etc.) and body language to one rigid mould. This stems from lifelong conditioning of the body’s articulation tools through having been used in only one cultural/linguistic mode, forming sounds for the letters of the alphabet in one way only. To illustrate – a lifetime of pressure to conform to, for instance, a “stiff upper lip” style of verbal expression will clearly limit one’s ability for sometimes exuberant Latino-style expression, if it is not recognised and consciously addressed. Such rigidity in the tools of articulation negatively impacts ability to pronounce intelligibly (like Orientals having difficulty with “RRR” and Anglos with the letter “J”, saying “HHHoasey” instead of “GGGosy”).

Another important debilitating factor is our inhibitions, related to our adult ego-awareness, because we fear making mistakes in front of others. This causes us not to want to practice conversing with others, and we become part of a wallflower syndrome.


The WHAT of becoming proficient in conversation:

The first thing to get right, is mind-set. Your objective should NOT be “I want to learn Spanish” (because that is aimed at acquiring theoretical knowledge about the language). You should consciously decide that “I want to develop the capacity to converse in Spanish” (which entails not only knowing the theory, but the practiced and honed skill of integrating and applying your knowledge in real-world situations). What you want to be, is an accomplished football player, not just a coach potato football rules boffin.

With your objective clearly defined, it is important next to identify the skills and knowledge sets that are essential to develop, in order to acquire the ability to converse in Spanish.  These elements then become the “to do” list of your preparation plan. The ultimate phase will be to add to this “what to do” list, the very important “how to do” component.

What, then, is necessary, in order to be able to actually maintain a conversation in a foreign language? You must firstly have the ability to understand what your interlocutor is saying to you, and secondly you must be able to make yourself understood.

For both understanding and being understood, you first of all need something that actually, for the DELE diploma, is one of its four main oral exam scoring criteria, namely a sufficiently ample “linguistic scope”. This means that you do have to know (i.e., have learnt to the point of having committed to memory and thus have fully internalised) the words, expressions and common “word chunks” making up the lexis of the language, so that you can identify them upon hearing, as well as instantly reproduce them in your own oral expression. This essential knowledge of words and patterns entails knowing the semantics or meaning of words, the phonology or sound of the word, and its morphology or form, the latter signifying the way a particular word is morphed (through conjugation, for example) to convey different meanings.

The second DELE oral exam scoring criteria is “correctness”, meaning correct word selection in terms of semantics, correct pronunciation in terms of phonology, correct morphology (in terms of how you have, for example, conjugated a verb), and correct syntax, relating to how you have strung together word chunks to make phrases and sentences.

The DELE scoring guidelines do emphasize that they are not going to be overly finicky about the theory, as long as comprehension on the part of your listener is not made difficult or impossible by your level of incorrectness. This is, of course, how real conversation in a foreign language actually functions (or doesn’t); your listener can, as an intelligent native speaker, compensate for your small errors of syntax or such things as gender accord, even foe wrong verb conjugation – what he or she cannot compensate for, is if you completely lack the appropriate words to say what you want, or pronounce them so incomprehensibly that your listener’s eyes simply glaze over.

This is to say that, when it comes to the importance of “correctness” in conversation, knowledge of lexis or vocabulary – that is, of the correct word / phrase – and practiced knowledge of how to correctly pronounce it, are significantly more important than knowledge of the “rules” of grammar. In fact, if you are still obliged when you want to say something in Spanish to first try and remember, and then to calculatedly apply these grammar rules in order to mentally construct a phrase before you can utter it, you will have a serious problem in maintaining any kind of conversation. This is the difference between sitting an end-of-school written exam, where you have time to calculate how to apply rules, and real-world conversation, which is an instantaneous give-and-take. Instead of relying on calculated application of rules (which usually signify that you are still thinking in your mother tongue and first have to translate from it) you need to have fully internalized the patterns of Spanish speech (as you had done as a kid, with your mother tongue). Having internalised these patterns, it rolls out correctly almost without conscious thought as to how to say something (thus leaving you free to focus completely on the really important thing, namely the substance of what you want to convey).

The third DELE oral exam scoring criteria is “coherence”.  Are you making sense to your listener? This doesn’t only involve having an ample linguistic scope and being sufficiently correct in terms of your Spanish, but also involves the normal rules of logic in the ordering of your thoughts, just as would apply in your mother tongue. You must be able to structure your discourse logically, for example with clear introduction, a sensible body of substantiation, and a persuasive conclusion. Coherence demands that your mind must be free to give a logical presentational structure to what you want to say, without your mind needing to be overly occupied with the grammar and lexis of how you need to say it. Again, this comes down to having sufficiently internalized the patterns of the language so that you can reproduce it correctly almost without conscious effort, like you do with your mother tongue.  This, in turn, comes down to expertly guided practice, practice, and then more practice.

The last of the four DELE oral exam scoring criteria is “fluency”. In real life, conversation breaks down when there is no fluency – when you have to constantly interrupt your interlocutor because you could not understand something that he/she said, or when you yourself cannot find the right words or correct pronunciation or appropriate syntax to comprehensibly say what you need to say. Once again, if you need to first translate for yourself and do a rules-based calculation of how to say something, then there will be no fluency. You need to have the lexical patterns of Spanish sufficiently internalized. Especially important to the fluent flow of conversation (and also in the DELE scoring) is the appropriate use of link phrases in order to fluently join up different thoughts or sentences – and not end up uttering a disjointed series of unconnected phrases.  You know from conversation in your own language, how important link phrases are – words such as “accordingly”, or “on the other hand” or “as you know” or any of the many such devices that we use to fill blank “think time” between sentences, and to link them together. These are some of the most fixed and most used “word chunks” in the lexis of any language, and knowing these patterns are essential to fluency.

To recap – the what of Spanish that we need to internalize in order to be able to maintain conversation, are the patterns of the language. These are its lexical patterns, of words and word chunks (including their meaning, pronunciation and the patterns for morphing words to signify different meanings in terms of time, number and the like). There are also the patterns of syntax (how words and phrases are strung together to form coherent sentences). This knowledge of patterns we have to internalize, and practice over and over so that we can reproduce it instantaneously without much conscious thought. Without such internalization of the lexical, phonological, morphological, and syntactical patterns of Spanish, you cannot hope to achieve the sufficiently ample linguistic scope, correctness, coherence and fluency that will be required in order to maintain a meaningful and effortless conversation that can focus on substance, rather than constantly succumbing to getting stuck on form.

The HOW of developing the ability to converse in Spanish:

Developing the knowledge and skill sets required to maintain a conversation in Spanish, take place essentially in the same way as you learnt your mother tongue as a child (meaning from toddler to teen), but with certain facilitating and enhancing tools added which toddlers obviously can’t yet access.

snappa_1467742914Learning the patterns: The basic manner in which your Spanish will develop, will be by means of assimilating patterns. You can check with just about any fluent speaker of Spanish as foreign language – they will tell you that they don’t consciously construct sentences based on grammar rules; they speak Spanish the same way as they speak their native English. They do so intuitively and without conscious mental effort, focused on the substance of their message and not on form. They probably will have to do a double take if you start cross-examining them about the intricacies of the morphology or syntax they had just used – the same as you would, if they do the same to you about your native English (you’ll probably respond that you can’t recall why it needs be said that way, but that you know that that’s definitely the way it is).

snappa_1467743277The importance of immersion: To discern patterns, and especially to internalize them in this natural manner, we have to be scanning a vast amount of Spanish. This can only be achieved through immersing yourself in an environment where you regularly hear, see and have to speak Spanish, just as a toddler masters the patterns of his mother tongue over the space of five to six years of such immersion (reaching school-going age, this knowledge and skill for self-expression just get polished, with the patterns he/she already have internalized being clarified and explained, whilst the child continues to benefit from ongoing immersion).

It is therefore evident that any attempt to learn a foreign language with an approach based just on classroom + homework time (i.e., without the addition of immersion and its parallel of adopting a lexical approach), is not going to result in any better performance than the figure of 0.5% reaching conversation ability, as cited earlier.

The relative importance and correct view of grammar: Again, this is not to suggest that formal grammar should or could be substituted. Grammar as we know it is none other than a handy codification of the enduring patterns of a language, as these have been observed over time by qualified linguists.  Using the fruits of their labors will clearly help you identify and understand the patterns a lot quicker than you would be able to do with just your own random observation. The key, however, is mental attitude – you have to study grammar as a very valuable tool, which will help you spot and comprehend the patterns far quicker and easier.  Do not study grammar as if it represents the language as such, as if knowing the “rules” of grammar could or should be – in and of itself – the ultimate objective. Please realize that knowledge of grammar is no more than a convenient crutch in the early phase while you are still hobbling along, whilst not yet having fully internalized the patterns. Just as you did with your English grammar crutch, you will be discarding it, actually forgetting all about it, as soon as you – figuratively speaking – can walk upright with ease and comfort without it.

How many adult native English speakers do you think ever give a moment’s thought to English grammar in their day-to-day conversations?  When last did you, yourself?

Always remember, too, that the language patterns codified under the title of grammar (essentially being word morphology and sentence syntax), are intellectual constructs developed almost organically over ages by communities of humans.  Since grammar “rules” are intellectual constructs, any intelligent man, woman or child can therefore mentally compensate for most errors they hear in your grammar, without losing track of the meaning you are trying to convey. Studying grammar isn’t the be-all and end-all of “learning the language”. It isn’t even the most important part of such learning (as evidenced by the ability of others to mentally compensate for your grammar errors, and how quickly this crutch is discarded from your active consciousness, once you’ve reached fluency). Nevertheless, don’t be mistaken – until you are fluent through having fully internalized these patterns of morphology and syntax, you HAVE TO STUDY YOUR GRAMMAR – but do so selectively, as we will show, and with the right mental attitude, i.e. that it is a valuable cheat sheet of essential patterns.

The most vital aspect that you have to focus on in your active learning isn’t grammar.  It is studying the patterns of lexis.

snappa_1467744394Lexis is your top priority
: By studying lexis is meant acquiring a suitably ample linguistic scope in Spanish for your particular needs (for example, a missionary doctor is clearly going to require a different lexis to a policeman walking the beat in an immigrant neighbourhood). Lexis consists of vocabulary and phonology (i.e., knowing words and their meaning, as well as how to pronounce them) as well as the learning of “word chunks” and common expressions and idioms. The reason why lexis is deemed more important to conversational ability than grammar, is twofold:

  • As was earlier said, to be able to maintain a conversation, you firstly need to comprehend. If you don’t know the meaning of a word or phrase your interlocutor has used, there is no way you can mentally compensate in order to arrive at a correct understanding of what you’re hearing (apart from asking your interlocutor to repeat and explain). It is therefore axiomatic in preparing for the listening and reading comprehension parts of the DELE exam, that “you have to have knowledge of words and the world” (see our earlier blogpost on this subject). This is just another way of underlining the lexical approach, which goes beyond the semantics of any given individual word to include its situational context, as part of a regular pattern of use. If you don’t have adequate lexical knowledge (i.e., knowing the situational meaning of words and phrases that you hear, and knowing enough about phonology to be able to correctly identify which words you are actually hearing), you cannot hope to comprehend much in the course of any given conversation.
  • When expressing yourself orally, lexis is also of vital importance. You have to know the right word or phrase (to the point of not having to search for it), and you have to be able to pronounce it intelligibly. If you don’t readily have the right words and phrases at your disposal, or you cannot pronounce them sufficiently correctly for your interlocutor to be able to identify them, then – even with the best of grammar – there is simply no way that your conversation can blossom because your interlocutor cannot mentally compensate for words that you don’t have and which he cannot divine.  He will be as lost as you are.

At this point it is important to underline that one should have realistic expectations about the time and effort it will require to reach conversational ability in a foreign language such as Spanish. The ACTFL has calculated that, for a student of average aptitude, it will require 480 hours to reach “advanced low” proficiency (A2/B1 level in the European Common Framework such as the DELE diploma). This translates into doing forty hours per week (8 hours per day) for twelve weeks solid. To achieve “advanced high” level (i.e., not yet “superior”) will require 720 hours for the average student. For the superior proficiency level that diplomats and the like require, it is generally thought that 1,000 hours of intensive preparation is necessary.

Read, read, read - there's no better way of internalizing language patterns.

Read, read, read – there’s no better way of internalizing language patterns.

What constitutes immersion, in the internet age? The above does not mean that you have to do 1,000 hours that consist solely of classroom + homework time (we’ve already seen where that gets one!). At DELEhelp we see direct tutorial assistance (one-on-one, via Skype) as comprising just one-third of the time you need to dedicate to developing your proficiency in Spanish. The other two-thirds need to be dedicated to active and passive exposure to Spanish, so that you can become familiar with the patterns in actual use. Immersion doesn’t only signify visiting a Spanish-speaking country and living there for some time.  You can immerse yourself totally in Spanish-language books, films, talk radio and news. This is more focused and productive than merely living in a Spanish-speaking environment, because you can select appropriate themes and you can have your tools at hand, such as for jotting down and looking up new words, and adding these to your flashcard list. This combines the mental awareness of the lexical mind-set with all the other traditional learning tools.

There is no doubt that the more time you invest in reading Spanish, the more you will internalize the lexis and patterns of the language, as well as getting to know the Hispanic cultural context – especially if you have given sufficient attention to your grammar as a great tool for helping you to quickly spot and understand those patterns. Reading has the huge benefit of seeing the words, but you need to hear them as well for the sake of phonology (you therefore have to maintain a balance between listening and reading). For this reason, the Spanish telenovela (TV soapy) is a great learning tool, especially those that have subtitles for the hard of hearing, so that you can see and hear the word, and also see its situational context playing out on screen.

In any event, whenever you read, read out loud – this provides good practice to your “articulation tools” to adapt themselves to the Spanish sound system, in the privacy of your own home and thus without any risk to your ego. Better still: tape yourself reading out loud, so that you can pick up your pronunciation errors – you will be surprised how different we all sound in reality, as opposed to how we imagine we sound!

Luckily, such “home immersion” in Spanish is nowadays a free option, thanks to the internet.  You don’t have to go live in a Hispanic country anymore (if you don’t want to, that is).  Check out this DELEhelp blogpost for a host of links to free sites, ranging from streamed talk radio, through the major Hispanic print press to free e-books and telenovelas. One needs to differentiate between active learning (such as working on your flashcard lists and memorizing them, or doing homework exercises in grammar, in reading comprehension or writing) and passive immersion. The latter can form part of your relaxation, like reading a book in Spanish (if you are a beginner, look for dual text books that have Spanish on one page and the English on the opposite). Every possible minute that you can have Spanish talk radio streaming live, or the TV running telenovelas in the background, is useful – even if you can’t really concentrate on their content, you will pick up phonology as well as words, phrases and patterns. Knowing how kids learn, you shouldn’t underestimate the value of this.

One of the great killers of people’s ambition to master a foreign language, is frustration (next to boredom, especially if they just do grammar exercises!). Frustration can really grow very quickly if grammar mastery is (wrongly) seen as the be-all and end-all of gaining proficiency in Spanish.  You may know, for instance, that every Spanish verb can literally be conjugated into 111 different forms, given the number of different moods and tenses in Spanish. If you get stuck on the idea that you absolutely have to memorize each and all of these 111 possibilities in order to be able to converse, the task will seem so daunting that very few will not become frustrated.

snappa_1467744793Develop your own style of speaking that’s natural and comfortable for you: Here’s another tip – each of us, no matter our language, have a particular own style of speaking that we’re comfortable with.  We don’t use all the possible tenses in normal conversation (as some writers may do in penning high literature).  Similarly, when conversing in Spanish, you don’t need to have all 111 conjugation options rolling fluently off your tongue. This is especially true in the beginning, while you are still internalizing the basic patterns of Spanish.

What you can do, is to concentrate, for the purpose of speaking, on mastering the present, the idiomatic future and the perfect past tense of the Indicative mood.  If you can conjugate these three tenses well, any interlocutor will be able to understand which time-frame you are referring to.  These three tenses correspond very well to the way you are accustomed to use tenses in English, because both the idiomatic future and the perfect past in Spanish are compound tenses, using auxiliary verbs (just like in English, which also use compounds with auxiliary verbs to indicate past and future – auxiliaries like “shall” and “have”).

This way of speaking is in fact becoming more common in Spanish, so you won’t be regarded as weird – in the Americas, for example, the idiomatic future tense (futuro idiomatico) is already used exclusively, in place of the traditional conjugated future tense (the idiomatic future tense is constructed by conjugating the verb “ir” + a + the infinitive of the action verb: voy a comer – I am going to eat).  For the idiomatic future tense, you only need to learn the present indicative conjugation of one verb, namely “ir”.

The Spanish perfect past tense (perfecto de Indicativo) is constructed with the present indicative conjugation of the verb “haber” + the past participle of the action verb: he comido – I have eaten. The use of the perfecto de Indicativo for indicating the past is becoming more and more common in general use such as in journalistic Spanish, in Spain in particular; so again – you will not be frowned upon or thought a dunce. Because it resembles the way English is constructed, it will come easier to you – also since there is only one conjugation to memorize. (We must emphasize, though, that this approach works for when you yourself are speaking, but because you cannot control the tenses that your interlocutor may choose to use, you have to have sufficient knowledge of the other tenses to at least be able to recognize them, otherwise you may not comprehend what you are hearing or reading;  in any event, it is much easier getting acquainted with something to the point of being able to recognize it when used by others, as opposed the level to active learning that’s needed for the purpose of own speech, which demands full internalization to enable real-time application).

For proficiency at conversation, you have to practice speaking (and be guided / corrected): The immersion that we referred to above, needs to go beyond you absorbing written and spoken Spanish. To acquire the skill and confidence to maintain a conversation, you have to have guided practice in speaking. This is often a problem for a home-study student living in an environment where there are few speaking opportunities.  Again, though, the internet comes to the rescue, in the form of Skype and its equivalents. Such online tuition and interaction is actually better than what most classroom tuition situations can offer. In the typical classroom you are part of a group, dragged down by the lowest common denominator and by methodologies and curricula that of necessity are generalized, without focus on your particular needs.  One-on-one tuition at a residential institution is prohibitively expensive (the actual private tuition itself is very costly, and then you have to add travel and accommodation costs, plus the opportunity cost of being away from work or business). On the other hand, such one-on-one, personalized tuition based on an individualized study plan that’s custom-designed just for your needs and aptitudes, presented via Skype, is very affordable (at DELEhelp, for example, we charge only US$10 per hour of actual Skype tuition, which includes our free in-house study materials as well as our prep time and the time we spend revising your homework and model exam answers; there are no hidden costs).

The great benefit of having your own expert, experienced online tutor (apart from the low cost and the convenience of studying in the comfort of your own home) is that you have someone you can speak to, who will know how to correct and guide you. A relationship of confidence soon develops, so that the natural inhibitions of ego fall away and you can really freely practice to speak. We have already mentioned the vital importance of pronunciation – it is clearly very difficult to perfect this if you don’t have a live human being listening to you and guiding you (no matter what the computer-based interactive packages may claim about their pronunciation software).  It is also true that interactive computer packages can tell you if you are answering correctly or incorrectly, in relation to simple things like vocabulary, but can they explain to you? Obviously not.

A useful free supplement for speech practice is the online student exchange, such as iTALKi. This works on the basis that you are connected with a native speaker of your target language, who in turn wants to learn your native language. Of every hour spent with him/her on Skype, you are supposed to speak your target language for 30 minutes while your exchange partner corrects and guides you, and then you switch roles, with you correcting his/her efforts at conversing in English. This is a supplementary resource, because it will at least give you opportunity to practice speaking. The extent to which your exchange partner will really be able to explain things to you, is a matter of pure chance. Take yourself as example – you may well be able to point out to your exchange partner when they make a mistake, and give an example of the right way to say something, but how good is your current recollection of English morphology, syntax and semantics, for really explaining to him/her when they are confounded by something? Nevertheless, the exchange forums are a valuable supplementary resource, and they’re free.

Getting over the ego / fear of failure barrier: A last tip with regard to speaking practice, concerns the barrier in the adult psyche constituted by our natural fear of making a fool of ourselves in front of others.  This is perfectly normal, and its inhibiting power is great. There are three distinct ways of overcoming this barrier.  The first is to build a relationship of comfort with a trusted tutor, as I mentioned earlier. Another is to get objective proof of your proficiency in the form of certification, such as the gold standard DELE diploma of the Spanish education ministry. This knowledge that you’ve proven that: “yes, I can!” will boost your self-confidence no end.

A third option (which can be integrated with the first) is to create a situation where you, John Smith, aren’t making the mistakes – somebody else is, so it’s no skin off your nose. This approach, which is called suggestopedia, was originally developed in the 1970’s by a Bulgarian psychotherapist by the name of Georgi Lozanov. What it entails, is that John Smith will, for example, arrive at the diplomatic academy, where he will immediately be given a new identity related to his target language – he will become Pedro Gonzalez, a journalist from Mexico City with a passion for football and politics, and an entire back story that John Smith has created for his Pedro identity. All his fellow students and tutors will know John Smith as Pedro, and interact with him as such. This has the benefit of taking John’s ego out of play, plus the benefit of freeing him up to adopt a Latino persona, so that he can escape from his unilingual Anglo cultural and phonological straightjacket and learn to articulate (and gesticulate) like a true Latino.  Suggestopedia isn’t the answer to all the methodological challenges of learning a foreign language – it is simply another tool, to be used in conjunction with others. I have seen its effectiveness during my days as head of South Africa’s diplomatic academy (during the transition years to full democracy, before I became ambassador for the New South Africa of President Mandela). I’ve also seen it at DELEhelp – one remarkable fellow really got into the swing of things, designing for himself an identity as a Mexican footballer (soccer player) and every time sitting himself down in front of the Skype camera with his enormous sombrero on his head, dressed in his club soccer shirt and with a glass of tequila in his hand. It wasn’t difficult for him to really get into his new character, which completely freed him of his unilingual Anglo mould and assisted him enormously in mastering the articulation of Spanish phonology in no time.  If you think it can work for you, give it a try!


This has been quite a long blog post, but I believe the importance of the subject merits such substantive treatment. Obviously much more can be said. So, if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to drop me a line – I will do my best to answer, and like everything associated with this blog, my answer will be free and without implying any obligation on your part. You can use the convenient contact form on this page to send me your questions.

click on image to ask for free workbook

Please ask for our FREE DELEhelp Workbook #9 (DELE / SIELE Exam Orientation and Acing Tips) an e-book of some 96 pages; it is a free sample of our in-house study materials, developed especially for English-speakers.  Ask for this unique DELE exam preparation book using our convenient contact information form (click on image), and I will send the download link to you, gratis and with no obligation.

You can also ask for our FREE exploratory one hour Skype session, in English with myself, in which I will explain the exams such as the DELE / SIELE and OPI, plus our 1-on-1, personalized coaching methods and answer all your questions (you can use the same contact info form to set up the exploratory Skype session).

Good luck with practicing to improve your Spanish conversation skills! (It is expertly guided PRACTICE that makes perfect).

Saludos cordiales


Spanish History is part of the DELE Exam Curriculum

Spanish history is part of the DELE exam curriculum

The DELE exam’s curriculum doesn’t consist only of grammar – Spanish history is part of the DELE exam curriculum. It is required that students should have a basic knowledge of the history of the Spanish language, and of Spain and the Hispanic world. Just as with grammar, candidates will not be tested directly on such knowledge in the exam.  The DELE exam, after all, is concerned with your ability to apply knowledge, rather than simply possessing theoretical knowledge. The exam tests practical, real-world ability to communicate, in writing and speech. But communication is not only about expressing yourself. It is also about comprehending. Just as you need to know vocabulary in order to understand, you also need to know cultural context, if you really want to catch all the nuances.  That is where knowledge of Hispanic history, social norms, and traditions, as well as of their culture in general comes in – and that is why these topics are included in the curriculum of the examen DELE.

In this blogpost I will give you a brief overview of how Spain came to adopt a dialect from its far north, called castellano (Castilian), as its national language. There are other regional languages spoken in other parts of Spain, such as Galician, Basque, and Catalan. The Spanish constitution stipulates that these languages have concurrent official status, together with Castilian, in their respective autonomous regions.  Native speakers of these regional tongues prefer the term castellano for what non-Spaniards commonly call Spanish, since they consider their own languages to be equally “Spanish”. The Spanish Constitution of 1978 uses the term castellano to define the official language of the whole Spanish State, and calls the regional languages las demás lenguas españolas (lit. the rest of the Spanish languages).

The Spanish Royal Academy, by contrast, uses the term español. Its official dictionary states that, although the Academy prefers to use español when referring to the national language in its publications, the terms español and castellano are regarded as synonymous and equally valid.

The Spanish Royal Academy Dictionary attributes the origin of the name español to the word espaignol, and that in turn comes from the Medieval Latin word Hispaniolus, meaning ‘from—or pertaining to—Hispania’. Other authorities attribute it to a supposed medieval Latin *hispaniōne, with the same meaning. It is said (but not proven) that “hispania” derives from the Phoenician word that means “land of rabbits” (which is the reason behind the banner image of this post).

In the following sections you will see why it is that Spanish history is part of the DELE exam curriculum, even if you are not going to be directly tested on it:  having knowledge of the cultural background, will help you with comprehending the situational meaning of words and expressions in their societal context.

Indo-European Pre-History and the Dynamics of Language Evolution

At its root, modern Spanish derives from a common language spoken around 5,000 – 3700 before the Common Era over much of what is today Europe and the Indus Valley in India. This Proto-Indo-European language (PIE) is the common ancestor of the most important modern Indo-European languages (although in Europe and on the Iberian Peninsula other languages not related to PIE do exist, such as Basque). It is believed that PIE may have originally been spoken as a single language (before divergence began) by people living between the Vistula River in Poland and the Caucuses mountains to the East. More precisely, it may have been centered in the Anatolian region of present-day Turkey.  The languages derived from PIE show clear inter-relationship in the roots of verbs and in their grammar. These languages include the old Indian language Sanskrit and classical Greek and Latin. The Indo-European language family today consists of seven main branches:

  • Germanic (German, English, Dutch, Afrikaans, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish) have some 440 million mother-tongue speakers;
  • Indic ( Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Romany – 378M);
  • Slavic (Russian, Czech, Slovak, Slovene, Serbo-Croat, Polish, Bulgarian – 250M);
  • Iranian (Farsi, Kurdish – 73M);
  • Celtic (Welsh, Irish, Breton – (12M);
  • Hellenic (Greek –  10M); and
  • Romance (Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, Galician, French, Romanian and Swiss-Romansch, which together is the most numerous branch at some 670M native speakers).

PIE MapAlmost counter-intuitively, PIE was not a structurally simple, “primitive” language at all, but in fact a hugely complex one – much more so than modern languages such as Spanish, which have undergone significant simplification over the millennia. For example, PIE used three numbers (singular, dual and plural – as opposed to two in Spanish, singular and plural). PIE also used more moods (“mood” relates to the “state of mind” of the speaker; the mood  determines which set of verb terminations to employ when conjugating verbs, such as the imperative mood for giving commands). In modern Spanish everything related to actions that are uncertain, irreal, or that reflect wishes, fears, desires etc., are subsumed into one mood, the subjunctive. PIE, on the other hand, used the subjunctive only for the irrealis, and another mood (with its own conjugations), the optative, for wishes, desires, fears etc. PIE thus had a complex system of morphology. Nouns used a sophisticated system of declension and verbs used a similarly sophisticated system of conjugation.

Guy Deutscher, in “The Unfolding of Language: an evolutionary tour of mankind’s greatest invention” describes how all languages are in “perpetual motion”. We, the people, continuously adapt them. The more people there are speaking a language, especially in a diverse, fast-moving, geographically-spread social environment, the more change there will be. This is because we “cook up” languages, and the more cooks we have, the more variations to the recipe (if your family has no outside contact, you will make and eat tamales like your grandma made them, and so will your great-grandchildren). Therefore, the more primitive, slow to evolve, small in number and limited in space a society of language users is, the more complex and regular (i.e., unchanged over time) the language structure is likely to be – as is well demonstrated by PIE.

All languages continuously suffer the ravages of forces seemingly of destruction, but which at the same time serve also as forces of creation.  The more we live in accelerated time, using a language that is open to impacts from a wide circle, the more marked the evolution of the language will be. An example is the lot that befell the Classical Latin of the Roman elites, from the start of empire in 29BCE, when “Vulgar” Latin – which had always existed side-by-side with Classical Latin – increasingly replaced it to become the official form (“vulgar” here means “common” or of “the people”, this being the language spoken by the general populace and in the colonies).  Classical Latin eventually retained only its written status, mostly in the Roman-Catholic Church. That function, as language of written record, was eventually superseded by the modern regional evolutions of Vulgar Latin, what we call today the Romance languages. Examples of these regional evolutions of Vulgar Latin are French and Spanish, which started appearing in print in the 9th century.

Such evolution is universal, as can be seen also in English (another eventual imperial language with a wide foot-print). A good example is the different versions of the English Bible over time:

1000CE – me ofthingth sothlice thæt ic hi worthe

1400CE – forsothe it othenkith me to haue maad hem

1600CE – for it repenteth me that I haue made them

2000CE – because I regret having made them

A thousand years ago English still had a complex case and gender system, while now it has practically none:

Singular                                                                                  Plural

thæt wæter (the water)                                               tha wæter-u (the waters)

tham wæter-e (to the water)                                     tham wæter-um (to the waters)

thæs wæter-es (of the water)                                    thara wæter-a (of the waters)

An example of remnant impact of gender is the plural of “ox” namely “oxen” – not “oxes” on the pattern of “boxes” – because ox was of the feminine gender and feminine nouns originally ended in the plural on “-en” and not on “-es”.

In fact, English has some 200 irregular verbs, and many more if we add the prefixed forms. The 12 most frequently used verbs in English are all irregular. Irregular verbs – whether in English or Spanish – are not indicative of a language that has stagnated, but of quite the opposite:  they speak of dynamic evolution of the broader language.

Inevitably, in most living languages grammatical structure does change, vocabulary adapts, pronunciation comes to sound very different over time, but more often than not spelling seems to lag behind (because, unlike the free-wheeling spoken language, spelling has for some time now been governed by conventions dictated by committees and enforced in schools). As Deutscher observes: “…one could easily fall under the impression that for some reason changes in (English) pronunciation came to an abrupt halt after 1611. But this is just an illusion… And it is precisely for this reason that English spelling is so infamously irrational…  it is unfair to say that English spelling is not an accurate rendering of speech. It is – it’s only that it renders the speech of the sixteenth century.”

With Spanish also being an imperial language spoken in far-flung parts, the process of simplification and transformation is already in evidence in Latin America, where the “vosotros” form has been discarded and where the future tense is now exclusively constructed idiomatically with “ir+ the infinitive, instead of using the regular Spanish conjugated future tense.

Humans make language, and linguists now know that humans are inherently lazy and quirky – always prone to taking short-cuts, seeking pronunciations that are easier on the tongue, cultivating dramatic effect by using established words in counter-intuitive manner (like “cool”) yet also prone to following fashion and thereby giving impetus and acceptance to such fads. By these means humans are constantly destroying the old and creating afresh. Far from being abhorrent, this is essential to the vitality and continued serviceability of languages. Humans are also prone to ordaining and structuring, to migrating and colonizing – the effect of which, on language, is well demonstrated by the linguistic history of the Iberian Peninsula.

It is only half-jokingly said that the difference between a dialect and a language, is that the latter had an army and a navy behind it.

CLICK on IMAGE to visit our website

Romance / Latin / Italic roots of Modern Spanish

The modern Romance languages (such as Italian, Castilian, Catalan, French and Romanian) form a subfamily of the Indo-European language family. The Romance languages all derive from Vulgar Latin, which co-existed with classical Latin in the Roman Empire. Latin was an Italic language (i.e., Italic referring to the now extinct languages stemming from PIE that were spoken in the Italian peninsula, such as the Latin variants, plus Umbrian, Oscan and Faliscan). Vulgar Latin’s latter-day daughter languages, the Romance languages which took root in the old Roman Empire, are the only survivors of the original Italic languages.

Vulgar Latin (in Latin, sermo vulgaris or sermo pleibus; in English literally “common speech”) was the spoken language of the working class, traders and soldiers who colonized the empire for Rome. Classical Latin was the schooled, written language of the ruling Roman elite. The two forms co-existed side-by-side during the Roman heyday.  As Ralph Penny points out in “A History of the Spanish Language” this is illustrated by words such as those for horse, which in Classical Latin was “equus” (thus equestrian sports) but in modern Spanish is caballo, in French is cheval, in Italian cavallo, and in Portuguese cavalo – from the generic term for horse in Vulgar Latin, caballus, which in Classical Latin would strictly mean a “nag” or “work-horse”.

Linguistic History of Iberia before the domination of Spanish (Castilian)

The modern Spanish language’s Vulgar Latin seeds were brought to the Iberian Peninsula by the common Roman soldiers and colonists at the beginning of the Second Punic War between Rome and Cathage in 209 BCE.  Prior to that time, several pre-Roman languages (also called Paleohispanic languages), which were unrelated to Latin were spoken in the Iberian Peninsula. These languages included Basque (still spoken today, and unrelated to Indo-European), Iberian, and Celtiberian.

The early Iberians left few traces of their language in modern Spanish: Some of these words are: arroyo (small stream), barro (mud), cachorro (puppy), charco (puddle), gordo (fat), García (family name), perro (dog), manteca (lard), sapo (toad), tamo (chaff).

Toward the end of the sixth century before the Common Era (BCE), a nomadic tribe from central Europe known as the Celts moved into the area and mixed with the peninsula’s then inhabitants, the Iberians. The result was a new people called the Celtiberians, and they spoke a form of the Celtic language.  Most of the Celtic words remaining today in Spanish have to do with material things, and with hunting or war. For example: carro (cart), cama (bed), braga (panties, from the typical breeches the Celts wore), camino (road), camisa (shirt), cerveza (beer), flecha (arrow), lanza (lance).

Most of the words of Greek origin found in modern-day Spanish do not come from the pre-Roman period of small-scale Greek colonization along the Spanish Mediterranean coast. They were actually introduced into the Vulgar Latin language later by the Romans adopting from Greek, or were adopted from Greek even later by the Spanish themselves during the post-Middle Ages, to fill the need for scientific terminology. Most of these words refer to education, science, art, culture and religion, like matemática (mathematics), telegrafía (telegraphy), botánica (botany), física (physics), gramática (grammar), poema (poem), drama (drama), Obispo (bishop), bautizar (baptize), and angel (angel).

The Phoenicians – a Semitic, seafaring nation originally from the coast of present-day Lebanon and Syria – founded the city of Carthage on the North African coast (in present-day Tunisia) around a thousand years before the Common Era. By 500BCE, Carthage had evolved into a Mediterranean superpower. During the sixth century BCE the Carthaginians responded to a Tartessian (Iberian tribe) attack on the Phoenician city of Gadir. During this campaign the Carthaginians invaded the Iberian Peninsula and subjugated the Tartessians. The Carthaginians then went on to establish port cities in Iberia, such as Carthago Nova. Meanwhile, Rome had started to emerge as a substantial power in Italy, although its military might had been essentially land-based, as opposed to the maritime strength of Carthage. Inevitably the two powers began to clash, in what became known in the Roman world as the Punic wars.

The first war started in 264BCE, when the Carthaginians engaged an ever-expanding Rome in order to retain Carthaginian control over the island of Sicily. Carthage lost, but wasn’t eliminated as rival power. In 218BCE, the Carthaginians provoked the second Punic war, trying to recover territories that they had lost to the Romans during the first war. As part of this second war the famous Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca invaded Italy, via Spain, crossing the Alps with his elephants and Spanish mercenaries. His brother Amilcar Barca remained in Spain (the city of Barcelona derives its name from its Barca founder).

snappa_1466796034Desperate to force the marauding Hannibal to quit Italy, the brilliant young Roman general Scipio Africanus decided as counter-strategy to cut Hannibal’s supply lines by invading Iberia.  He first attacked New Carthage, which he rapidly conquered. Under Scipio’s inspired leadership the Roman Empire systematically took control of the peninsula, and then invaded North Africa itself (landing in modern-day Libya) at last forcing Hannibal to leave Italy in order to defend his homeland. Scipio went on to decisively defeat Hannibal in 202BCE at Zama in North Africa. This assured Roman hegemony in the Mediterranean and consequently in Iberia – where the Romans forthwith imposed their language. Vulgar Latin became the dominant spoken language of the peninsula, and from it, modern Spanish evolved – but not without some considerable twists and turns, as will be shown below.

It is also very noteworthy that Latinisms in Spanish don’t derive only from the early Roman root stage in its history. After the founding of written Spanish in the 9th century, the modern language very often, throughout the centuries, found itself in need of words to depict the non-material aspects of life. For these it then borrowed abundantly from Latinisms (exactly as did most other modern European languages at the time).  It is said that some 20% to 30% of modern Spanish vocabulary stem from such later borrowing.

The Visigoths invaded Hispania during the fourth century of the Common Era. They were a Germanic tribe originally from eastern Europe, but which had earlier entered Rome, where they had lived under Roman rule. Around the year 415CE they entered Gaul and Hispania and expelled the other eastern European barbarian tribes (such as the Vandals) that had settled in the area. Initially the Visigoths were Roman foederati (i.e., a treaty tribe), but they soon broke with the Roman Empire and, after being expelled from Gaul by the Francs, they established their dominion through most of the Iberian Peninsula, with their capital at Toledo. They did not have any great cultural impact, though, firstly because they were small in number (some 200,000 vs. several million Ibero-Romans), and secondly because their Gothic culture was significantly different and seen as barbaric and repulsive. Another contributing factor was that, by the time they entered Hispania, the Visigoths had themselves become in many ways Romanized. It was the Visigoth king Reccared 1st who converted the Hispanic monarchy to Roman Catholicism from around 589 CE, cementing the position of Latin due to the church’s inextricable links to that language.

The Goths themselves thus left no lasting linguistic imprint on Spanish. It is interesting, though, that – during the Latin-American wars of independence against Spain – it was common for te Hispano-Americans to refer derogatorily to peninsular Spaniards as Godos (thus illustrating the negative way the Goths were likely perceived through the ages).  Indirectly, the fact that the Visigoths had established their capital at Toledo on the central meseta (which endowed that city with a lasting status) in later years benefited the rise to prominence of the Castilian language, when Castile gained prestige among the ranks of Northern Iberian principalities by reconquering Toledo from the Moors.

At different times during its evolution, Iberian Vulgar Latin and later Spanish, also borrowed words from Germanic languages, such as yelmo (helmet), tregua (truce), robar (to steal/rob), jardín (garden), guiar (to guide), ganso (goose), banco (bench), banda (group – of soldiers etc.).

When we take into account that both English and Spanish borrowed from Greek and Latin, and that both English and Spanish share an Indo-European origin, it is no surprise that the two languages actually have near 40% of their vocabulary in common. Pronunciation of these cognate words does vary, as does spelling, particularly the word terminations used. But these terminations actually follow very clear patterns of conversion between the two languages. When you know these fixed patterns for transforming the cognate words from one language into the other, it actually becomes easy to anticipate how such familiar English cognate words will appear in Spanish, and vice versa – and you will have a sizeable instant vocabulary.

Iberia under the Moors

Iberia under the Moors

Arabic-speaking Moors from North Africa conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula from around 718CE. During this Islamic occupation, many of the country’s residents learned Arabic and eventually spoke it exclusively, but Vulgar Latin survived in certain northern kingdoms (such as Asturias) still governed by Christians, as well as among the Mozarabes (the Christians remaining in al-Andalus under Moorish governance, but who were allowed under Islamic law to retain their Catholic religion, due to also being “children of the book”). The Roman-Catholic church exclusively used Latin as language, and was also the font and protector of the written word in the education of the small Christian elites and in church liturgy and correspondence.

The Muslim conquest was at its height under the caliphate of Córdoba, which had united the Muslim lands in Iberia under central reign and elevated the city of Córdoba to Europe’s foremost seat of enlightenment, tolerance and learning. However, the Umayyad royal lineage was usurped by the regent Al-Mansur after the death of al-Hakam II in 976CE. Lacking own royal credentials, Al-Mansur harkened to populists and fundamentalist Muslims to strengthen his power base, and although he attained fame as a successful military commander, Al-Mansur’s campaigns (especially the burning of the iconic cathedral of Santiago Apostol) incentivized the Christian domains of the North of Iberia to fight back, united and ever more vigorously, under what was to become the enduring Spanish war cry of “for Santiago”.

snappa_1466796270After Al-Mansur’s death the central reign of Córdoba over Al-Andalus fell apart, with the Muslim lands splintering into taifas or small separate kingdoms. Coupled with the rise of Muslim intolerance and repression of the indigenous Christians, the table was set for the warrior clans from the north to exact their revenge and re-conquer the whole of the Iberian Peninsula, which they systematically did over the following centuries, culminating in the fall of Granada on the 2nd of January in the eventful year of 1492.

Many Arabic words have, however, entered into Spanish. Today, modern Spanish has approximately 4,000 words with Arabic roots. Most of these words are related to war, agriculture, science and the home, like tambor (drum), alférez (ensign), acicates (spur), acequia (canal, drain), aljibe (cistern, reservoir), alcachofa (artichoke), alfalfa (alfalfa), algodón (cotton), alcoba (bedroom), azotea (flat roof), algoritmo (algorithm), alquimia (alchemy), alcohol (alcohol). The influence of Arabic on Spanish was only on the lexicon (i.e., vocabulary); Spanish did not incorporate any Arabic phonemes into its phonological system. An interesting aspect of the Arabisms in Spanish (which are mostly nouns), is their tendency to start with “al”. This is due to confusion caused among the Vulgar Latins by the very different nature of the Semitic and Latin languages when it comes to the definite article (i.e, “the”). In Arabic the definite article al is invariable in respect of gender and number (thus, always al) whereas in Spanish it is very much variable (el, la, los, las – depending on gender and number). This caused the Iberians to adopt the Arabic noun together with its (fixed) definite article: in Arabic  alfalfal therefore means “the falfal” (the lucerne field), whereas the Spanish “el alfalfal” would literally mean “the the falfal (lucerne) field”.

The rise of Castile and the Castilian language

The leading force among the Christian principalities of extreme northern Spain in what today is called the Reconquista was Asturias, the north-western redoubt beyond the Cantabrian mountains, whose leaders became known as the kings of Leon (today, the crown prince of Spain still bears the formal title of Prince of Asturias). In this rugged, far-off part of Spain, Romanization had been less intense, and it had also most successfully resisted Visigoth hegemony.  As stated diplomatically by David Pharies: “The inhabitants of this region probably learn a somewhat simplified Latin … The Romance vernacular that arises from this Latin then evolves without the benefit of a strong learned tradition.” This is echoed by Penny: “…Spanish has its geographical roots in … an area remote from the centres of economic activity and cultural prestige in Roman Spain, which was latinized fairly late, and where the Latin spoken must consequently have been particularly remote from the prestige norm (that is, particularly ‘incorrect’)…”

In the tenth century, for the first time, there is reference to the region of the upper Ebro Valley as “Castilla”, the land of the many castles, referring to the numerous fortresses that had been constructed in those parts to safeguard Leon against Muslim attacks. Castile became an independent county in 981CE, and was recognized as a separate Christian kingdom in 1004CE.  Castile truly came to the fore through its conquest in 1085CE of Toledo, the old Visigoth capital of Spain, followed by its part (together with Aragon and Navarre) in the pivotal battle of Navas de Tolosa in 1212CE, which effectively broke Muslim military might in Iberia.

snappa_1466811678As the Moors were driven south, Vulgar Latin once again became the dominant language of Iberia, especially its variant the Castilian dialect. In 1230 Castile absorbed Leon and in 1236 its forces took Córdoba, the erstwhile capital of the Moslem Caliphate – another prestige-enhancing feat. By the middle of the 13th century, after the region of Murcia was re-conquered by the then king of Castile and León, King Alfonso X (who was called “El Sabio” – the wise or learned king), the Castilian language had gained pre-eminence among the Vulgar Latin dialects in Iberia. With large parts of Spain now under his rule, Alfonso X began moving the country toward adopting a standardized language based on the Castilian dialect. He and his court of scholars adopted the city of Toledo, the old cultural center in the central highlands, as the base of their activities. There, scholars wrote original works in Castilian and translated histories, chronicles, and scientific, legal, and literary works from other languages (principally Latin, Greek, and Arabic). Indeed, this historic effort of translation was a major vehicle for the dissemination of knowledge throughout ancient Western Europe. Alfonso X decreed that Castilian be used in his realm for all official documents and other administrative work.

In 1469 another important event in Spanish history took place. Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile married, and united the two main kingdoms of the Peninsula under one monarchy. They also decreed Castilian to be the official language of the realm. This set in motion the creation of the Kingdom of Spain, and the beginning of the modern era in the region.

Columubus brings Castilian to the Americas - 1492

Columbus brings Castilian to the Americas – 1492

In 1492 Columbus took the flag of Castile to the Americas, and thus was born the far-flung Spanish empire. It should be noted, however, that Castilian was most influential in shaping the Spanish spoken in the Americas near its seats of administrative power. In these regional capitals (located mostly in highland areas, such as Mexico City, Antigua Guatemala, Bogota) the dominant influence was from court officials, clergy and academics sent there – they were educated, from Madrid and the north of Spain, and were steeped in Castilian.

When looking more broadly at the type of Spanish spoken in the Americas, it is evident that the dialect typically spoken in Spain’s south-western port city of Seville (then Spain’s largest and wealthiest city, with a monopoly on trade with the Americas) and in the Canary Islands (closely related to the western Andalusian Spanish of the region around Seville, and influential as way-station towards the Americas) significantly shaped the Spanish of the lowlands and the parts of America further removed from the seats of the Castilian-speaking bureaucracy.

Most of the common settlers and soldiers, and especially the women who colonized the Americas were from the poor, less educated regions of the south-west (Andalusia and the Canary Islands)  and their speech quite naturally influenced the areas where they settled, which were often remote from the seats of learning comfortably ensconced on the cooler highlands.  This has given rise to the distinct modern-day speech divergence between Spanish as spoken in the American lowlands and in the highlands – with the lowland variant being more informal, rapid-fire and for example tending not to pronounce the “s”. A common heritage from Canarian / western Andalusian Spanish across all of the Americas, is the fact that ustedes is used without contrast between second-person-plural formal and informal – in clear distinction to the Castilian norm of differentiating.

Another typical speech characteristic distinguishing the Spanish of the Americas from that of Iberia, is the use in the Americas of the “idiomatic” (compounded) future tense construct of ir + verb infinitive, instead of the simple future tense and its conjugations.

The Codification of Spanish Grammar

The Gramática de la Lengua Castellana, by Elio Antonio de Nebrija (written in Salamanca in 1492 – the year of the fall of Granada and the discovery of the Americas by Columbus), has the distinction of having been the first grammar handbook ever written for a modern European language. (Similarly, Don Quijote by Miguel de Cervantes was the first ever novel written in a modern European language). According to a popular anecdote, when Nebrija presented his handbook to Queen Isabella I, she asked him what was the use of such a work. He answered that language is the instrument of empire – as he also wrote in his introduction to the grammar, dated August 18, 1492 “… language was always the companion of empire.”


Very importantly, Nebrija’s first dictum in his handbook was that Spaniards should write (i.e., spell & apply grammar) as they speak, and speak as they write.  Thanks in no small measure to this early stance, Spanish is today fortunate to have easy-to-learn spelling that largely follows the pronunciation of words.

The Real Academia Española (English: Royal Spanish Academy), generally abbreviated as RAE, was founded in 1713.  It is the official royal institution responsible for overseeing the Spanish language. The RAE is based in Madrid, Spain, but is affiliated with national language academies in twenty-one other hispanophone nations through the Association of Spanish Language Academies. The RAE’s motto is “Limpia, fija y da esplendor” (“[it] cleans, sets, and gives splendor”). The RAE dedicates itself to promoting linguistic unity within and between the various Hispanic territories of the world, to ensure a common standard in accordance with Article 1 of its founding charter: “… to ensure the changes that the Spanish language undergoes … do not break the essential unity it enjoys throughout the Spanish-speaking world.”

Quite naturally there are variations in the spoken Spanish of the various regions of Spain, as well as variations throughout the Spanish-speaking areas of the Americas. In Spain, northern dialects are popularly thought of as being closer to the desired standard, although positive attitudes toward southern dialects have increased significantly in the last 50 years. Even so, the speech of Madrid is the standard variety for use on radio and television, and is the variety that has most influenced the written standard for Spanish. There is, however, no notion that any variation originating from, for example, the Americas, is “wrong”. (Consequently, the DELE / SIEL / OPIc exam tests comprehension of all kinds of Spanish accents, and there is NO SINGLE PREFERRED or more “CORRECT” FORM OF SPANISH FOR EXPRESSING YOURSELF IN THES  TESTS – i.e., you do not have to try and speak / sound like a Madrileño!).

I hope that you have seen now the reasoning behind why Spanish history is part of the DELE exam curriculum. For a better idea of how the rest of the DELE exam curriculum is composed, ask for our FREE in-house Workbook #9 “DELE / SIELE Exam Orientation and Acing Tips“. It is an e-book of some 96 pages, which I would be happy to send you free, as a sample of our study material. Just send me your e-mail address with our convenient contact information form by clicking on the image below (this entails no obligation to register for coaching with us).

Good luck with your exam preparation!



click on image to ask for free workbook


How the DELE exam oral is scored

Explaining how the DELE exam oral is scored

Do you know how the DELE exam oral is scored? (And the oral of the DELE’s new online twin, the SIELE, or its American equivalent, the OPIc?). What criteria do examiners use? What does a failed effort actually sound like, compared to a candidate who passed? If you don’t know what the examiners are looking for, how can you effectively prepare?

We’ll give you the answers to these questions, and more.

Your result will be certified as being at a certain level of competency at expressing yourself orally in Spanish. You already know that there are six such levels for the DELE diploma exams,  starting at A1 and A2, up through B1 and B2 to C1 and the top C2. The SIELE follows the same curriculum and scoring criteria, but only goes up to C1. Your OPI (Oral Proficiency Interview) score can be expressed i.t.o. this same European scoring system (i.e., according to the 6 levels A1 > C2 just like the DELE), or the OPI certificate can be issued i.t.o. of the ACTFL / Inter-agency Round Table scoring system, which is slightly more detailed, but which follows the same principles.

Discussing how the DELE exam oral is scored at each particular level would be just too much for one blog post. Therefore I’ve chosen to focus here on DELE Level B1, because it’s midway in the range.  The different levels of the examen DELE, the SIELE and the OPI are all marked in basically the same manner, with just increased grades of difficulty and scope between them. Most of the assessment methodology is generic to all levels, with the assessment simply becoming more stringent. Whether you are doing A1 or C2, you will see the same structure and principles as those that we will be explaining here for B1, as regards to how the DELE exam oral is scored.


How the DELE exam oral is scored

The B1 “oral expression” competency assessment, which counts for 50% of the total expression part of the exam, consists of four tasks. A candidate is allowed 15 minutes prior preparation time for tasks 1 and 2. During this prep time you may make notes and draw a bullet-point scheme of presentation, which you may consult during the test.

For all DELE exam oral tests, there are two examiners physically present, who will mark your effort in real time, there at the exam center. (This is the major difference in oral exam format between the DELE and the SIELE or OPIc – the latter two tests are done online, with the candidate speaking to a computer avatar, not a live interviewer physically present at the exam center). In the DELE oral, the one examiner is the interviewer, who does the holistic assessment, and the other examiner (who typically sits behind you) does the analytical assessment.

As to how the DELE exam oral is scored by these examiners, both use the same assessment criteria.  However, the holistic assessment carries 40% weight, and the analytical assessment 60%. (The interviewer doing the holistic obviously needs primarily to keep the conversation going and cannot be distracting you by jotting down notes, so he/she makes the assessment based on overall impression – i.e., holistic).

At the beginning of the DELE oral test, the examiner who acts as interviewer will ask some “icebreaker” questions to put you at ease (these don’t count). As said, this examiner does the “holistic” scoring assessment, which simply means that he or she will form an overall opinion based on the rigorous training that all DELE examiners must complete. The second examiner does the more detailed “analytical” assessment, making notes of your performance.

After the ice-breaking, you will be asked to do your formal presentation – a short monologue of a few minutes (in the case of Level B1, it is limited to only two to three minutes). That’s followed by task two, which is a short conversation between you and the interviewer about the theme you just presented – some three to four minutes. In Tarea 3 you will be shown a photo, which you must describe and comment upon, in another two to three minute conversation. The last task is a debate with the interviewer. It is a simulation of an everyday situation (like you having to return a defective product to a shop), where you start with opposing positions and must reach a consensus solution. This also lasts three to four minutes.


As mentioned, the two examiners use the same criteria, but two scales for assessing (scoring) the oral part of the exam, with the analytical being more detailed than the holistic.  Both the holistic and the analytical scales are scored in terms of four ordinal bands, with a top value of 3, and zero being the lowest mark awarded. For both scales, achieving a value of 2 meets the minimum threshold.  Obtaining a value of 3 represents ample achievement. Scoring 1 or 0 means you’ve failed the particular task.

The FOUR SCORING CRITERIA for the DELE oral exam are:



Ample linguistic scope (i.e., lexis, which is vocabulary + expressions),

Correctness (accuracy of pronunciation & grammar)

How the DELE exam oral is scored

I will now present you with the official scoring criteria guidelines of the Instituto Cervantes for the DELE B1 exam oral, which I’ve translated for you from the original “high academic Spanish”. Because of its importance for understanding how the DELE exam oral is scored, I am going to quote it in full.


Value 3: Candidate can add required explanations, arguments and relevant examples to the information under discussion. Has a sufficiently ample linguistic repertoire to function without difficulty in the situations postulated, even though commits some errors. Maintains conversations and exchanges information properly, his/her interventions confirm an understanding of detailed information. Collaborates with the interviewer.

Value 2: Provides the information required to meet the objectives of the communicative tasks. Has a basic linguistic repertoire that allows him/her to tackle the postulated situations, with errors, but which do not interfere with the transmission of ideas. Maintains conversations and exchanges information, although he/she may require clarification as well as for part of what the interviewer said to be repeated, in order to confirm mutual understanding.

Value 1: Although candidate can manage simple descriptions and presentations, does not convey enough information to meet the communicative purpose of the tasks. Although a limited linguistic repertoire does allow for the transmission of information on personal matters, on his/her immediate environment and on simple, everyday situations, the candidate has to adapt the message and search for words and repeatedly makes basic mistakes. Participates in discussions and exchanges information, provided that the interlocutor helps.

Value 0: Barely transmits information, and therefore does not meet the communicative objectives of the tasks. The language barriers create difficulties in formulating what he/she means. Requires the interviewer to repeat what has been said, or to rephrase and speak slowly, as well as to assist him/her with formulating what he/she tries to say.


Value 3: Produces a clear, coherent discourse, with proper use (albeit limited) of cohesive devices such as link phrases. May show some loss of control over speech, in case of extended exchanges. Maintains a proper conversation, collaborating with the interviewer.

Value 2: Develops linear sequences of related ideas in the form of short simple sentences linked by standard connectors (eg.: «es que», «por eso», «además»). Maintains simple conversations on everyday topics, but sometimes needs clarification or repetition of part of what the interviewer said, to confirm understanding.

Value 1: Speech is limited, made up of groups of words and simple connectors (eg.: «y»; «pero», «porque»). Requires the help of the interviewer to confirm whether is correctly understanding. Is only able to respond to simple questions and statements.

Value 0: Presents confusing speech, composed of isolated statements with few binding/linking elements. Requires that the interviewer often repeat or rephrase his/her statements. Answers do not always conform to the questions asked.

Value 3: Expresses self with relative ease. Despite some problems in making a speech, resulting in occasional pauses and “dead ends”, the candidate is able to move forward effectively. Pronunciation is clearly intelligible, even though a foreign accent may be obvious and there are occasional mistakes in pronunciation.

Value 2: Talks with continuity and is understandable, although there are obvious pauses to plan the speech and to think about grammar and appropriate vocabulary. Pronunciation is clearly intelligible, although a foreign accent may be obvious and mistakes occur sporadically.

Value 1: Makes him/herself understood by means of very brief expressions.  Evidences pauses, initial doubts and reformulations. Pronunciation and articulation are generally quite clear and understandable, although accent and occasional errors may result in understanding requiring some effort.

Value 0: Only manages very brief expressions, disconnected and prepared in advance, requiring many pauses to search for expressions, to articulate less familiar words and to correct the communication. Pronunciation and articulation are only correct for memorized words and phrases. Understanding him/her is difficult.

Value 3: Shows a relatively high grammatical control. Makes mistakes that do not cause misunderstanding and which he/she sometimes self-correct.

Value 2: Shows reasonable control of a repertoire of simple structures (eg.: tiempos de indicativo, posesivos, verbo «gustar», perífrasis básicas). Makes mistakes that do not cause misunderstanding.

Value 1: Uses some simple grammatical constructs correctly, but systematically makes basic mistakes, such as confusion of tenses and inconsistencies in gender agreement.

Value 0: Shows insufficient control of even simple structures and of patterns of short, basic sentences: for example, errors in the use of the present tense and in the concordance of subject or verb; uses verbs in the infinitive rather than conjugations. Numerous errors make communication very difficult.

Value 3: The candidate’s linguistic repertoire allows him/her to describe situations, explain the main points of an idea or problem with reasonable precision and express thoughts on general subjects, be they abstract or cultural by nature, such as music and movies.

Value 2: The candidates’ linguistic repertoire is broad enough to function in everyday situations, allowing them to express themselves (even though somewhat doubtfully and with circumlocutions) on topics such as family, hobbies and interests, work, travel and current events. Commit lexical mistakes and inaccuracies when taking risks.

Value 1: Their limited linguistic repertoire allows them to transmit information on personal matters, on their immediate environment and in relation to simple, everyday situations (basic needs, common transactions), but they have to adapt the message and search for words. Commit lexical mistakes and inaccuracies.

Value 0: Their linguistic repertoire is limited to a small number of memorized words or exponents. Commit mistakes and lexical inaccuracies or there’s interference from other languages, hindering understanding.


I’m sure you want to hear what a passing effort in the B1 DELE exam oral sounds like. Please click on the image below, to hear the recording. Afterwards I will give you my translation of the actual comments of the examiners.

Click on image to listen

Examiners’ comments

To really understand how the DELE exam oral is scored in practice, the comments of examiners are very illuminating – here are their observations explaining their reasoning  for scoring (passing and failing) the above two audio clips in the way they did.

Analytical Scale – Coherence: The candidate achieves value level 2, because she elaborates lineal sequences of related ideas in form of brief, simple statements interconnected with habitual connectors («porque creo que con el Internet podemos hacer más cosas…»;  «creo también que por nuestra generación podemos, por ejemplo, ver películas…»; «y en esto caso…»; «un intercambio, por ejemplo, con Facebook»; «pero creo que es…»; «pero también buscar información de la ciudad…»; .«es un poco lo mismo porque creo…»; «no sé de… por ejemplo, de una organización…»; «el problema es que por cada desayuno…»). She exceeds the limited speech typical of value band 1. In Tasks 2, 3 and 4, she could maintain basic conversations on everyday topics. («—[E.] ¿Te parece entonces una zona comercial? —Sí, sí, creo que sí. Es una zona de compras.»; «—[E.] ¿Tú has hecho alguna vez algún viaje organizado? —Sí, pero no con… no en el autobús, en el bicicleta. —[E.] Ah, ¿en bicicleta? —Sí.»; «—[E.] Y, ¿el desayuno? […] ¿tampoco le ha gustado? —No, el problema es que por cada desayuno…»; «—[E.] Pero, es muy extraño porque nosotros normalmente organizamos estos viajes y no tenemos ningún problema. —Ah, ¿sí? ¿En los mismos hoteles?»). The candidate achieves a score of value level 2, because her discourse isn’t limited and because she didn’t require the collaboration of the interviewer in order to answer (as would have been the case in scoring level 1).

Analytical Scale – Fluency: The candidate speaks with continuity and clarity, even though pauses for planning her discourse and thinking about grammar and appropriate lexicon were evident. («… es muy mmmm divertido…»; «… por los mayores aaaaaaa es un poco diferente…»; «… he visto un persona con unaaa… con una cámara.»; «pero no con… no en el autobús»; «Es como un… para mí, es como unaaa… como un grupo de turistas»; «podría ser que es una grupo deee… no sé deee… por ejemplo, de unaaa… de un… de una organización»). Her pronunciation is clearly intelligible, despite her evident foreign accent and her sporadic errors («la televición», «per ejemplo», «dificil»; «dependia», «sofa», «par día»).

Analytical Scale – Correctness: The candidate demonstrates reasonable control of a repertoire of basic constructs («creo que el Internet es más importante…»; «… nuestra generación»; «… mi generación…»; «… hay mucha gente que habla con…»; «… puede ser peligroso…»; «… las turistas pueden comprar cosas…»; «… he visto una persona con una cámara…»; «… la mayoría de las casas son tiendas…»; «quiero viajar solo o con amigos…»; «a mí no me gustan mucho»). The mistakes she made didn’t cause misunderstandings. («*este situación»; «es importante *de compartir»; «hay mucha gente que *viaje mucho»; «que *son una escuela de lengua»; «la gente *mayores»; «muchos *turistos»; «cerca de aquí *es un autobús»; «para que toque *por la gente»; «tienen un poco *el mismo edad»; «*estamos quince personas»; «todo *estuve organizado»; «los hoteles no estaban *limpia»; «*estaban no muy amables»; «no están *limpiada»; «hace [hacía] mucho calor»). She exceeds scoring level 1 in that she did use some basic constructs, but did not achieve a score of 3 because she didn’t demonstrate a relatively high command of grammar.

Analytical Scale – Linguistic Scope: The candidate’s linguistic repertoire is broad enough to function in everyday situations and for her to express herself, though somewhat doubtfully and with circumlocutions, on topics such as family, hobbies, personal interests, work and travel («quince personas, todos en bicicleta…»; «todo organizado, los hoteles, la comida…»; «es un país muy diferente»; «no es como Francia…»; «la cultura es muy diferente»; «estaba muy interesante a ver la cultura… ver la naturaleza…»)  and even though she did make mistakes («*so por mi generación…»; «es también un *entertainment»; «en este *senza…»).

Holistic Scale: The candidate provides the information required in order to meet the communicative goals of the set tasks. In tasks 1 and 2 she ordered and related her ideas, and justified her opinions to explain the differences between the Internet and television, and the Internet as a rival for television. She spoke from personal experience (regarding to for what purpose she uses the Internet and how often, as well as for what she uses social networks). In task 3 and 4 she was able to provide a description of the photo she selected and to maintain a conversation making a complaint. The candidate has a basic linguistic repertoire that allowed her to tackle the postulated situations, without her errors interfering with the transmission of ideas («*por mi generación…»; «creo que *un hora»; «en *el bicicleta»).


How the DELE exam oral is scored

Click on image to listen

Examiners’ comments 

Analytical Scale – Coherence: In the monologue presentation task, the candidate’s speech corresponds to the descriptor of the value band 1: it is limited and consists of groups of words and simple connectors like “y”, “pero” («No me gusta nada música fuerte como rock, eh… rápido, no me gusta y cuando escucho ruido no puedo pensar en nada sí. En Madrid sueleo escuchar las canciones en español pero no me acuerdo cómo se llama y de qué cantante y tampoco todavía no… no entiendo toda la canción que significa»; «Ellos *está en un restaurante, sí… están comiendo pero antes de *comel, *comel, necesitan charlar un rato para no cumplir, no sé… puede ser y… *pensó que son novios y son una chica y un chico bastante joven…»). In the oral interaction tasks he required the collaboration of the interviewer in order to confirm his understanding and could only respond to simple questions and affirmations («—¿Y qué tipo de música era la que fuiste a escuchar? —No sé como se dice es con muchas cosas juntos. Como… ¡Ay! ¿Cómo se llama?  —¿Orquesta? — Más o menos hay un*directo, no, no es un director, dirigir»; «—¿Quedamos en el reloj de la Puerta del Sol? —¿Reloj? Voy a pensar. Ah, sí reloj. —Bueno pues nos vemos esta noche. — Bueno, trato hecho» ; «—Sí, sí, sí, o canción de invierno. Siempre escucho en la calle… hay un peinado… no, no es peinado… tocar. —¿Un músico? —Sí, sí muy bien, para escuchar»).

Analytical Scale – Fluency: As stated in the description for value band 1, the candidate makes himself understood with very brief expressions; pauses are evident, as well as initial doubts and reformulation («Sí, desde… desde llevo, no, no, no, vengo a España…, todavía no he ido alguna vez»; «Voy a pensar, eh… dos. Solo dos. Es que… El prima, el prima vez, es mi profesora llevarnos a restaurante. Me presenta… me presenta que es restaurente es típica, prado ah… y la mesa sencilla más o menos»); «Ellos *está en un restaurante, sí… están comiendo, pero antes de *comel. *comel, necesitan charlar un rato para cumplir, no sé… puede ser»). With regard to pronunciation, his articulation and his occasional errors causes comprehending him to require a certain effort – above all he has problems with pronouncing the /r/ («… no sé cómo se llama, pero el *prado, *la prato, el prato es prado de Galicia»); («*mejol, con mi amigo *mejol»); («están comiendo pero antes de *comel, *comel…»).

Analytical Scale – Correctness: The candidate uses some simple constructs correctly («Yo prefiero la música tranquila…»; «… es que cuando era pequeña, pequeño mi padre ponía la música suave en casa casi todas las noches, pienso que es un hábito desde niño…»; «¿A qué hora quedamos?»; «Sí, pero si no te gusta podemos cambiar»; «No me gusta nada música fuerte, como rock»; «están comiendo pero antes de *comel, *comel, necesitan charlar un rato…») but he systematically commits basic errors, for example demonstrating confusion regarding tenses («Quería *il a un concierto que no haya mucha gente»; «Desde llevo… no, no, no. Vengo a España, todavía no he ido alguna vez»; «… cuando dentro de varios años separan y después encuentran más o menos»; «… después de *comel podemos pedir chupitos para la…») and commits errors regarding the agreement of gender and number («… suelo escuchar las canciones en español pero no me acuerdo como se *llama»; «… mi familia les gustan escuchar el música suave y tranquila, mejor»; «Ellos *está en un restaurante, sí…»; «… *esta restaurante es *típica»).

Analytical Scale – Linguistic Scope: In this as well, he is situated in value band 1; his limited linguistic repertoire only permits him to convey information regarding personal matters, his immediate environment and simple everyday situations such as basic needs and common transactions («*Ayel fui a un restaurante muy cerca de la Puerta del Sol, no sé cómo se llama…»; «Picante, pienso que no le gusta.»; «Yo prefiero la música tranquila, eh… por ejemplo, jazz, etc.»; «… cuando era más pequeña, pequeño, mi padre ponía la música suave en casa casi todas las noches, pienso que es un hábito desde niño…») However, he needs to adapt the message and search for words  («No sé cómo se dice… es con muchas cosas juntos… como. ¡Ay! ¿Cómo se llama?»; «más o menos hay un directo, no, no es un director, dirigir»; «Sí, como, no sé como traducir en español. El verano, canción de verano (…) o canción de invierno»; «Sí, especial, no sé cómo… lan… lan…langosta»). Commits lexical inaccuracies and errors («Siempre escucho en la calle… hay un *peinado… no, no es *peinado, tocar»; «… el piano… una vez *peina mal *tocal muy mal, es que no estudio como los *peinados»; «es que *mi familia les gustan escuchar el música más suave y tranquila…»; «… necesitan charlar un rato para cumplir, no sé…»; «El prima, el prima vez…»; «pienso que quedemos a las 8 o 8 y media»).

Holistic Scale:  With regard to communicative efficiency, the candidate did offer simple descriptions and presentations («No me gusta nada música fuerte como rock, eh… rápido, no me gusta y cuando escucho ruido no puedo pensar nada, sí. En Madrid suelo escuchar las canciones en español pero no me acuerdo como se llama y de que cantante y tampoco todavía no…  no entiendo toda la canción que significa») but did not provide sufficient information to meet the communicative objectives of the set tasks, as evidenced for example in Task #1 («Yo prefiero la música tranquila, eh… por ejemplo jazz, etc. Quería *il a un concierto que no haya mucha gente») and in Task #3 («Ellos *está en un restaurante, sí… están comiendo pero antes de *comel, *comel, necesitan charlar un rato para cumplir no sé… puede ser… y *pensó que son novios y son una chica y un chico bastante *joven y ya está»). With regard to linguistic efficiency, even though his limited linguistic repertoire did permit him to convey information on personal issues, on his immediate environment and in relation to simple everyday situations («*Ayel fui un restaurante está muy cerca de la Puerta el Sol…»; «Eh… es que cuando era más pequeña, pequeño mi padre ponía la música suave en casa casi todas las noches, pienso que es un hábito desde niño, no sé, está bien») he had to adapt the message and search for words, whilst repeatedly committing basic errors («… no sé cómo se llama, pero el *prado, *la prato, el prato es prado de Galicia, después de comer podemos pedir chupitos para la… digestión»). The candidate did participate in the conversation with the interviewer and did exchange information, although he needed her assistance to do so – for example, when in Task #2, the interviewer asked him whether he likes to play a musical instrument («—¿Y te gustaría tocar alguno? —No, no… ¿Para *escuchal? — Para tocar tú. —No, no… el *peinado (piano???»), in Task #4, when he was asked whether he knows any Italian restaurants («—A mí la comida picante por la noche me resulta un poco fuerte. No sé… no sé si te gusta un italiano. —Sí, sí, me gusta. —¿Y tú conoces alguno? —Pasta solo pasta») or in Task #3, when he was asked about the frequency with which the persons in the photo go to that place  («— ¿Y tú crees que estás personas van frecuentemente a este lugar? —¿Perdón? —¿Estas personas van normalmente a este lugar? — Creo que no»).

So, where are you in your preparation for the DELE exam oral, compared to the examples above? (70% of candidates who failed their DELE, did so because of having failed the oral exam).  Apart from knowing the scoring criteria, do you know how to prepare well? For top tips to help you to ace the oral exam, look at this DELEhelp blog post:

How the DELE exam oral is scored

Click on the IMAGE to have this blog post open in a new window

I hope that my explanation has helped you understand how the DELE exam oral is scored. For more explanation about how the exam as a whole functions, simply ask for our FREE 96-page in-house DELEhelp workbook, (WB #9.2: DELE / SIELE Exam Orientation and Acing Tips) which you can download as an e-book. To ask for it, just click on the image below and use the convenient contact information form. This one-of-a-kind DELE / SIELE exam preparation book covers the DELE / SIELE system’s objectives, the curriculum, exam format, scoring system and assessment criteria, plus our top tips for acing it – all in English, entirely free and without obligation to sign up for tuition.

Good luck with your exam preparation!


click on image to ask for free workbook

The Spanish Alphabet and numbers level A1

Spanish alphabet and numbers level A1

Click on IMAGE for video on the Spanish alphabet and numbers level A1

Hola to all our friends who are just starting out on their DELE / SIELE / OPI adventure, preparing for an A1 level exam certification. We have a new video especially for you, introducing the Spanish alphabet and numbers for level A1. The video relates the Spanish system of counting to your own familiar English reference framework and explains the differences between the languages, in English. It also provides excellent pronunciation practice.

This short video with Spanish audio and English text, teaches you all you need to know to begin to understand and master these important foundational concepts. It runs for less than 10 minutes, and is shot in HD with the clearest sound quality.

Here’s the video’s link (to YouTube).

You’ll see that it was produced in-house under our “SpanishACCESS” banner. Like DELEhelp, SpanishACCESS is a specialized tutoring service of  Excellentia Didactica (https://edele.org). Its specific focus is on assisting English-speaking home-study students who want to actually start communicating in Spanish as quickly as possible, without too much academic theory (ACCESS stands for Accelerated Communication Course for English-Speaking Students). Tutoring is one-on-one, via Skype / Zoom, with flexible hours and individualized course programs plus free study material.

Check out our other blog posts with tips for acing the DELE / SIELE and OPI / OPIc – here are some of the topics:

  • The DELE / SIELE exam Curriculum
  • Battle-tested tips for acing the reading comprehension
  • Twenty Top Tips for the Oral Expression exam
  • Importance of expanding your lexis (vocabulary + expressions)
  • Links to useful free sites for Spanish exam preparation
  • Our team, our Town, our Value Proposition
  • How the DELE exam oral is scored
  • How to Plan your exam Preparation

To access these, click on the image below, and then on the image for the particular blog post that you wish to see.

Click on IMAGE to go to this set of posts

Enjoy the video! (disfrute por favor)



click on image to ask for free workbook