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SPANISH EXAM PREP DONE RIGHT

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.

WHO ARE WE?

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?

USING OUR CONCISE CONTACT INFO FORM:

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.

FREE e-BOOKS:

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

FREE ONE HOUR ORIENTATION BRIEFING:

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.

THE “WELCOME ABOARD” e-MAIL:

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.

SECURE AND EASY MONTH-END PAYMENTS VIA PAYPAL:

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)

CONVENIENT, FLEXIBLE ONLINE SCHEDULING MANAGED BY YOU:

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).

WHAT YOUR STUDY PLAN & COACHING SESSIONS WILL TYPICALLY CONSIST OF:

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



FREE DELE/SIELE EXAM PREPARATION BOOK IN ENGLISH

Your free DELE/SIELE exam preparation book that explains, in English, all you need to know for effective exam prep

The DELE/SIELE & OPI – different kind of exams

The DELE exam (of Spanish language competency) is very different to the typical school or college foreign language exam. If you want to prepare correctly, then from the very start you need to be well informed about these differences – the unique goals of the DELE system, the assessment criteria that the examiners will use to score you, and the curriculum content. If you do not know and understand these key characteristics of the DELE – if you do not have a proper DELE exam preparation book explaining them – then you simply won’t be prepared to give the examiners what they are actually looking for. This applies as well to the DELE exam’s new online twin, the SIELE, which shares the goals, curriculum and assessment criteria of the DELE, as well as to the American OPI (Oral Proficiency Interview).

Unfortunately, what little material exists about the DELE’s
desired outcomes, assessment criteria and what the curriculum contains, is not
easily accessible. The curriculum and assessment protocols are only available
in high academic Spanish – policy documents written by academics for academics.
Very few Spanish tutors know much about how the exam actually functions i.t.o.
the assessment, as distinct from describing
the simple format. This means that many candidates enter the exam poorly
prepared, expecting something similar to school or college. More often than
not, their preparation has consisted essentially of grammar revision – but
grammar is just one of the nine chapters of the official DELE curriculum describing
the prescribed exam content for the exam.

Astute students, when they first encounter a DELE exam
paper, immediately sense that this is a very different kind of challenge. Because
the DELE tests what you can actually DO, in terms of really communicating in
Spanish – it doesn’t set out to test merely what you KNOW. It is no surprise,
therefore, that one of the highest-frequency search terms on the internet
regarding the DELE exam, is “DELE exam preparation book”. Which hitherto has
not existed, in English.

About this DELE exam preparation book

Having myself prepared for (and passed) the DELE C2 exam, I have lived these frustrations. When I started preparing, I did so with a personal background that had made me aware of the importance of understanding assessment criteria. I had been sensitized to the science of didactics and assessment methodology during the time that I served as head of the South African diplomatic academy. This was during the transition to democracy in South Africa. I had to completely overhaul the training to make it suited to the needs of the New South Africa (after my stint at the academy, I had the great honour and privilege of representing i.a. President Nelson Mandela as ambassador).  

In preparing for my DELE C2, I therefore quite naturally
wanted to know what the curriculum entails, and with what criteria the
examiners will use to assess my efforts at speaking and writing Spanish.  Nobody could really tell me, in any detail. Yes,
I could get acquainted with the format, in the form of model exam books. But I
could find no DELE exam preparation book that explains the assessment criteria,
the actual deliverables or “outcomes” that the DELE system wants candidates to
be able to produce, and which defines the content prescribed in the curriculum.

Because of my experience heading the academy, I knew how
vital understanding such “targeting” is, if one is to do well in any exam. I therefore
set out digging and eventually got hold of the scoring matrixes, the
instruction protocols for the examiners, and the massive, complex curriculum
document. Taken together, what an eye-opener! I saw, for example, that three of
the ten chapters of the curriculum dealt with history, geography, culture and
tradition – to ensure a sufficient level of inter-cultural sensitivity that
would, for example, enable one to correctly contextualize the meaning of many common
Spanish expressions. I also saw that entire chapters are dedicated to
identifying the “can do” statements or
actual communicative tasks that candidates must be able to perform at each
level, the “intercultural dexterities” that candidates must have developed, and
the “genres of discourse and textual products” that the candidates must master –
to name just some.  

Do you know the “can do” statements?

In the curriculum omnibus, I was particularly struck by the chapter “functional language use” (what the Americans call the “can do” statements) which lists all the communicative tasks that you are expected to be able to perform at each level. This ranges from basics for beginners such as asking directions, to – at the higher levels – such sophisticated tasks as introducing a toast at a formal reception. These “can do” statements encapsulate the true scope of the prescribed curriculum for each level – but how many students know about this, and are ever prepared to be able to produce these essential deliverables?

The goals of the DELE / SIELE system

What I found even more important than the curriculum as such, was the policy material explaining the goals of the Common European Framework of Reference for Language (of which the DELE / SIELE is the Spanish iteration) and the four assessment criteria that examiners use to score your efforts.

The CEFRL came about because of the abolition of the
internal borders in the European Union. This allowed EU citizens to live, work
or study in any country of their choosing. This borderless new union made it
essential for the likes of employers and post-grad schools at universities, to
have access to reliable certification of the actual ability of an applicant to
truly understand the new target language and to make him/herself understood in
it.  And it was apparent that school and
college certification simply didn’t reflect a candidate’s actual communicative
ability. For example, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages
recently found, in a survey, that only 0.5% of students at high school and
college who majored in a foreign language, could actually maintain a
conversation in that language. The authors of the CEFRL set out to try and correct
this with their new policy, and the first thing they did was to change
completely the focal point and goals of language tuition.

No longer would the language as such be the focal point, as it is in the academic study of Spanish in high school or college. In academic study of Spanish, the language is dissected and analysed, as one would dissect frogs in Biology – without yourself becoming a frog. The CEFRL threw this approach overboard. Instead, it takes the student as focal point: the student as “social agent” who must be able to perform real-world communicative tasks in a foreign-language environment. The objective is thus not to fill  the student’s head with abstract academic knowledge about the language as subject matter, but to equip the student to be able to DO – to actually use the language in real-world communication. To understand what you read or hear, and make yourself understood when you speak or write. This means, to master the four communicative competencies of listening and reading comprehension plus written and oral expression (which form the four units that the DELE exam consists of).

The four DELE assessment criteria

So, if the examiners aren’t primarily intent on checking eagle-eyed what you know about conjugating Spanish verbs, but are assessing whether you are actually communicating effectively when you speak or write: what criteria do they use to score your effort? This, clearly, you simply HAVE TO KNOW if you are going to be able to give them what they are looking for.

There are four assessment criteria, which at first glance
seem very generic and woolly, if you don’t have a proper DELE exam preparation
book that can clarify what is meant with each. Most students are quite
surprised when they first learn that, for the oral expression for example,
these four equally weighted assessment criteria are: coherence, fluency,
sufficiency of linguistic scope, and correctness. In other words, 50% of your
score will be assessed on coherence and fluency – but what does that actually
mean, in terms of what is expected of you? What is understood under each of
these criteria, and how are they applied to assess an individual’s performance,
so as to arrive at a final score of pass or fail?

Our free DELE exam preparation book

Because being totally familiar with each of these assessment criteria is so very evidently of utmost importance to students who want to prepare correctly for the DELE, I felt that this was a gap that simply had to be filled. Therefore, I wrote a succinct, practical DELE exam preparation book for English-speaking students. This is truly the product of having “been there, done it”. Our in-house DELEhelp Workbook #9 of 96 pages is written from the student perspective. Its aim is to help you understand the goals, format, assessment criteria and prescribed curriculum content for the DELE, and also to share with you, practical tips for acing the exam – both in terms of how to prepare, and what to do on exam day.

The best news is: DELEhelp’s DELE exam preparation
book is available to you, entirely free and with absolutely no obligation to
sign up with us for classes. Of course, we hope that it will help convince you
of our ability to add value to your DELE exam preparation. But the decision whether
you want to use our expert 1-on-1 tuition via Skype at only US$12 per hour, is
yours and yours alone.

Also serves for SIELE exam preparation

If you are preparing to do the new online twin of the DELE exam, called the SIELE, you should also use this same DELE / SIELE exam preparation
book, since the goals, criteria and curriculum are shared (it is the same
official who signs both the DELE and the SIELE certification, namely the
Director of Studies of the Instituto Cervantes). As you can imagine, we have
also developed an additional workbook about acing the equivalent American OPI
test (the Oral Proficiency Interview). You can ask for this as well, if you are
preparing for the OPIc.

To go to this blog post, just click on image

Since you are currently reading this blog post, you may
already be aware of the many valuable articles guiding SIELE and DELE exam
preparation that are available free in our DELEhelp blog. If, however, this is
your first “landing” on our blog, check out the content list – you will see the
dozens of posts with useful tips about how to ace the oral and the written
expression tests, how to plan and what to focus on in your DELE exam
preparation, how the DELE exam final score is calculated, and many more topics.
We are pleased to offer you all this material free in our blog, in the hope
that it, too, will show you what our expertise can mean to you, for improving
your chances of doing well in the exam. Of course, once you do sign up with us
(if that is your choice) then you will receive the rest of our series of
one-of-a-kind in-house DELE exam preparation books, again entirely for free, as
part of the resources that we provide to every one of our students.

At a minimum, though, we hope that by reading this free
sample DELE exam preparation book (number 9.2:
DELE / SIELE Exam Orientation and Acing
Tips
), you will understand how different the DELE is. We hope that you
will start to sense that extra confidence that comes from knowing precisely
what you are up against.  Also, that you
will understand how you should best prepare yourself to meet the unique
challenges presented by the DELE / SIELE exam, or the OPI.

Seamlessly ties in with our personalized, 1-on-1 tuition via Skype / Zoom

Properly planned and personalised preparation firstly requires such in-depth understanding of your exam as foundation, but it then also needs a proper initial diagnostic of your strengths and weaknesses as basis for designing an affective, personalized study plan. Plus: expert, experienced guidance that will provide you with feed-back and correction when you invest your time and mental energy in the essential practice, practice, practice required to become fluent, coherent and correct in your oral and written expression.

Such expert guidance is best provided one-on-one, not in group classes dominated by the lowest common denominator. And why not use modern online tech to have expert tuition in the comfort of your own home, with flexible scheduling, and at low-low rates that reflect Central American overhead costs, not those of North America or Europe…?

To ask for your free copy of our DELE exam preparation book, simply click on the image below and send us the completed contact information form so we can e-mail you the download link (it is available as a .pdf e-book).

click on image to ask for free workbook

OPI-SPECIFIC e-BOOK YOURS FREE AS WELL

If you are preparing for the American Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI / OPIc) package of tests – which are based on the exact same policy framework as the DELE / SIELE – you can ask as well for our FREE exam preparation book specific to the OPI, by clicking on the image below:

CLICK on IMAGE to ask for our OPI prep book, FREE

FREE BONUS e-BOOKS

When you send us the contact info form with your e-mail address for receiving the free DELE / SIELE & OPIc exam prep books, you will also receive, FREE, two bonus e-books: the History and Origins of Spanish, and Spanish Grammar De-Mystified. We will NEVER sell or share your e-mail address, and you will never receive BULK e-MAILS from us.

Buena suerte with your Spanish exam preparation!

Saludos cordiales

Willem  




DELE / SIELE oral & writing: HOW to learn, and WHAT

The DELE / SIELE exams are very different to traditional school or college exams. The examen DELE / SIELE tests your ability to express yourself in Spanish, coherently, fluently, correctly and with sufficient linguistic scope (i.e., vocabulary / lexis), simulating real-world situations. The DELE  and SIELE are NOT examinations of your abstract knowledge of the “rules” of Spanish grammar or orthography. They test whether you can actually apply your knowledge and maintain proper communication in Spanish. The first questions when one starts prepping for the oral and written expression tests, need therefore be – for the DELE / SIELE  oral & writing: HOW to learn and WHAT to focus on, so that I can acquire the communicative competencies that the DELE / SIELE require. Even if you are not interested in actually sitting exams, but want to know how to attain fluent, coherent conversational ability in Spanish, then the same issues of How to learn and What to focus on, will apply.

These are very fundamental questions, and therefore are very broad in scope. They cannot flippantly be answered in a few bullet points – to really be of help, this blog-post must first provide you with a proper understanding of how humans acquire language and the communication skills associated therewith. In other words, give a conceptual reference framework for understanding why certain things work, and others don’t, when you are trying to gain communicative competency in a new language. This blog-post will, therefore, focus broadly on explaining the language acquisition processes occurring deep inside the brain, as based on significant new research published in early 2018. Rather than simply listing “exam acing tips”, we will today step back a bit, so that we can distinguish the forest from the detail of the individual trees. We need to comprehend what fundamentally is going on inside our heads when we acquire language – so that, with such understanding, we will be better able to focus and adapt our own language learning efforts. So please bear with me through the explanations – I can promise you it will be worth-while in helping you comprehend what you need to do to gain conversational ability in real life, and thus to ace the DELE / SIELE – as much (actually, much more) than any blithe infographic of acing tips would achieve.

In an earlier blog-post I wrote: There are many conflicting theories, plus ingrained teaching habits stretching back many generations, regarding how best to achieve proficiency so that you will be able to converse in Spanish. Just about the only thing that we do know for certain, 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 alumni 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.

I am very pleased to tell you that, during January 2018, a seminal new study was published that greatly advanced or knowledge of how the human brain enables us to acquire language. We now have the empirical data to resolve the “conflicting theories” I mentioned in the earlier blogpost. This research not only clearly points to what to do, and how, in order to develop your language skills – it also confirms why that which we already knew doesn’t work (namely traditional classroom teaching methods) in fact fail, as proven by the ACTFL survey quoted above.

This significant new study was published online on 29 January 2018, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) under the title: “Child First Language and Adult Second Language Are Both Tied to General-Purpose Learning Systems”. As the title indicates, the two major conclusions of the study are that (a) mother tongue and second language are acquired using the same brain circuits, and (b) these ancient circuits are common to most animals and thus not unique to humans, nor are they uniquely dedicated to language learning. As the senior investigator of the study, Michael T. Ullman (professor of Neuroscience at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.), said in a statement: “Our conclusion that language is learned in such ancient general-purpose systems contrasts with the long-standing theory that language depends on innately-specified language modules found only in humans.”

The perceived difficulty in acquiring another language as adults, lies not so much in the nature of that particular language, as it does in our human nature.  As Steven Pinker and others have demonstrated (see the earlier blog-post), we learnt our own first language instinctively. In our early youth, we acquire language without formal grammar or teaching, because language is the defining “thing” of our species – it is our foremost unique instinct, like that of a spider is to spin webs.

We are programmed and maximally facilitated to acquire language in early childhood. Our brains are strongly focused on it up to about age six (having satisfied also our other differentiating instinct – that of acquiring the skill for walking upright).   Thereafter, however, the brain’s acquisitive capacity of necessity needs to be increasingly focused on other priorities as well, and our ability to acquire other tongues with ease, seem to us to diminish (at least, in our own perception, because it has now been proven that we engage the exact same parts of the brain to acquire any language, as we did for our mother tongue). HOW we in later life strive to acquire language, also changes fundamentally from what happened instinctively during the toddler phase – from the recognition and internalization of the patterns of our mother tongue through casual observation and then constant practicing to speak, we shift to academically “studying” the new language – as  we would study History or Geography or whatever other academic subject where the goal is to abstractly KNOW (i.e., to able to recall facts and interpret them). This is NOT the way that we would, for example, learn to play the guitar, or to play golf, or to master gymnastics, or whatever other competencies that require not just abstractly knowing about, but which requires us to hone the actual ability to fluently, coherently, and correctly DO – to DELIVER OUTCOMES.

How we opt to learn, and under which circumstances we in later life strive to acquire a new language, represent the biggest changes from how we had acquired our native language. Firstly the conditions and priorities have changed fundamentally – instead of instinctively spending our every waken moment for six years focused almost singularly on acquiring the ability to communicate,  whilst our every human need is being taken care of for us, we now have to multi-task complex lives with many competing demands on our attention span; we have to survive economically, physically and emotionally, and try and accomplish our goal whilst being able to invest only a few hours per week, for a limited time. Imagine if you could study a new language every waken hour, 24/7, without anything else requiring your attention, while being fed, cosseted and cared for… How long would it take you then – since, as an adult, you have many more learning tools available than a toddler (such as reading, access to grammar handbooks, and to all the modern digital audio-visual resources)? Six years? No! Certainly not! So, are you still thinking that babies have you beat at acquiring language?

What is true is that these adult circumstances and opportunities available to us since the advent of the age of formal schooling, have changed the way that we traditionally go about acquiring competency at communicating in the second language. It is no longer done instinctively, through observation and practice.  We shift from practice-based pattern recognition, to academically studying the new language. Like for any memorizing activity, right back to ancient times (such as what plants we can eat and which not) we engage for this memory-building activity the declaratory circuit of the brain – the circuit for data storage.  But – by “studying” the new language in this memory-focused traditional way, we are, unfortunately, concentrating on abstractly knowing its “rules”, rather than on building the competency to apply that knowledge in order to be able to PERFORM – to produce coherent, fluent conversation as OUTCOME.

HOW BEST TO GO ABOUT ACQUIRING A NEW LANGUAGE:  To understand how to go about acquiring the ability to communicate in a second language, we first and foremost have to understand how the human brain functions when it comes to “learning a language” – or, more correctly put – how we develop the ability to communicate.  Understanding this process is certain to help you in cultivating the right mind-set and learning methods for making your conquest of conversational Spanish 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 comprehensively communicate.  Both are vital survival skills, and both are heavily brain-driven. The ability to walk comes quicker, because it is a much shorter process. There is proof that babies actually start picking up language whilst in the womb. After birth, the brain’s major developmental focus for the next six years is on honing the ability to communicate.

A fundamental question in understanding how we humans acquire language (whether it be our native tongue, or a foreign language) is: what enables humans to have this unique capacity? Is it that we and we alone have a unique “something” in our brains – a circuit, some special DNA – that all other animals lack? This has been a rather logical assumption, and when DNA research became possible and the so-called “speech gene” (FOXP2) was identified, some had thought that it was the eureka moment – until we realized how widespread this gene is, even extending to birds, allowing them to sing. At the beginning of 2018, the result of seminal neurological research was published which once and for all dispelled the notion that we humans possess some unique “speech” part or circuit of the brain, that no other animals have.

It was clearly demonstrated that, no matter our age, and whether it is for acquiring our mother tongue or a foreign language, we use two very ancient circuits of the brain that pre-date homo sapiens and even primates – circuits that are present in most animals. Although it debunks assumptions of structural uniqueness, this neurological research has some extremely important implications for our understanding of how we humans acquire language (and consequently, how it should be taught). The most important revelation is that there are two general-purpose circuits of the brain that are employed in this effort, namely the declaratory as mentioned before, but also – very importantly – the procedural circuit. These circuits aren’t solely dedicated to acquiring language, either, but are vital in our everyday functioning.

The declaratory circuit is engaged when we consciously learn things that we store in our memory, such as how to count, the words of a song, or Spanish vocabulary. The big break-through has been to see how the procedural circuit “lights up” when acquiring language – the same circuit we use for mastering playing the piano, or to perfect our golf swing, or our tennis back-hand. This PROCEDURAL CIRCUIT enables us to PERFORM TASKS, and hones this ability through practice, practice, practice – like athletes building up “muscle memory” of their required moves. For acquiring language, therefore, we now know that it truly is also a case of “practice makes perfect”. We pick up the patterns of the language and internalize them with the objective of reflexive, spontaneous reproduction – and we do so through practice, practice and more practice, without having to think and consciously configure phrases in terms of “rules” we have tried to memorize through the declaratory circuit.

This revelation about the vital role of the procedural circuit of the brain – of actual repetitive practice – in acquiring language, goes a long way towards explaining the ACTFLA survey results, when we consider that traditional language teaching almost exclusively relies on engaging the declaratory circuit. As toddlers we principally engage the procedural circuit to pick up and practice patterns of language, and pass things like vocabulary and pattern irregularities through to the declaratory circuit to be stored. As teenagers or adults, we traditionally try and “study” a new language the other way around, namely by means of engaging the declaratory circuit to try and memorize the “’rules”, with too little opportunity to practice, practice, practice to perfection. The moral of this story, is that you cannot “study” to speak a language from books alone (that is, if you want to meet the communicative criteria of coherence, fluency, linguistic scope and correctness in spontaneous reproduction) without practice, practice, practice – just as the star pianist cannot hope to perfectly render a piece that he/she can easily read off sheet music, without also putting in the necessary practice, practice, practice.

I am not going to repeat here what I said in the earlier blog-post about the importance of pattern recognition in the acquisition of language. It is a vital human ability, and you may want to read that post again to integrate what was said there, with these new research findings about the importance of the procedural circuit and of viewing language not as an academic subject for abstract study, but as a competency that needs to be actually performed, exactly like playing a musical instrument or a sport. 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 certainly didn’t formally 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 – such as when a child says 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, based on pattern recognition. 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.

How to understand what importance to attach to the study of grammar: 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 printing.  The first formal grammar book for any European language was only published in 1492, for Castilian (i.e., modern Spanish). 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, the patterns of speech with all their 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 as a faithful recording of the commonly used patterns of speech).

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 (known as morphology – for example, the conjugation of words) or the protocols of phrase construction (known as 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. Ditto for the guitar player – knowing the score of a song doesn’t guarantee that he/she will be able to render it perfectly at first attempt. This analogy very much resembles the demands of everyday conversation, which is focused on the speaker’s ability to instantly access his/her theoretical knowledge of grammar and vocabulary (i.e., as memorized via the declaratory brain circuit) and then – most importantly – to reproduce it spontaneously in real-world communication (i.e., the practice-embedded “muscle memory” originating with the procedural circuit of the brain).  We don’t simply “know” language, we need and use it to PERFORM communicative tasks.

Speaking is the performance of a communicative task, and requires guided PRACTICE to perfect

Unfortunately, the traditional school system requires standardized curricula and methodologies. This is the case because, in order for school tuition in real life to be feasible when teaching classrooms full of students, there just isn’t much scope for individualization.  They cannot all practice speaking, all at once. And there are many other subjects to be taught in the school year, in addition to (maybe) a foreign language. Therefore, for the foreign language student there cannot be anything like the constant immersion in his new tongue that the typical toddler is exposed to every woken hour in his native environment for at least the first six years. 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 acquiring a second language (thus engaging primarily the declaratory circuit of the brain for memorization, without truly activating the all-important procedural circuit for practicing the ability to perform).  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 – by the nature of these limitations are focused on imparting theoretical knowledge of rules, and not on the individual coaching and practice, practice, practice required to develop actual communicative ability.

As 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 read or 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 students’ knowledge of the content which the schools have been teaching. 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 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 and of itself, be enough.  Because humans instinctively seek for patterns, formal grammar is clearly a very useful tool that helps identify and present for study, the patterns inherent to any language.  It is thus very important that grammar be learnt (particularly because it provides a short-cut to knowing and identifying the irregularities inherent in any language).  It obviously is a faster way of becoming aware of such patterns and their exceptions, than simply by absorbing them subconsciously, over the course of years of unstructured immersion. But it evidently is not enough to simply know these grammar rules, or even to have academic awareness of the patterns, if one wishes to acquire the capacity to fluently, correctly and coherently engage in actual conversation – to communicate effectively and reflexively.

As I said in the earlier blog-post, another major drawback inherent to the traditional way of teaching, is that it inevitably leaves the student with the impression that language consists of rules and vocabulary – of individual words, which must be strung together in accordance with set rules, such as that of conjugation.  In reality, though, language for the most part consists of “chunks” of words in the form of well-established phrases with agreed meaning. These chunks of words and the customary way in which they are strung together, form an important part of the patterns of a language. 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 foreign languages, which he called the “lexical approach”.  You may want to refresh your memory about this part of the earlier blog-post as well, because in your preparation for the DELE / SIELE, you will notice the emphasis that examiners are placing on the use of “link phrases” to enhance fluency and coherence – and such “connectors” are prime examples of the word chunks that the lexical approach has been focused on. The lexical approach is 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 WHAT of becoming proficient at conversation: The first thing to get right, is mind-set. Your objective should NOT be “I want to study Spanish” (because that is only 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 performance skill, of integrating and applying your knowledge in real-world situations, instantly and spontaneously). What you want to be, is an accomplished football player, not just a coach potato football rules guru.

With your mental objective clearly defined, it is important next to identify the skills and knowledge sets that are essential for you 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 a sufficiently ample “linguistic scope”. This means that you do have to know (i.e., that you have learnt, to the point of having committed to memory and thus have fully internalized) the words, expressions and common “word chunks” making up the general use lexis of the language. You need to do so with sufficient width and depth, so that you can easily identify the words and word chunks upon hearing or seeing them, and also instantly reproduce them when needed 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, plus its orthography (spelling, for recognizing it when reading).

click on image to go to this blogpost about expanding your vocabulary

Your knowledge of Spanish words and word chunks  (lexis) is one of the two theoretical knowledge legs upon which real conversation stands (or falls). The other leg is knowledge of the patterns of the language, so that you can string the word chunks together correctly. But lexis may be more vital to conversation,  because your listener can, as an intelligent native speaker, compensate for your small grammatical errors of syntax or of such things as gender accord, even for wrong verb conjugation – however, 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. When you are preparing for a modern Spanish exams of actual communicative competency, such as the DELE / SIELE, you will know that the amplitude of your linguistic scope is one of the four equally-weighted scoring criteria that examiners will be applying, when scoring you written and oral expression tasks.

However, these two legs of stored knowledge, although clearly required, are not of themselves enough to allow conversation. In order to converse, we now understand that – like any athlete – you will have to practice these legs to perform spontaneously. In fact, if you are still obliged – when you want to say something in Spanish – to first try and remember the right words, 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 with fluently maintaining any kind of conversation.

This is the difference between sitting a traditional 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 – through practice – the patterns of Spanish speech (as you had done as a kid, with your mother tongue). Having internalized 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). From this, you will understand that being grammatically correct is just one part of the “correctness” criterium applied in the DELE / SIELE exam (other elements of correctness being spelling, pronunciation etc.) which means that grammatical correctness is assessed at one-third value of one quarter of the overall scoring under the four equally-weighted main criteria (the other two main criteria, alongside linguistic scope and correctness, being coherence and fluency).

In real life, conversation breaks down when there is no fluency and coherence – 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 lexis and patterns of Spanish sufficiently internalized. Especially important to the fluent flow of conversation  is the appropriate use of link phrases in order to fluently join up different thoughts or sentences – and not end up uttering, in staccato style, 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, in place of uttering “uhm” and “aah”. 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 and the lexis of the language. The latter is the words and word chunks (including their meaning and pronunciation). The patterns are those of syntax (how words and phrases are strung together to form coherent sentences) and of morphology (how we transform words to signify different meanings). This knowledge of lexis and of patterns we have to commit to  memory (i.e, with the declaratory brain circuit), and then with the procedural brain circuit, through guided practice, hone the ability to reproduce it instantaneously without much conscious thought. Without such well-honed internalization of the lexis and phonology of Spanish and of its morphological and syntactical patterns, you cannot hope to achieve fluency.

The HOW of developing the ability to converse in Spanish: Developing the knowledge and skill sets required to maintain a conversation in Spanish, needs to engage both the declaratory and procedural brain circuits (i.e., learn and practice). Luckily, as adults we have access to certain facilitating and enhancing tools which toddlers don’t have available. Adults can read, can follow TV and live stream radio, can do classes (nowadays, also via Skype, from the comfort of the own home). In fact, it may be a misconception to think that babies have an advantage over adults, when it comes to acquiring a language, given the learning tools that adults can access.  The one true benefit that babies have, is that their brains can focus almost exclusively on mastering verbal communication because of their adult-facilitated environment without a care in the world, whereas adults have a huge array of responsibilities between which they must divide their mental energy.

Internalizing the patterns: The basic manner in which your Spanish will develop, will be by means of assimilating patterns and practicing their spontaneous reproduction. 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 something needs to be said in that particular way, but that you know for sure that that’s the way it’s said!).

The importance of practice/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/her mother’s speech.

It is therefore evident that any attempt to acquire a foreign language with an approach based just on classroom + homework time (i.e., just employing the declaratory brain circuit without the addition of guided practice via the procedural circuit), is not going to result in any better performance than the figure of 0.5% of U.S. students reaching conversational ability, as cited in the earlier blog-post.

The relative importance of, and correct view of formal 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 (and their “irregular” exceptions) 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 of language acquisition, while you are still hobbling along because of 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 “studying the language” (this is particularly important to understand when prepping for exams such as the DELE/SIELE, as illustrated by the fact that grammatical correctness is just one element in the “correctness” criterium, with coherence, fluency and linguistic scope each carrying equal weight to correctness). 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, as well as by 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 through constant guided practice, you HAVE TO STUDY YOUR GRAMMAR – but do so selectively, as we will show you during your tuition, and with the right mental attitude, namely that grammar is a valuable “cheat sheet” of essential patterns and irregularities.

The most vital aspect that you have to focus on in your active learning (i.e., when pumping that declaratory brain circuit) isn’t grammar.  It is expanding your Spanish lexis.

Expanding your Spanish Lexis is your top active learning 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 neighborhood; a DELE A2 student will need a lesser lexis than a C2 student to pass). 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, plus the “link phrases” (conectores) that are so important to ensuring fluency and coherence in speech. The reasons why lexis is deemed so important to conversational ability, are twofold:

  • As was said earlier, 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 that, to understand, “you have to have knowledge of words and the world”. 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, which helps give it specific meaning within a particular 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 don’t know 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. Neither will you be able to do well in the multiple choice listening and reading comprehension tests that make up 50% of the DELE / SIELE exams.
  • When expressing yourself orally, lexis is also of vital importance. You have to readily know the right word or phrase (to the point of not having to break your flow to search your memory for it), and you have to be able to pronounce those word chunks 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 theoretical knowledge of grammar – there is no way that your conversation can blossom, simply 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, since far more is involved than just learning grammar rules and lists of vocabulary with the declaratory circuit of your brain (you have to engage the procedural circuit through practice, practice, practice to be able to spontaneously produce the right phrases). The ACTFL has calculated that a student of average aptitude 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, starting from scratch. For the superior proficiency level that diplomats and the like require, it is generally thought that 1,000 hours of intensive preparation is necessary.  The reason for this many hours, is that these institutions (such as the Foreign Service Institute of the USA) aren’t teaching their students the same way as schools or colleges do;  through experience, they have come to understand the vital importance of practice – therefore, a diplomat doesn’t need 1, 000 hours of book study, but rather that total amount of time for both memorizing and guided practice of actual communication.

What constitutes immersion, in the internet age? 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 learning 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 importance of a lexical mind-set and the practice routines of engaging the procedural brain circuit, with all the other traditional learning tools focused on the declaratory circuit.

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 of lexis 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.

 

Develop 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.

Beginners and intermediate-level students, in order to start speaking with coherence and fluency, may choose to concentrate on mastering the present, the idiomatic future and the perfect 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 indicative 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 (futuro idiomatico) is already used exclusively, in place of the traditional conjugated future tense.  For the idiomatic future, you only need to learn the present indicative conjugation of one verb, namely “ir” (to go). We must emphasize, though, that this approach works when you yourself are speaking; however, 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 to the level of active learning and especially practice that’s needed for the purpose of own speech, which demands full internalization to enable spontaneous, real-time reproduction that’s coherent and fluent.

For proficiency at conversation, you have to practice speaking (and be expertly guided / corrected): The immersion that we referred to above, needs to go beyond you simply absorbing written and spoken Spanish. To acquire the skill and confidence to maintain a conversation, you have to have guided practice in actually 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 – unless you are fortunate enough to have one-on-one tuition, such as at our partner residential school in la Antigua Guatemala, PROBIGUA (click on this link for a 2-minute video).

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 record (i.e., tape), 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 verification 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. The need for expert assessment and guidance in language practice is no different to the same need for the golfer we mentioned, practicing his swing (for both, it is the procedural circuit of the brain that’s engaged). If an amateur golfer (“hacker”) like myself should try and practice my swing on my own, I will just re-enforce my bad habits. I need a pro to video-record me, show me where I go wrong, and guide me to correct it, to make my hours of practice worth-while – the exact same applies to language practice.

Getting over the barriers constituted by the own ego / the “fear of failure”: 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 communicative proficiency in the form of certification, such as the gold standard DELE / SIELE diploma of the Spanish education ministry, or the Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) in the USA. 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 (before I became ambassador for the New South Africa of President Mandela). I’ve also seen it here at DELEhelp – one remarkable fellow really got into the swing of things, designing for himself an identity as a Mexican footballer (soccer player). Every time, sitting himself down in front of the Skype camera, you could see him with his enormous sombrero on his head, dressed in his Mexican 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 uni-lingual Anglo straight-jacket 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!

Like any endeavour in life, learning a new language requires more than just guts and determination (although a lot of that, as well!). It requires that you understand the challenges, and the science behind what works and what doesn’t. I hope that this rather long blog-post has helped you acquire such understanding. We here at Excellentia Didactica / DELEhelp would be more than pleased to help you with engaging the procedural circuit of your brain through guided practice, so that you can master the performance art that conversing fluently and coherently in Spanish truly is.

REMEMBER TO ASK FOR OUR FREE 96-page DELE / SIELE EXAM ORIENTION AND ACING TIPS WORKBOOK – simply click on the image below.

 

Buena suerte with your learning of the beautiful Spanish language

Salu2

Willem




Sephardi Jews, Spain’s immigration law and the DELE A2 language test

Sephardic Jews Spain right of return DELE A2 language test

Sephardic Jews Spain right of return DELE A2 language test

In 2015 Spain promulgated a law allowing the descendants of the Sephardim who were expelled more than 500 years ago from Iberia (which in Hebrew, is called Sepharad), to apply for citizenship. Applications had to be submitted by the end of September 2019. THIS OFFER HAS NOW EXPIRED.  A benefit that still remains operative, though, is that applicants of proven Sephardic origin need only reside in Spain for TWO YEARS to qualify for citizenship when applying through the normal process, instead of the TEN YEARS residency applicable to other applicants.

All applications for Spanish nationality are subject to a basic Spanish language test (the DELE A2), as well as a civics-style test of knowledge of Spanish culture and the constitution (the CCSE). The language test is prescribed for applicants from countries where Spanish is not the official language.

So, what does the DELE A2 exam entail?

In this blog-post we will explain the nature of the DELE exam, what level of ability i.t.o. comprehension and expression is required in A2, the scoring criteria that the examiners apply, what grammar and functional language use elements are prescribed in the A2 curriculum, where and when to take the DELE A2 exam, its format, and how best to prepare for success.

NATURE OF THE DELE SYSTEM: The first thing to know about the DELE (which stands for “Diploma de Español como Lengua Extranjera – diploma of Spanish as foreign language”) is that it is NOT a typical school or college language exam focused on theoretical knowledge, such as of the rules of grammar. The DELE is a very practical test of your ability to apply your knowledge of the Spanish language in a real-world context – i.e., of the ability to actually communicate in Spanish in everyday circumstances. It tests four communicative competencies, with equal weight: listening comprehension, reading comprehension, expression in writing and oral expression.

The DELE is managed by the Instituto Cervantes, the Spanish state-funded cultural institute that is similar to the British Council, the Alliance française of France, and the Goethe-Institut of Germany. The DELE diplomas are issued in the name of the minister of education, culture and sport of Spain. They conform to the standards of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (the CEF). There are three main levels – Level A for beginners, Level B for intermediate, and Level C for advanced. Each main level is divided in two (i.e., A1 & A2, B1 & B2, and C1 & C2), making for six levels in all. Level A2 is thus the second beginner level, also called “waystage”.

DEFINITION OF THE STANDARD – This is the official CEF definition of the level of communicative competency that DELE A2 represents: “Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment). Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters. Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.

To clarify this standard further, the CEF provides a self-assessment tool for each of the communicative competencies at Level A2. It is self-explanatory and reads as follows:

Listening comprehensionI can understand phrases and the highest frequency vocabulary related to areas of most immediate personal relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local area, employment). I can catch the main point in short, clear, simple messages and announcements.

Reading comprehensionI can read very short, simple texts. I can find specific, predictable information in simple everyday material such as advertisements, prospectuses, menus and timetables and I can understand short simple personal letters.

Spoken interaction and productionI can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar topics and activities. I can handle very short social exchanges, even though I can’t usually understand enough to keep the conversation going myself. I can use a series of phrases and sentences to describe in simple terms my family and other people, living conditions, my educational background and my present or most recent job.

WritingI can write short, simple notes and messages relating to matters in areas of immediate need. I can write a very simple personal letter, for example thanking someone for something.

The SCORING CRITERIA used in the DELE exam further illustrate the practical nature of the testing, which aims to directly test ability to actually communicate – thus indirectly what you know about theory. There are four equally-weighted criteria used in assessing the written and oral expression tests (the comprehension tests are of the multiple-choice type). The four criteria are:

  1. Coherence, meaning how well the candidate can convey meaning, whether orally or in writing.
  2. Fluency of speech, which assesses ability to keep a conversation flowing by means of, for  example, the appropriate use of link words to string together phrases, thereby avoiding fragmented, staccato utterances (in the case of the written expression tasks, fluency is substituted with testing conformity to the genre, i.e., the appropriate format, level of formality, etc.)
  3. Correctness, which assesses how well words are pronounced (or spelled, in the case of writing) and how correct the candidate expresses him/herself in terms of grammar – regarding grammar correctness, it is important to note that every small error isn’t penalised, unless it detracts from correct understanding of the meaning the candidate wishes to communicate, or is so repetitive that it shows a lack of basic knowledge.
  4. Linguistic scope, which considers the adequacy of the candidate’s vocabulary for the tasks required at Level A2.

From the above, you will note that grammar correctness forms a very limited part of the DELE exam -which means that exam preparation should not be primarily focused on it, school style; practicing actually speaking, writing and comprehending would be much more essential, though grammar should not be neglected either.

There’s an excellent e-book of DELE A2 model exams that one can buy for €9-90 and download, via this LINK.

Talking about SPANISH GRAMMAR, the DELE A2 curriculum requires that the candidate should have knowledge of the following Spanish verbal moods and tenses:

Of the four moods in Spanish, only the Indicative (used to objectively describe concrete actions) and the Imperative (used to give orders). The Subjunctive and the Conditional moods are thus not required at this level.

Of the tenses of the Indicative Mood, knowledge of the following is required:

  • Present;
  • Preterit (i.e., simple past tense – example: I ate);
  • Imperfect Preterit (i.e., continuous past tense – example: I have been eating);
  • Perfect (i.e., compound past tense – example: I have eaten).

FUNCTIONAL LANGUAGE USES TO BE MASTERED – being a very practical exam focused on everyday functional language use, the DELE A2 curriculum emphasizes and details the communicative tasks that a candidate must be able to perform. These can be summarized as follows:

1. GIVE AND ASK FOR INFORMATION:

  • Identification – identify yourself (I am), things (this/that/my…), others & other things (by name and he/she/the), my preferences & those of others.
  • Ask for information about – persons, things, class or type, places, nationality, activity, quantity, time, finality (by when must…?), reason / cause, method / manner (how do I…), alternatives (tea or coffee?), expressions of curiosity (why did you go there?).
  • Give information about – yourself (personal data), things, places, time, frequency, finality, reason/cause, correcting wrong information, responding in the affirmative / negative i.r.o. information postulated.
  • Ask for confirmation – you are Julian?, is it true that…?, isn’t the number…?
  • Confirm / deny information postulated – yes, I’m Julian, no it isn’t true that…, yes, I’m British.
  1. EXPRESS OPINIONS, ATTITUDES & KNOWLEDGE
    • Ask and give an opinion
    • Ask and give a value statement (are you well? / I am well)
    • Express approval or disapproval
    • Position self for or against something
    • Ask if in agreement / invite agreement / express agreement or disagreement
    • Express scepticism / present counter-argument
    • Express certainty and evidence / express doubt about certainty and evidence
    • Express possibility
    • Express presence or absence of obligation and necessity
    • Express or ask about knowledge / state you have no knowledge about something
    • Ask about or express ability to do something
    • Express or ask about recalling something / state that you don’t recall
  1. EXPRESS TASTES, DESIRES & SENTIMENTS
    • Express or ask about interest in / taste for something or express aversion
    • Ask about or express preferences
    • Ask about or express desires
    • Ask about or express plans and intentions
    • Ask how someone is doing / feeling
    • Express sentiments – un/happiness, satisfaction, sorrow, pleasure, boredom, anger and indignation, anxiety, fear, preoccupation, nervousness, relief, surprise, admiration and pride, affection, physical sensations (hunger, thirst, pain, feeling unwell)
  1. INFLUENCE YOUR INTERLOCUTOR
    • Give an order or instruction
    • Ask a favour
    • Ask for something (object)
    • Ask for help
    • Respond to an order, request or wish
    • Ask for, give or deny permission
    • Propose or suggest some course of action
    • Offer or invite
    • Ask for confirmation of an offer, accept an offer, reject an offer or proposal
    • Advise or warn
    • Offer to do something
  1. RELATE SOCIALLY
    • Greet and respond to a greeting
    • Approach / engage someone
    • Present yourself to someone
    • Respond to someone presenting him/herself to you
    • Welcome someone and respond to a welcome
    • Excuse yourself and respond to someone asking to be excused
    • Thank someone and respond to thanks
    • Offer sympathy (lo siento)
    • Propose a toast
    • Congratulate
    • Wish someone well / respond to congratulations and well-wishing
    • Take your leave from company
  1. STRUCTURE A CONVERSATION
    • Establish communication or react to communication being established
    • Greet and respond to a greeting
    • Ask for someone or respond to such query
    • Ask for an address / phone number or respond when asked
    • Ask to leave a message
    • Ask interlocutor to commence conversation (as on phone) or react to its initiation
    • Introduce a theme / subject or react to it being introduced
    • Indicate interest in a subject
    • Organize the subject matter
    • Interrupt someone politely
    • Ask someone politely to keep quiet
    • Conclude a subject
    • Politely propose closure of a conversation

(Keep in mind that, although these generic headings of communicative functions may appear overwhelmingly broad at first glance, the DELE A2 curriculum inventory provides much more limiting detail about exactly what is expected at A2 level under each heading – your tutor will work through this detail with you, to ensure that you can perform each function as required).

THE DELE EXAM – WHERE & WHEN TAKEN: The DELE exam is taken at accredited exam centres around the world, on fixed dates – usually five or six times per year, in February, April, May, July, October and end November.

An important point to note, is that not all accredited DELE exam centres offer the DELE A2 at every scheduled sitting. You thus have to make doubly sure with the exam centre of your preference, that they are actually going to be able to offer, guaranteed, the DELE A2 exam on your chosen date (the oral exam requires two certified DELE A2 examiners to be present; if the centre doesn’t have sufficient local examiners, the Instituto Cervantes has to fly out examiners, which they only do if a certain quota is met at the particular centre).

As you can see, candidates typically must register more than a month in advance, and the results are only available three months after the exam date.

FORMAT OF THE DELE A2 EXAM – the exam consists of four tests (“pruebas”) corresponding to the four communicative competencies. The three written parts are taken sequentially on the exam date; the oral test is individually scheduled, for either the day before, or on the day of the written exam (after completion of those tests). The DELE A2 exam format was streamlined and improved at the end of 2019, taking effect in February 2020 (the descriptions below have been updated as per the new format, about which you can read more detail in this DELEhelp blog post – click on the IMAGE to go to the post):

The new DELE A2 exam explained – click on IMAGE to go to post

The first written test is Reading Comprehension, lasting 60 minutes and comprising 4 tasks with a total of 25 items. The Listening Comprehension test lasts 40 minutes, also with four tasks and 25 items. These comprehension tests are taken in the form of multiple choice papers marked by computer.

The Expression in Writing test lasts 45 minutes and consists of two tasks, written long-hand on paper. These are marked by qualified examiners in Spain.

DELE exam oral sin't Spanish InquisitionThe Oral Expression test is preceded by 12 minutes preparation time, and then lasts a further 12 minutes. It involves four tasks. The first is a prepared presentation on a given theme, the second consists of describing what is seen on a photograph, and the third is a dialogue with the interviewer in a simulated situation derived from the photograph in the second task. The oral is examined on the spot at the exam centre, by two certified A2-level DELE oral examiners. One is the interviewer, who does a holistic assessment. The other does a more detailed analytical assessment and usually sits behind the candidate.

Via this link you can listen to a recording of the oral test of a candidate who failed: https://examenes.cervantes.es/sites/default/files/09_a2_101120_eio_muestra_banda1.mp3

This is a link to a recording of a candidate who passed the DELE A2 oral test: https://examenes.cervantes.es/sites/default/files/09_A1_110520_EIO_muestra_banda2.mp3

 

HOW TO PREPARE FOR THE DELE EXAM:For DELE exam get a study plan

Students do not all have the same aptitude for learning languages, have different learning preferences, and don’t have the same amount of time available.  It is therefore essential that a proper diagnostic be done of each individual, and a personalized study plan be developed based on that.

Most of the potential applicants for Spanish citizenship will find themselves in work and family situations that won’t easily permit dropping everything and going off to a residential language school for an extended period. This is where modern technology comes in – with Skype, students can learn from the comfort and convenience of their own homes, one-on-one with a dedicated tutor, with a flexible schedule fitted around their realities. There’s no cost of flying off to attend school, nor accommodation costs and no opportunity cost in the form of lost income either. Furthermore, with Skype it is possible to search for tutors based in countries with a low cost of living, such as Central America, and avoid paying high tuition fees in Euros.

One thing that is definitely NOT ideal, is ending up in group classes (typically 6 or 8 students in European schools) where everything is reduced to the rhythm of the lowest common denominator.

The foregoing doesn’t mean that immersion in the last weeks before the exam date isn’t valuable. Such intensive exposure at a suitable residential school, with homestay with a Hispanic family, can be beneficial as final polishing – if done 1-on-1, with someone who knows what your Skype preparation consisted of and can integrate seamlessly with that. But it will cost a lot. On the other hand, it is quite possible to have the same intensity via Skype, doing an “immersion” the last few weeks with your known tutor, by blocking out sufficient time on your calendar.

If you have an exam centre near your home, and you therefore aren’t in any case obliged to fly off to an exam centre abroad, then Skype immersion makes more sense than residential immersion. The latter is normally over-cooked, because too many hours are fitted into to few days (since one cannot be away from home/work too long). Skype immersion ensures big savings in cost and time. It is clearly not an optimal learning situation to sit through seven or eight hours of classes a day at a residential school (as one would do, to justify the cost of the trip and accommodation). With Skype immersion, proper rest breaks can be planned in-between, without leaving a sense of a wasted investment in travel and opportunity costs.

For top tips about how to prepare for different elements of the DELE exams, you can have a look at some of the other posts on this blog. The blogpost here-below provides links to our top 16 posts, covering topics such as how to ace the oral exam, top tips for the written exam, how to navigate the multiple-choice format of the comprehension tests, top tested answers to DELE exam FAQ’s, and the like (click on this cover image to go to our omnibus post, and then click on the covers of the individual posts you want to read):

OFFER: FREE EXAM PREP HANDBOOK & FREE EXPLORATORY SKYPE SESSION

At DELEhelp we offer our 96-page e-book “DELE Exam Orientation & Acing Tips” free and without obligation – just ask for it via our contact information form (click on the image below, to be taken to the form). We also offer a free, one-hour exploratory Skype session, which you can request via the same contact information form.

It would be an honour and a privilege for us to help more descendants of the Sefardíes to successfully claim their right of return to the land of their ancestors.

Saludos cordiales

Willem Steenkamp




The SIELE EXAM is FAST, FLEXIBLE and FAIL-PROOF

The SIELE EXAM is FAST, FLEXIBLE and FAIL-PROOF

In our last blogpost, we compared the SIELE and DELE exams of Spanish language competency. We showed you that – as far as status and content goes – they are twins, sharing the Instituto Cervantes as parent. They have the same curriculum and scoring criteria. The essential difference is in form; the SIELE is the new online version, with all the flexibility and fast turn-around that modern technology makes possible. Being an official coordinator of the SIELE exam center in la Antigua Guatemala, here are some of my observations about how the new SIELE is performing in real life. Summed up: the SIELE exam is fast, flexible and fail-proof.

FAST: How quickly can you get your results for the new online SIELE exam? SIELE’s promise is within three weeks max. However, we had a candidate do the S3 module (Listening Comprehension + Oral Expression) on a Saturday, and her results were ready on Tuesday! What is noteworthy, is that this particular exam module that she did, included oral – meaning that it wasn’t simply multiple-choice questions marked by computer, but that it needed to be listened to and assessed, in person, by qualified examiners. This turn-around is light years ahead of the DELE’s waiting time of two to three months, plus months more to receive your actual diploma via snail-mail.

Another time-related issue that sets the SIELE apart from its twin, the examen DELE, is that our candidates could register online and receive confirmed times and dates for sitting their SIELE exams, just 48 hours before the exam dates chosen. Instead of the DELE’s limitation to half a dozen fixed dates per year, the SIELE can be taken on practically any date of your choice, and at very short notice, if need be. Very importantly, your SIELE date is immediately and definitively confirmed. In the case of the DELE, on the other hand, candidates need to wait for confirmation at the end of the registration period, which often then results in disappointment (i.e., registration refused) if the particular exam center couldn’t meet the requirements for having oral examiners in place for the candidate’s chosen level, on the set date.

FAIL-PROOF: Are you worried that, since for the DELE you MUST select a particular exam level to attempt, you may aim too high and then fail? Perhaps because of failing just one particular exam unit? This risk is inherent in the DELE, because it is a single-level exam – meaning that it isn’t your general communicative competency in Spanish that is certified, but whether you meet all of the thresholds for the particular level you enrolled for (resulting rather bluntly in either an “apto” or “no apto”, meaning a pass or a fail).

The SIELE overcomes the dilemma of what level to aim for, because it is a multi-level exam. This means that your result for each exam segment is stated as a number (out of 250) which is then translated into your level of competency – for instance, if you score between 125 and 175 out of 250 in the Oral Expression segment, that translates into a B1 grading.  You will get such an indvidualized grading of your level for each of the four communicative competencies – you could, for example, be assessed as B1 for Oral Expression, B2 for Reading Comprehension, A2 for Listening Comprehension, and B1 for Expression in Writing. This is a far more satisfying result than simply hearing you’ve utterly failed B2, if that was the DELE level you had enrolled for. (Again – the levels for DELE and SIELE are exactly the same, as are the curricula and the scoring criteria, and both exams are overseen by Spain’s Instituto Cervantes – see the image below, showing the signature of the Instituto’s Academic Director on a set of actual SIELE exam results).

With our students, we have seen in practice the value of the more flexible yet also more exact certification of SIELE, compared to DELE. It is far better to be told that you actually scored 175 for the oral, and thus be certified at B1 (i.e., you got the top B1 score in this) than to be simply told you’ve failed B2, if you had aimed just one point too high by enrolling for the latter (a B2 grading in the oral starts at 176).

What the above means, is that the SIELE exam is virtually fail-proof. It is like a blood test, which realistically shows where you are placed on the spectrum – not whether you pass or fail a certain arbitrary level. I suppose somebody with no competency in Spanish at all, may in theory fail to obtain even an A1 level, but for the normal student the SIELE’s format eliminates the risk of ending up empty-handed if you had aimed a bit too high (which could have serious consequences, if you urgently needed certification for job advancement, university acceptance or some other formal purpose).

IMPORTANT TIP: While YOU may not be at risk of “failing” the SIELE exam, technology isn’t failproof – as anybody who’s been using Skype, or any internet-based service, can testify. It can – and it does – unfortunately happen that, due to circumstances outside of the control of Madrid or your local exam center, the internet connection fails, making taking (or finishing) the exam impossible at that time. This means the particular segment of the exam needs to be re-scheduled, typically for the next day. Therefore, if you are attending an immersion course at a school that’s an accredited exam center (like our PROBIGUA here in La Antigua Guatemala), don’t leave the exam till the very last day – schedule it for two or three days before your departure, so that it can be repeated if technology failure had occurred.

FLEXIBLE: Another great element of flexibility in the SIELE exam, lies in the fact that you can choose which modules you want to do, on which dates. You can, for example, do the SIELE S2 (Reading Comprehension and Expression in Writing) on one day, and the S3 (Listening Comprehension and Oral Expression), on the next day – or next month, or next year – and thus, together, cover all four communicative competencies; the same four that the DELE tests at a single fixed exam session. If you only need to show proof of your level of ability to speak Spanish, then you simply register for the SIELE S4 exam, which consists of just an Oral Expression test. Having myself experienced just how sapping the DELE C2 exam can be, I can imagine that a bit of a break may do wonders for one’s continued intellectual focus. To read more about the SIELE exam, go to their excellent English website, by clicking on this image:

↑ Link to SIELE ↑ website English

It is also important to note that the exam centers for SIELE set their own schedules for exam sessions (which you will see advertised on the www.siele.org website). Local exam center coordinators can add to, or change their schedule of sessions for a given day 48-hours ahead. You could, therefore, reach out to your center of choice (if, for example, you have some reason for needing to do the exam after hours) and see if they would schedule a session convenient for you, which you can then select when you register.  I have been most impressed with SIELE’s support service, which runs 24/7 (keeping in mind that there are exam centers around the world). This high level of back-up is provided by the IT giant Telefonica’s educational division, which is the technology partner of the Instituto Cervantes.

One of the further practical benefits of the SIELE exam format over the DELE, is that you will be doing the exam seated in front of a tested and certified high-powered computer dedicated to just your use, with broadband cable connection (i.e., not wifi) and a set of proper ear-covering earphones with microphone.  This is very useful for the Listening Comprehension part of the exam, which in the case of the DELE is often done in large groups seated together in an exam hall and having to listen to the audio being played over a public-address system.  Because the SIELE exam is offered every day of the week (at our center we offer it Mondays through Saturdays) there is also very little likelihood of the crowding that often goes with the DELE’s handful of fixed exam dates.

If you’ve basically lost the skill of writing legibly by hand (or if your fingers are no longer fit for three hours of such torture!) then the fact that the SIELE exam is typed on a keyboard and not written long-hand like the DELE, is another advantage.

Lest you think that I’m putting down the DELE, let me conclude by saying again that these two exams aren’t in competition – they are twins from the same family. To me (being very proud of my own DELE C2 diploma) it is simply great that the Instituto Cervantes has teamed up with excellent partners, to bring serious students of the Spanish language faster, more flexible options. There will always be a place for the examen DELE (please note, for instance, that the C2 can only be done as DELE). But for students who are under pressure to show certification quickly for college admission, work or the like, the SIELE exam is a great alternative. It is also our recommendation to our own students that they do the SIELE as a stepping stone – a very useful independent diagnostic and familiarization – on their way to eventual top-level DELE success. If you do the demo SIELE exam via this link:  https://siele.org/web/guest/examen I am sure that you will agree that the SIELE exam is fast, flexible and fail-proof.

click on image to ask for free workbook

If you want to know more about the DELE / SIELE exam curriculum and scoring criteria, you may find our FREE 96-page in-house workbook #9 called Exam Orientation and Acing Tips very useful. To receive a download link for this e-book, absolutely free and with no obligation, simply click on the image above to open our contact information form, and send that to me, so that I may then e-mail the link to you.

We also offer a free, one-hour exploratory Skype session, through which you could find out if our exam prep services could be of value to you.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Salu2

Willem




How do the SIELE and the DELE exam compare

The examen DELE and the SIELE are not identical twins, but they share the same parent (the Instituto Cervantes), have the same curriculum, and enjoy the same status. The only true difference between them, is how they operate. The DELE is traditional, being written long-hand with  a pencil on paper, and is limited to a handful of fixed exam dates. The SIELE is hip and cool, very much into the modern ways of the world – so, it is done ONLINE.

The new SIELE is flexible – you choose your own exam date, plus which of the modules(s) testing the four communicative competencies you want to do on that day. It is quick – you can register up to 48 hours in advance, and get your results within three weeks (as opposed to many months for the DELE).  The SIELE is risk free –  because it is drawn up as a multi-level exam, you WILL get certified, at your correct level (A1, A2, B1, B2, C1), based on the level of communicative competency you demonstrated. This is because, unlike the DELE, you don’t have to register for a specific level, which means in the SIELE there isn’t the DELE’s risk of failing.

The SIELE enjoys excellent technological back-up, because it has the educational division of telecoms giant TELEFONICA as partner. SIELE therefore boasts a very informative website, also accessible in English. There is a truly comprehensive exam guide available in English, for download. If you click on the icons below, it will link you automatically to the website, or to the exam guide, or to four different short videos explaining how each of the four communicative competencies are tested in the SIELE.

↑ Link to SIELE ↑ website English

 

Download SIELE↑ exam guide

 

Short video ↑ explaining listening test

 

Video on Reading Comprehension test

 

Video on the ↑ writing skills test

 

Link to video ↑ explaining oral test

So, how do the Siele and the DELE exam compare? Apart from being an official OPI / OPIc proctor (the American equivalent exam) I am the official coordinator of the accredited SIELE exam center in la Antigua Guatemala. On the other hand, I am very proud of my DELE C2 diploma. Furthermore, in real life I actually am the father of non-identical twins. So, I feel like a parent who would not want to negatively compare one to the other.  They are from the same pedigreed stable (with the SIELE boasting a cross-continent range of godparents, in the form of the University of Salamanca, the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and the University of Buenos Aires) and they represent the same gold standard for certifying communicative competency in Spanish. They are both based on the Common European Framework, using the exact same curriculum. Level A2 for SIELE is exactly the same standard as A2 for DELE, and so on for all the levels (except for the top C2, which is only offered as DELE).  The fundamental truth is that the only real difference lies in HOW the exams are taken, not in WHAT they test. The difference in the HOW, is simply that – with the SIELE – the Instituto Cervantes and its partners have stepped into the internet age, with all the convenience and flexibility that modern information technology make possible.

For students who need certification in a hurry, the SIELE overcomes the long registration process of the DELE exam, the wait for a fixed exam date to come around, and then the usual two to three months wait for the results to be known (plus months more before the diploma finally arrives!).  In the case of the SIELE, you can register for the date of your choosing (at our exam center here in la Antigua, for example, we offer slots six days per week). You need do so with only 48 hour notice, and you get your results within three weeks – very often our students get theirs the very next day.

With the SIELE it is also possible to mix and match the competencies you want to have tested on any given day. To illustrate – you can do just the oral expression test (the so-called SIELE S4), or you can do the SIELE Global, which tests all four competencies over three hours of examination. The SIELE Global is thus similar in scope to the DELE. Between these two ends of the spectrum, lie S1, S2 & S3, which are individual combinations of the four competencies:

In addition to the SIELE Global, there is the option of taking individual competency tests, in different combinations.

So, how do the SIELE and the DELE exam compare when it comes to the type of tuition / exam preparation that we do with candidates? There’s practically no difference, because the curriculum and the scoring criteria are the same. It is, after all, the same four communicative competencies that are being tested, to the same standard. We use the same material, whether you are aiming for DELE or SIELE – just familiarising you towards the end with the differing logistical demands of the distinct examining technologies.  Anyone who is familiar with the typical questions of the DELE, will immediately see that the questions in the SIELE are of the exact same ilk. We therefore use the same DELE model exam books in the preparation for both.

We find that the SIELE is an excellent tool for students who have high end goals, but who are unsure of the DELE level they want to tackle on the way there. Instead of breaking your head about what DELE level to register for, do the SIELE Global instead – you will get an authoritative certification of your current level, without the risk of failing, and it will serve as an excellent diagnostic of your strengths and weaknesses, which one can then address on the way to the ultimate goal.

Evidently, for students who only need, or only want an authoritative report on their oral interaction competency, the SIELE S4 offers the singular focus and opportunity which the DELE (with its obligation to always do all four competencies) simply doesn’t. The SIELE’s individual permutations also allow for effectively spreading the exam burden over different days – by doing S2 and S3 on different dates, one can amass certification for all four competencies, but achieved at an easier pace.

In the end, though, obtaining the C2 diploma requires doing the DELE, at that level.  The DELE diploma is issued by the Spanish ministry of education, and is valid life-long, whereas the SIELE Global certificate is issued by the SIELE partners, and has a validity of five years.

In the final analysis, the best course for me to steer with regard to how the SIELE and the DELE exam compare, is not to set them up as if in competition with each other (which they certainly are not) but rather to applaud the flexibility and the expansion of options that the introduction of the SIELE has added to the Cervantes family.

The key to success for Cervantes with DELE / SIELE lies in now being better able to answer to the clearly varied needs and practical circumstances of each individual in the vast collective of students – students who rightly realize that competency in Spanish is a great asset, and who want to obtain the best, most credible certification possible.

In your opinion, how do the SIELE and the DELE exam compare? Please send us your comments and questions – we look forward to engaging with you.

Whatever format of exam you have in mind – buena suerte with your preparation!

Salu2

Willem

click on image to ask for free workbook




DELE SIELE EXAM PREP IMMERSION

Our award-winning partner residential school in La Antigua Guatemala, PROBIGUA

Self-study at home for the DELE exam (or its more flexible new online version, the SIELE and its American equivalent, the OPIc) via Skype is convenient, personalized and affordable. But some of you may want to supplement this with a total immersion in Hispanic culture and conversation (especially during the last week or so before the set date for the examen DELE, or before your appointment for doing the SIELE). Think of homestay with a native Spanish-speaking family. Intensive, one-on-one tutoring that follows your existing DELEhelp study plan and methodology. Affordable, and situated in a beautiful and interesting environment…

DELEhelp is partnered with the renowned language school PROBIGUA in La Antigua Guatemala, to offer just such a possibility to our students – even during the pandemic (safely, with dedicated bubble protocols). One can say that we are the internet arm of PROBIGUA, and they in turn are our residential school arm. In fact, we are the academic content provider to PROBIGUA, so that your existing study plan and preferred learning methodology will be respected and continued with, when you come here for immersion. It is quite likely that you will come face-to-face with some of your DELEhelp Skype tutors, if you choose to do your immersive “pre-exam polishing” at PROBIGUA!

In this Blog-post we will give you more information about PROBIGUA as our recommended DELE and SIELE exam preparation immersion destination, as well as on the beautiful, historic colonial capital city of La Antigua Guatemala (a UNESCO World Heritage site), but if you want to see a quick 1-minute video on the subject rather than read all about it, you can simply click on the image below, and be taken straight to the video:

DELE exam preparation PROBIGUA

Click on image for video

PROBIGUA stands for Proyecto Bibliotecas Guatemala. The school (which is non-profit) is one of the two legs of what is a laudable social responsibility venture. The other leg, is the promotion of learning in rural areas of Guatemala, which PROBIGUA does through building schools, and the running of their famous “libraries on wheels” (converted U.S. school buses) to schools and villages in the countryside. This is done with the aid of the Swiss PROBIGUA Foundation.

Here are some images related to the mobile libraries and the school building project:

:

As you can see, PROBIGUA won the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s prestigious “Access to Learning Award” in 2001, and their efforts were also recognised by pope Francis in 2016.

Furthermore, PROBIGUA is an accredited exam center for the Spanish competency SIELE exams (the flexible new online twin of the DELE) and for the equivalent American OPI family of Spanish language exams.

By coming to PROBIGUA for your DELE / SIELE exam preparation immersion, you will therefore not only be attending a top school, but you will be contributing to job creation for the expert maestras as well, plus you will have the opportunity to see more of Guatemala than just La Antigua and participate in PROBIGUA’s very interesting and laudable social and community activities.

The PROBIGUA language school is housed in the heart of La Antigua Guatemala, 10 minutes from the central plaza and located in the shadow of its most beautiful church – the Belen chapel (the convent of Belen provides safe accommodation, meals as well as socially distanced teaching spaces in its gardens). The facilities offer a pleasant and technologically well-equipped learning environment. Classes are one-on-one, in attractive surroundings. As said, DELEhelp is PROBIGUA’s academic content provider and internet arm, so your existing study plan and methodology will seamlessly integrate.

 

 

ABOUT LA ANTIGUA GUATEMALA: Our historic little city was once the capital of all Spain’s imperial possessions between Panama and Mexico. With its cobbled streets and colonial architecture (well preserved, except for the many signs of the might of the region’s earthquakes!)  La Antigua is regarded as the best-conserved colonial city in Central America and is now also the latter region’s most-visited tourist destination.

Historic, plus scenically beautiful in its  green valley among its three volcanos (Volcan Fuego is still active) as well as strikingly cosmopolitan, this little city that seems to have woken up like Rip van Winkle boasts countless excellent restaurants and attractions for its many visitors. La Antigua is also regarded as one of the world’s top centers for the teaching of Spanish as foreign language. This is thanks to the locals naturally speaking correctly, slowly, while articulating clearly and without much of an accent  (the local way of speaking is due to La Antigua having been the capital and seat of the learned bureaucracy as well as of many religious orders and one of the oldest universities in all of the Americas; the locals were therefore formed in the Castilian upper-class way of speaking, unlike the lowland areas of Latin America where the Andalusian accent and tradition of rapid speech was the formative norm).

The reason why La Antigua went into a twohundred year deep sleep, was probably political – although the great Santa Martha earthquake of 1773 was a destructive reality that provided a convenient excuse. The 1770’s were turbulent times in the Americas, and the Bourbon dynasty in Spain wasn’t that well settled either. In 1773 a new Captain-General was sent to what was then known as Santiago de los Caballeros (la Antigua’s former name) with orders to i.a. dis-empower the very powerful clergy, who exerted considerable political influence from their great cathedrals, monasteries and palaces which dominated almost every square block of the colonial city. Shortly after the new Captain-General’s arrival, the great earthquake flattened much of the city, and he ordered that the capital needed to be moved to the “safer” site of the present-day Guatemala City, some 50 miles away. (A previous earthquake had struck La Antigua some 20 years earlier, from which it had by 1773 mostly been restored to its proper imperial splendour, and most locals had wanted to re-build again, after the 1773 quake, rather than move).

This order to move the capital lock, stock and barrel, had the effect of forcing the once-wealthy clergy not to restore again their imposing edifices, but to abandon them and go and construct anew, from scratch, at the new site, during tough economic times for the Spanish empire. The order to move was made final by the king in 1775, literally on pain of death, and the city was almost completely abandoned, to the point of losing its name and coming to be referred to as “la Antigua Guatemala” (i.e., old Guatemala). This exodus, ironically, ensured that it was saved from modernisation. Today the ruins of the once-great edifices still abound, untouched, dotted all over our little city and serving now as awe-inspiring tourist attractions.

For more about La Antigua’s importance as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, you can follow this link:  http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/65

The New York Times recently published an excellent short video (6 minutes) on La Antigua as destination, which will give you a good idea of what to see and do here: http://tinyurl.com/zl8fsk9

Click on this image to go to PROBIGUA Facebook page

So, for an affordable, interesting and academically worthwhile DELE SIELE exam prep immersion ahead of sitting your exam, come to PROBIGUA in La Antigua Guatemala. Here your DELEhelp tuition will continue seamlessly. You can also be part of a laudable social venture with rewarding community interaction opportunities, and you will be surrounded by spectacularly beautiful cultural and natural scenery, while enjoying the perfect climate of the “city of eternal spring”.  To go to PROBIGUA’s own Facebook page, just click on the image on the right.

Saludos cordiales

Willem

click on image to ask for free workbook




HOW THE DELE EXAM FINAL MARK IS CALCULATED

How sure do you feel about passing the DELE exam?

Are you stronger in your reading comprehension than in listening to and understanding the many different Spanish accents? Are you more fluent in speaking, than in writing Spanish? Such variation in strengths may result in you passing one element of the DELE exam, but failing in another. If that is the case, will you then still make the overall pass grade?

What should you prioritize in your exam prep, to avoid that one element completely trips you up? From this, you can see that the way in which the final mark in the different levels of the DELE exam is calculated, is important to how you should focus your personal study plan, when you relate it to your pre-existing strengths and weaknesses. Here we will explain how the DELE exam marking system works at the different levels.

The calculation of the final DELE exam result for levels A1 to B2 – whether you passed or failed – is different from the system used for the top level of the examen DELE, which is level C. In turn, the system used for  C1 differs from that for the “mastery” level, C2. Nonetheless, all the levels have in common that the DELE diploma certifies practical ability to actually communicate fluently, correctly and coherently in Spanish (and not merely possessing abstract knowledge of Spanish). The four areas of communicative competency that gets tested, and which must therefore be developed in your DELE exam preparation, are reading and listening comprehension, as well as proficiency at expression and interaction, both orally and in writing.

How each of these four different competencies are individually tested and scored in the different exam sections, is explained in earlier posts in this blog series. You can access these detailed discussions by clicking on the relevant cover image immediately below.  They will explain to you the four scoring criteria used (being coherence, fluency, ample vocabulary and correctness) as well as the four numerical bands (0 > 3) in which marks are accorded for each of the scoring criteria.

The scoring criteria used in the assessment of your DELE exam ORAL test

 

Top Tips for Acing the DELE / SIELE & WPT written tasks

What this present blog post will explain, is how your combined results for these different competencies are in the end aggregated, determining whether you passed or failed.

Here is the scheme of aggregation plus the required minima, for DELE levels A1 to B2:

You will see  that the four competencies each carry an equal weight, with each making up 25% of the overall exam mark. However, these four competencies are paired, two-by-two, with a required minimum of 60% for each pair (i.e., 30< out of 50). These two legs, in turn, are NOT aggregated – thus NEVER giving you an overall exam score. The global mark is simply either APTO (pass) or NO APTO (fail). This is because, if you failed any one of the two pairings, you’ve failed the exam – even should you add up your scores for the two legs and come to an aggregate mark above 60%. YOU HAVE TO PASS BOTH LEGS, to pass the exam and get the DELE diploma. This is particularly important for students who MUST pass (like Sephardic or “Sefardi” descendants who must pass the DELE A2 in order to qualify for Spanish nationality).

If you did obtain an APTO in both pairs, then your overall score will be APTO. You will receive a DELE exam results notification that looks something like this:

Scoring the expression tasks

A more complicated part of the overall pass/fail calculation of the oral expression and of the expression in writing tasks, is how the scoring system for the expression tasks (in four numerical bands i.e., awarding you either a 0, or a 1, 2 or 3 for each of the four scoring criteria) relates to the mathematics of the final calculation out of 25 for each of these two exam parts. Unfortunately, there isn’t one constant, simple mathematical formula used.

Let’s start with the four bands: 0 &1 (fail) and 2 (threshold pass) plus 3 (good pass exceeding norm). This must be considered together with the fact that two assessments are always done: a holistic one, and an analytical. When this is applied to the DELE A2 exam as representative example, first to the written expression, it factors into the final calculation in the following manner:

Descripción general Formato de la prueba escrita: La prueba consta de tres tareas: dos de interacción y una de expresión. … Calificación: Se otorga una calificación holística y una calificación analítica a la actuación del candidato en cada una de las tareas. La calificación holística supone un 40 % de la calificación final y la calificación analítica el 60% restante. En la calificación analítica, las tres tareas se ponderan de la siguiente manera: Tarea 1 (17%), Tarea 2 (33%) y Tarea 3 (50%).

In brief, there are three tasks to perform in the writing exam. In the analytical assessment task one counts for 17% of the overall mark for this exam segment, task two for 33% and task 3 for 50%. The holistic assessment score makes up 40% of the overall value and the analytical the other 60%.

One must thus understand that the weight of the holistic and analytical assessment firstly differs, and secondly that the weight of each task then differs for the purpose of the analytical assessment. How it thus works in practice, is that each task is individually scored for each of the four scoring criteria (coherence, aptness of style/formality, linguistic scope and correctness) i.t.o. the 4 numerical bands, both holistically and analytically. Once that is done for all three tasks, and for both forms of assessment, then the percentage proportions as mentioned, are applied mathematically and the final score out of 25 is thus calculated.

For the oral expression tasks it is essentially the same procedure:

Descripción general Formato de la prueba oral: La prueba consta de cuatro tareas: dos de expresión y dos de interacción. Se otorga una única calificación holística a la actuación del candidato en las cuatro tareas y dos calificaciones analíticas: una correspondiente a las tareas monológicas (tareas 1 y 2) y otra a las tareas que integran actividades comunicativas de la lengua de interacción oral (tareas 3 y 4). La calificación holística supone un 40% de la calificación final y la calificación analítica el 60% restante. En la calificación analítica las cuatro tareas se ponderan de la siguiente manera: tareas 1 y 2 (50%), tareas 3 y 4 (50%).

The oral part of the exam consists of four tasks. One holistic assessment is done considering all four tasks together. The analytical assessment is split in two: one for the two monologue-type tasks (#1&2) and another for the two interactive tasks (#3&4). The holistic assessment for the oral also counts for 40% of the weight, and the analytical for 60% – with the two segments (1&2 / 3&4) weighted equally at 50% each for the analytical. The four scoring criteria for the oral are the same as for the writing, except that fluency substitutes style/formality. The four numerical bands function the same as in the writing. The mathematical process for calculating the final score out of 25, is essentially the same as I described above for the writing.

It is of great importance, i.t.o. adopting an appropriate exam prep study plan as well as for having the right mind-set when going into the actual exam, that you understand how the two exam parts testing your competency at expressing yourself orally and in writing, are scored i.t.o. the four scoring criteria used. This is actually of much more significance than the mere mathematics of calculating the final pass/fail, discussed just now. Please, therefore, click on the banner images of the two blog posts shown above, to go and acquaint yourself with what these scoring criteria are and how they are applied.

click on image to go to a 1-minute video with top bite-size tips for acing the DELE

The system of pass / fail calculation for DELE level C1, with its minima:

The system employed for calculating a pass or fail for DELE C1 still very much resembles that for A1 – B2. It has the four competencies, also grouped in two pairs. The main addition is that the element of integrated dexterity in language use is being emphasized much more than at the lower levels. Instead of just testing reading and listening comprehension, DELE level C1 combines this with testing competency at the use of language. Similarly, oral and written expression is integrated with comprehension (what this means, is that your answers – when you express yourself – need to reflect how well you understood the texts and audio clips upon which the written and oral expression and interaction tasks are based).

The principles for arriving at an overall pass / fail determination remains the same as for A1 – B2, though. You have to obtain 60% per pair, for each of the two pairs.

The threefold scheme used for DELE level C2, with its minima:

The difference with the lower levels is that, instead of passing two pairs, you have to pass each competency tested (for A1 – B2 you could fail one competency, because if your showing in the other competency paired with it was strong enough to give you a pass aggregate for that paired group, you still passed). In the case of the three sections of the C2 exam, you have to pass each one individually. You will notice that there’s also much more focus on integrated dexterities (i.e., application skills). It is still essentially the same four core communicative competencies that gets tested, just configured into three sections in a more synergized, cross-impacting way, resembling the integrated nature of real-world interactive language use.

The DELE exam results are normally made available electronically to candidates, between two and three months after the exam date. Those who have passed, will have to wait another two to three months for their diplomas to reach them. This is what the DELE diploma looks like:

DELE C2 diploma example

This is what the DELE Diploma looks like.

What our students say:

Talking about exam results – at DELEhelp we are fortunate that our regular students always do well in their exams. I’ll quote you what two of these students wrote us. The first underlines the need for a proper study plan and focused tutoring for obtaining success. The second shows how flexible our 1-on-1, personalized Skype tutoring can be, fitting in with a globe-trotting student’s travels across continents and time zones.

KEVIN wrote about how he changed his fortunes from having failed on his own, to passing with us at his next try, getting 100% for his oral:  My family and I vacation frequently in Baja California and I have always found it rather easy to get by speaking very little or no Spanish.  Most locals I encounter in Baja are patient and usually speak a fair amount of English.

However, over the last several years, I have developed a great fondness for Mexico along with its people and culture and this fondness led me to believe that I have been missing a great deal by remaining in an English-only world.  For this reason, I finally promised myself to learn to speak Spanish.  At the same time, I wanted an objective and concrete way to measure my progress and chose to employ the DELE exams for this purpose.

My first experience with the exam preparation process did not go so well.  After reading a bit about the exam and the various levels I decided I would prepare for a few months and then sit for the A2 exam.  This seemed reasonable to me at the time since, after all, I had some Spanish in elementary school and even practiced a bit as an adult with audio tapes.  I was not a complete beginner!  So, for a few months I studied when I could find the time and practiced online a bit with native speakers.  When exam time came around, I did my best and actually enjoyed the exam experience, but, the test was much different than I had anticipated and it I was clearly far from the mark regarding A2-level Spanish.  The test results confirmed my assessment and I failed pretty miserably on all four test sections.  I felt sorry for myself but quickly realized that I just needed a better learning approach.  I also now knew that success would require this approach to be more disciplined, formal and structured. Fortunately for me, the day of my tragic exam experience I met two other, better prepared, test-takers and they told me about their very positive test prep experience using a plan developed for them by the folks at DELEhelp. I enlisted the DELEhelp team within a week.

After an initial conversation, I was given a series of tests much like the DELE exam.  The results of this test indicated that my current Spanish level was well below A2 and that I should target the A1 level for my next exam.  It was then explained to me, very clearly, what is expected of a person communicating in Spanish at the A1 level.  With this target in mind and my test results in hand we created a study plan to get me to the A1 level in all categories.  In my case I was strongest in reading and writing, so listening and speaking would be emphasized.  Together we chose an exam date and got to work.

My study plan consisted of reading and writing assignments, vocabulary memorization (a necessary evil), Spanish media in various forms that I selected and also live Skype sessions in Spanish.  The Skype sessions were used to review and discuss assignments, test vocabulary and talk about events within the media segments.  Periodic mock tests were provided and the study plan was tuned accordingly.  For instance, halfway through my A1 prep course it became clear that I needed more conversational practice and also that we could afford to lighten the reading and writing load.  This combination of homework and independent study, along with live review in Spanish with a native speaker, worked wonders for me.  I felt quite confident heading into the exam.

When I received my test results, I had a bit of a surprise waiting. I had comfortably passed the reading, writing and listening sections of the exam but I was a bit shocked to find that I had received a perfect score on the oral section (25/25).  My smile muscles severely cramped after an hour or so of constant use.

Even more fun for me was a trip that my family and I took to Costa Rica a few weeks after the exam.  I found myself talking to people I had never met before, in Spanish!  I was introducing my family, describing our adventures and asking questions about the food, their families and their country.  They were talking back to me in Spanish and smiling warmly when I mixed up words or made other, sometimes very funny, mistakes.  It is very hard to describe this experience but it was amazing.

I know that I am only at the A1 level but I am very solid at this level.  I also now understand that I can continue as far as I want down this path if I am only willing to follow an effective plan and put in the effort required.  I can be as fluent as I want to be.   It’s hard work but it is not magic and it is well worth every minute.

ALEX from England, who prepped with us whilst exploring the jungles, mountains and beaches of the length and breadth of the Americas and finally wrote her DELE exam in New Zealand, wroteWorking with Willem and Monica was extremely valuable in my preparations for the DELE B2 exam. I was travelling at the time and they were able to be flexible and work with different time zones and my availability. They tailor the content of the lessons to what the particular student is looking for and to the syllabus of the DELE exam. Having gone through multiple mock exams with Monica, I felt more prepared and confident in tackling the format of the exam on the day. They are truly wonderful people and they made the lessons enjoyable as well as effective in improving my Spanish.

An important element in our students’ success has been the use of top DELE exam preparation resources. The most important of these are our in-house, exam-targeted workbooks specifically developed for English-speakers. You can obtain a FREE sample e-book, with no obligation, by simply asking – send us a completed contact info form which you can access by clicking on the IMAGE BELOW. We will NEVER sell or share your e-mail address, nor will we ever send you bulk e-mails. 

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If you are interested in DELEhelp, you may want to visit our Facebook page, where we post regular “bite-size” exam acing tips:

https://www.facebook.com/delehelp/ 

Thanks for reading this blog post, and best of luck with your DELE exam preparation

Salu2

Willem




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.

OUR TOP TIPS FOR HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR SPANISH CONVERSATION SKILLS

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!

sombrero

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.

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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

Willem




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.

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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.”

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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!

Salu2

Willem

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