Hi! How's your French progressing lately? Have you taken any official tests to assess it?
Tests are not essential by any means, but many people like them because they provide a measurable and objective indication.
There is of course more than one way to evaluate your degree of fluency. One grading system involves three levels (A for beginner, B for intermediate and C for advanced), with two subdivisions for each level. Using an analogy, if each grade were people thrown into water, they would look like this: A1 have sunk to the bottom of the tank. A2 swing their arms and legs chaotically. B1 are bobbing at the surface, their heads clear off the water. B2 are propelling themselves forward and backward. C1 have grown gills. C2 are full blown mermaids.
To be more specific, this translates as follows:
The Honest Truth about Grades (at least according to me!)
A1: You suck. Sorry, but there is no other way to say it. You know nothing. You might have bought a phrase book or a multi-language dictionary, but you haven't broken either spine yet.
A2: You still suck. You have memorized some words (well done!) so you are able to ask for a beer. You can also say things like "Je parle un peu français" (but fool no one) and describe yourself. But you still mix up the verb "être" and the verb "avoir" when stating your age.
B1: You probably still think you suck, but this is because you are now aware of how much you still need to learn. But no need to feel deflated, B1 is a respectable level (well done)! You can go abroad alone without having panic attacks, and although it might be convoluted, you will be able to ask for most things. You can discuss simple subjects and even share simple thoughts! You can use le présent, passé composé, imparfait and futur tenses but will still make "basic mistakes" like mixing up "avoir" and "être" in passé composé. The majority of people I meet plateau at this level. The next step is a steep one.
B2: You still say you suck, but people around you convincingly disagree now. You speak at a steady pace, people understand you, and when you don't understand something, you don't need a dictionary: things can be explained in other words. You are aware of signs that give away your mother tongue and can avoid many of them. Using articles is now a second nature. Your sentences are structurally sound most of the time. You can use le subjonctif and conditionnel but you may still struggle with pronouns and occasionally mix up genders. If B1 was allowing you to travel, B2 allows you to work. Now you're in business (well done)!
C1: This is as good as it gets! (hooray!) Your head is full of grammar rules. You probably could correct a native speaker because, unlike them, your memory is still fresh. You still make mistakes, but who cares, nobody's perfect. I'm afraid C1 is not an armour though: you may still think you suck, especially if being "as good as a native" is your goal. You probably imagined C1 as something better than it feels. If this is the case for you, it's probably because you forgot that native speakers don't know the meaning and the spelling of every word in the dictionary. Learning is an endless quest for everyone.
C2: This gets you confused for a native French speaker. It's as graceful and rare as unicorns.
By the way, oral comprehension and oral expression don't necessarily go hand in hand. I've met many A2/B2 students. Some people are very good at understanding French. Perhaps they are quite shy so taking the back seat and listening is appealing to them. Others like to talk so much they basically only listen to their own voice, so no wonder they don't understand when other people talk. All in all, it's quite easy to slip into a comfort zone and become lopsided. But if your aim is to get to the next level, you need to challenge yourself.
How to Get to the Next Level
Let's make some things clear first.
- Stop thinking that there might be a new method that will effortlessly unlock all of your potential. That sort of wishful thinking might actually keep you down, because the thought of not having found it yet may depress you and lead to procrastination.
- Stop buying every new French book/software out there. "Retail therapy" doesn't actually help you learn anything. Having a big stack of books might also depress you, because who has time to read all that?
- There are no "good" or "bad" methods to learn. What makes a "good" method "good" is the fact that it makes you want to use it. So what works for you might not work for another person. But any method can work. Think about the Rosetta Stone (the real piece of rock carved with hieroglyphs): it's only one "page" of a "dated book," and yet it was enough to crack a whole language.
- Tools can definitely make learning easier, but there is no such thing as a "fast track for learning". You need to work hard and do it by yourself.
- There's no point comparing yourself to others. It might look easier for some, like looking at a graceful swan gliding on the water, but don't forget that no one knows what kind of frantic effort goes on underwater.
So regardless of your weaknesses, the golden rules are as follows:
- Put in the hours. In 30 hours you barely touch the edges. You need hundreds of them!
- Practice regularly: every day or every other day. No excuses! Otherwise you will forget everything you learned.
- Trick your brain into thinking this is vital for you. If you don't feel the impetus to learn, nothing will stick. Pinpoint the reason why you want to learn French: is it necessary for your promotion, for your holiday, or to not embarrass yourself in front your in-laws? Find what makes you tick. Is it being able to learn about French culture? Scoring well on exams? Being able to share thoughts with new friends? Being the teacher's pet? To travel or start a new life abroad? Whatever your reasons are, they are the keys to your success. Find a way to blackmail yourself with them!
More specifically, here are some tips, depending on what you struggle with.
- You can't hear when people talk? Find audio dialogues with French subtitles. Listen and read. Repeat until you get it. Try several sources to hear different accents and people talking at different speeds. Keep in mind that it's not outrageous to watch the same episode 3 times (or more).
- You need to practice your pronunciation? Talk to native French speakers and listen to them too! You need to hear the subtleties to be able to reproduce it.
- People don't understand you when you speak French? Stop speaking French like an English Speaker! These languages are different. Abide by the new rules and get over your shame and discomfort.
- You need to develop your vocabulary? Read blogs, newspapers, comic strips or contemporary short novels in French. Avoid the classics written in the past centuries, as people don't use those words anymore. Take notes as you read. Make flash cards. You can also learn an awful lot of new words just by talking casually to a native French speaker.
- You need to be able to speak faster? Talk to yourself (in your head or out loud) as often as you can. Use a dictionary when you don't have the vocabulary to describe what you are doing or what you are thinking about. When you feel you can handle a basic conversation, start talking to native French speakers. Then stop using teachers that speak your mother tongue.
There are a few recognized tests to have your level of French assessed. The DELF, TCF and TEF are possibly the more well known ones. They all evaluate candidates in their own way, each with their pros and cons.
The DELF focuses on exceptions and will also test your logic (much like a University-level test). Expect to be tricked and keep your eyes open for booby-traps.
The TCF focuses more on speaking, through a series of five questions ranging from "How did you get here" to "Discuss the multiculturalism in your country". It's easier if you read the newspaper. Discussing politics is not everyone's cup of tea.
The TEF is in two parts. First, the candidate will need to read a short advert, and then he or she will have to ask ten questions about it. This is a very useful life skill: we all need to ask, "How much does it cost?", "At what time do you open?", and "Is this kid friendly?" at one point or another. In the second part of the test, the candidate will have to convince the examiner to do something specific, such as going on holiday or quitting their job. The examiner will play the role of a friend but will say, "No, I can't" for various reasons. The goal is to persuade your friend. This is another useful skill, but it is not natural for everyone.
Even though these tests have been created to test language skills, I find that the results will be affected by people's personalities. For example, in an oral test, the extroverted candidates who are having fun during the test are more likely to get better grades than the timid ones who would rather disappear under the carpet. Stress is another huge factor. It can make you forget everything when you need it most.
Personally, I like to debate. I'm what one calls a "devil's advocate". I can give you an argument in favour of anything. You say the world is all black? I'm confident I can come up with examples of the opposite in 3 seconds flat. And if I were a natural to start with, law school only strengthened my skills. So of course, the TEF is the best test out there for me. But in the past 3 years, I've met many people who clearly struggle to convince others. I've met people who surprisingly give up really quickly when they meet a low level of resistance. At the other end of the spectrum, I've met fewer who go into war-like mode and will not accept no for an answer, even if it means hurting the examiner's feelings. A little coaching might be necessary to learn the ropes for different kinds of personalities.
The last part of this article is dedicated solely to the TEFaQ exam. If you are not interested in taking this test, I shall bid you farewell for today! (But don't forget to like this article if you have found it interesting thus far).
TEFaQ stands for "Test d’Évaluation de Français pour l’accès au Québec" (which means Evaluation of French language for access to Quebec). This test is recognized by Canada's immigration authority to establish a candidate's level of French. The current minimum required to immigrate to Quebec is B2/B2, which is to say "strong intermediate".
Working from what my students told me about their TEFaQ exams over the last years, I found some patterns. Here is what I found:
Part 1: Ask Questions
This part of the test usually consists of simulating a phone call to a company in order to get more information on their services. It could be a gym, a restaurant, school, or any company. You should use vous when talking to a stranger on the phone.
There are some basic questions that fit most situations:
- À quelle heure ouvrez-vous?
- Êtes-vous ouvert le samedi?
- Combien coûte…?
- Est-il possible de payer par carte de crédit?
- Quel est l'adresse de votre (école, gym, restaurant...)?
- Quel autobus dois-je prendre pour me rendre à vos locaux?
- Est-ce que je dois apporter quelque chose de spécial avec moi?
- Qu'est-ce que vous me conseillez?
Learning a bunch of questions by heart may get you a B1 if you are are lucky.
However, to receive a B2, you need to elaborate your questions with facts such as, "I want to know because..." You should also respond back to their answers to show you understand. This could be something like, "Thanks, that's useful," or "What a shame! I was hoping I could..."
Furthermore, it helps if you imagine you really are going to go to that school/restaurant/ whatever next week with your family. Think about all of the useful things you need to know to make it happen.
Part 2. Convince a friend
Since you are supposed to talk to a friend, use tu when you speak. This part could be of two kinds:
- You might be required to convince a friend to do something positive, such as exercise, volunteer for an activity, get a better job, or quit smoking.
- You might be required to convince a friend to do something fun and unusual, such as eat in a restaurant in pitch black, or bungee-jump or try staying in a hotel entirely made of ice.
Regardless, it doesn't matter. The basics are the same. Here are seven tips to help with this section!
- Greet your friend. Say, "Hello, I'm glad to see you," or something similar. Be normal! Don't skip this part!
- Introduce the subject you've been given. Say something along the lines of, "J'ai vu une publicité au sujet de…” Do not read the sheet. Try to explain it in your own words.
- Explain why this is a fantastic opportunity. Get into character. Lie through your teeth if necessary. You can make stuff up; it's just a game. Think of suitable generic reasons to do activities with friends. Try these:
- Ce sera amusant!
- C'est bon pour la santé car…
- C'est une bonne opportunité pour rencontrer des gens nouveaux.
- Nous pourrons passer du temps ensemble.
- Once you've offered a few good reasons, listen! This test is not an oral presentation like in school. It is is a conversation between two people, so listen. The examiner should throw some surprises in the works. DO NOT ignore what he or she says! If you do ignore what the examiner says, he or she will assume you do not understand and will mark you down accordingly.
- Try to come up with a good reply. You can always make up a friend who tried it (what you're trying to convince) and say your friend told you it wasn't whatever the examiner thinks it will be. But if your brain turns to mush and you can't think of ANY good argument to reply, you still need to acknowledge what the examiner said, so say something like, "Tu as sûrement raison, mais...". Then you can try to change the subject. Don't forget that there are many generic reasons to refuse partaking in an activity, such as, “I'm broke,” or “I don't have time at the moment”. Analyse what usually makes people refuse their friends' propositions. Think of iron-clad arguments to counter them. If you prepare enough arguments ahead of the exam, this part will be easy. Nothing should freak you out or make you feel out of your element. Convincing a friend should feel like playing tennis: the “ball” should swing from one side to the other. You say something, he/she says something, and then you say something. Don't let the ball drop on the floor.
- If the examiner persists in refusing your proposition, which is his right as a free human being, suggest some compromise. Revise your goal. If you need to convince him or her to become a vegetarian, you may want to suggest that he or she tries a vegetarian dish one night a week to start with. Or you might want to suggest a good recipe book. Keep in mind that it's not crucial that he or she says yes for you to pass the exam successfully.
- Prepare a little closing speech, such as, "Excellent! Je suis très heureux de ta décision. Je vais réserver des billets pour demain," or "La nuit porte conseil, on en reparlera demain". You know, like you would do in real life.
If this looks like a daunting prospect, remember to break it down into steps. Learning is not only a journey but also an adventure; it should be fun! There is a huge range of options to help you learn in a way that suits you. If you look hard enough, you will find free online materials to practice for all these exams out there.
Additionally, have you thought of doing a trial run with a community tutor or professional teacher before taking the real test? I suggest you invest in 3 to 10 practice sessions, if it doesn't break the bank. It should help with your nerves, show you what to expect, give you insight on your chance of success (if your teacher is honest), smooth out your performance, and boost your confidence.
That's it and good luck!
...And don't forget to like this article if you enjoyed it. I live for the praise! :-)