After roughly 9 months of wasted time due to demands at work, I’m getting back in the saddle with my Italian studies. I have set the money aside for the CILS exam, I am still debating if I will take C2 or C1, but I expect it to be scheduled and set in stone within the next month.
Yesterday I got in touch with two teachers to get my exam prep back on course. With the first, my aim is to work primarily on the section for the monolog. I’ll be sending her two sound files each week that are 3 to 4 minutes in length and are either taken directly from past exams or are based closely on the type of material covered by this section of the exam. With the second teacher, I intend on covering the first section of the oral exam. This section is more difficult because it requires managing an interaction for which the candidate cannot possibly be prepared. If you had asked me about this section of the exam about a year ago, I would have said that I believe that the candidate needs to be familiar with a very broad section of situations and able to manage them all with a high degree of confidence. But, I have changed my views on this section after considerable thought on the types of situations I have seen in previous exams. They are far too varied for anyone to be able to handle any specific situation with any real degree of precision. Instead, I believe that the important thing, the skill actually being tested, is one’s ability to manage unpredictability and unfamiliar situations in Italian. If you can’t prepare for specific situations presented in the test, what can you do to best prep for this section? There does seem to be a certain amount of uniformity in the types of interactions that you will find:
1. Inquiring/complaining client: The candidate is the customer/client and has questions about a product/service or some sort of problem. You might need a refund, have a complaint about something that happened to you, or need to ask if the product can do X or work with Y. The roles may also be reversed.
2. Professional service/Interview: The candidate must assume the role of a business owner, consultant, or job seeker that is meeting with a potential client/boss to work out the details of some sort of business deal or job interview.
3. Academic career: The candidate takes on the role of a student who is requesting something from a professor that s/he may or may not know. This might range from asking for the professor to assist you on your thesis or to allow you to attend a course though you may not have the full requirements.
4. Civil services: The candidate will take the role of a person who needs to interface with some sort of civil service. This could be anything like renewing your permission to stay in Italy, discovering that you are the victim of a robbery and need to contact the police, or that you are suddenly sick and am ambulance has been called.
Immediately you should notice that all of these situations require ample use of the formal Lei. You absolutely must feel comfortable with it. After that, the important thing here is to find linguistic steppingstones that you can use as markers and that can give you precious moments to think about where you want to direct the conversation. In my opinion, the best thing to do is to look at the situations above and create a mind map in your native language of short, generic phrases that you feel would be useful in such situations. Avoid the urge to get hyper-specific. The purpose of this is not to memorize sentences that you think you will be able to use; you’re taking a C-level exam! The purpose is to find some stock phrases and expressions that you can use to fill space and transition from the unknown to the known. Then make sure you can use equivalent forms of those expressions in Italian.
Imagine that you are asked to assume the role of a person who wants to rent a booth at a trade show for the industry that your company operates in. You have no clue how to do this. I wouldn’t even know what would be expected of me of this situation in English. Well, no problem. Who would know about this sort of thing? The VP of marketing, not you. You’re the owner. What are phrases that you might use in a professional setting where you lack the required knowledge to operate at high level professionally?
You’ll have to excuse me, I don’t usually…..
Can you help me understand what is required to…?
And how exactly does one go about…?
So, if I’ve understood….
Notice that these phrases are in no way concretely related to the idea of renting a booth at a trade show. All they do is help you drive the situation from areas where you lack knowledge to where you can get the information you need to say something intelligent and demonstrate that you not only understand but that you can manage the interaction. You are not being tested on your knowledge of trade shows in Italy. Let that stuff fade into the background and focus on how you’d handle the situation in real-life: requesting information, ensuring you have understood, and then moving the interaction on to the next step.
Things to avoid:
1. Apologizing a lot for linguistic errors. This is counterproductive. Forget the mistake and move on unless it has impeded understanding. You said the wrong word? You do that in your native language, too. Behave as you would if it were your native language.
2. Focusing on details related to the scenario. The creators of the exam have stated that the scenarios should not get in the way of the evaluation of the candidate’s linguistic abilities. Chances are that the examiner is not going to feel 100% comfortable in the scenario; they will not focus on the details of the scenario so you certainly shouldn’t! Instead, work with your tutor to find ways to manage interactions where you aren’t an expert in the thing being discussed.
3. Preparing for specific scenarios. You won’t get them on the test. Just forget about it. Prepare for as many varied situations as you can find in the quaderni for previous exams. Do each once and move on to something else.
4. Automatically picking the easy one. An interaction at a shop between a sales clerk and customer might seem B2, but unless you are super confident in talking about clothing, colors, and prices you might be better off picking something that appears more difficult on the surface. Learn the types of scenarios that tend to be hardest for you and, during the exam, pick something that isn’t that. You should still make sure you try to improve your ability to deal with challenging situations while you are preparing for the test, but once you’re taking the exam always choose what you know will allow you best to put your skills on display. There are no extra points for picking the hardest scenario.