As of this week I have been very happy with my performance on the CILS B2 practice exams so I have decided it’s time to start prepping specifically for the material on the C level tests. The format for the higher level exams does differ from the format of the intermediate levels and these changes can be really intimidating the first time you encounter them. But like anything else, the more you confront similar tasks, the less stressed you’ll feel during the test and the better you will be able to evaluate your own performance after taking the actual exam.
I’ve been working a lot more on writing and it’s gotten so much easier as to actually be enjoyable rather than a chore. I’ve started using Lang-8 to get feedback from multiple native speakers on what I’ve written. As a language learner and ex-instructor, I know not to trust the evaluation of native speakers on everything that they say is incorrect or unnatural. You could literally take a text from a professional journalist and native speaker of your target language and submit it for correction and someone will end up claiming that a certain construction is wrong or unnatural. It’s just the reality of being a learner. People expect you to make errors and thus see perfectly legitimate expressions or constructions with which they are not familiar and the flag them. I do this and so does anyone who corrects the language usage of learners. To combat this, have multiple people look at what you write and ask questions about the corrections. Some people will approach texts from a more colloquial perspective, others from a more academic or standardized perspective. It’s important to know which perspective is being used to judge your work, especially in the C levels.
In addition to the usual multiple choice listening comprehension tests, the C level CILS exams have a second format requiring you to listen to the audio track and then write short answers to 7 to 10 questions. In order to prepare for this portion of the test, I am listening to podcasts from RAI such as Radio 3 Mondo, Radio ne parla, and La lingua batte and writing short summaries of the main points which I then submit to Lang-8 for correction. There is one strategy I would stress regarding this portion of the test that is not very intuitive: favor programs that have interviews with people calling in. For me, this is the most difficult component of the C level listening exams and I have taken multiple practice exams where one of the speakers was on the phone and not in studio, making comprehension difficult.
In the B level exams, the test taker is frequently asked to write a letter following specific instructions. In the C-level exams, this task is made more complicated by presenting the examinee with two letters written in response to two other letters. The examinee must then write those original letters or email messages. This is a difficult task if you’re unprepared for it, but there is a distinct silver-lining as you can find lots of real life, official correspondences online that you can use to practice with. Simply grab some examples of the Internet and use them to brain storm ideas. Initially, this kind of task is going to be hard for you. After you have done this 5 or 6 times, though, it will get to be very easy and you will have collected a number of important set-phrases that you can use in multiple situations making the actual exam a lot less stressful. Letters tend to be very formulaic and I think it’s wise to use this to our advantage. You are not going to get any extra points for creativity. Accuracy is what the examiners are looking for.
Another characteristic that differentiates the C level exams from the B2 exam is the use of legal and technical documents in both the reading comprehension section and the listening comprehension. Chapter 2 of Affresco Italiano C1 covers this sort of language really well and I simply cannot recommend the Affressco C1 and C2 books enough. The main problem that I have encountered is that they are written for an instructor lead course and not for self-study. I’ve not been able to find any sort of answer key and indeed many of the best exercises in the book require complex written answers making an answer key nearly useless anyway.
From looking at previous exams, here are some suggestions that I have come up with:
1. You cannot possibly know about or feel comfortable in all of the possible scenarios. Learn how to deal with this. In one practice exam I was given a scenario where I was the owner of a company who had found out about an exposition for my industry being held at a local convention center. Wishing to improve my company’s visibility, I was meeting with the organizers to discuss renting a stand at the convention center. I had no idea what I was doing. I would have felt uncomfortable doing this in English. My mistake was not owning up to that fact. I had no idea what to do or expect and I should have approached this in the following way. “Hi, I’m Bob Kaucher the owner of ACME gadgets and we’d like to rent a stand at the upcoming expo. Normally my director of marketing would handle this but he’s on a trip. Could you help me understand the process, the rules to follow, and what to expect?” Brain storm in your native language on different scenarios similar to those used in the test and come up with strategies like this. Dealing with random situations confidently is going to take you a long way.
2. Don’t apologize for errors or even allow the fact that you may have made a stupid mistake cause you to skip a beat. Keep talking! Uncomfortable silence in an oral exam means certain death.
3. Don’t try to memorize dialogues for common scenarios. Instead, learn key words and phrases that you can use in multiple situations. If your speech sounds rehearsed, you’re going to lose points. These people have listened to hundreds of exams. You’re not going to fool them.
4. While the possible scenarios that you might be asked to confront in the oral tests are potentially infinite, the subjects that they pertain to are not. These always seem to be centered on the following areas: social and family issues, technology, health, work and school, the environment, tourism, culture and art, money, and personal or professional relationships. Read magazines and blogs on these topics.
5. Do not be afraid to get clarification regarding what the examiner said if you didn’t understand. The worst thing that you can do is pretend that you understood when you didn’t. Act like you would in real life but stay in character!
6. Use the practice exams simulate actual exam conditions as much as possible. Stick to the times allotted and even use the answer sheet.
7. Occasionally make the conditions harder on yourself. Take a practice exam at a coffee shop where it’s busy and distracting. If you are studying for a C-level exam, take a B-level practice test but only allow yourself to listen to the audio tracks once and then cut the time dedicated to the other sections by 1/3.
8. Use a professional tutor. Language exchanges can be very useful but you absolutely must have a partner or tutor that understands the importance of limiting teacher talk time. If during a 1-hour lesson you are only speaking 1/2 the time or less, you need to find someone else. Usually professionally trained tutors are sensitive to this and actively limit how much the speak during lessons.
9. Don’t be afraid to use material from other certification programs as supplemental material but never fall into the trap of thinking your results on those are comparable to your results on the practice exams for the actual certification test you are taking. An amazing score on the TELC B2 might not mean anything in comparison to the B2 CILS.
10. Use multiple resources. As I mentioned in number 4, there is a distinct set of topics that language proficiency exams like CILS tend to focus on. If you find a resource like a podcast that you feel is helpful, use it but don’t limit yourself to it. One mistake that learners make is choosing what is easy or what they like over using material that is hard or that they don’t find particularly interesting. Above I mentioned that the C-level exams differ from the B2 exam in their use of bureaucratic, academic, and technical texts. No one likes to read laws, decrees, or official announcements from the European Union or local governments, but you are going to have to do this if you want to pass this exam.
11. I know I said 10 tips but I’ve got a bonus tip for you. Something that multiple Italians have told me is that English speakers who learn Italian always have issues with knowing when and how to use la forma di cortesia. Most importantly it’s knowing when it’s not appropriate for you to dare del tu. Accurate usage of il cogiuntivo and la forma di cortesia will very probably make an impression on the examiners and, in my opinion, seem to be exactly what the scenarios in the oral exams are really looking for.