Taking the Dalf at 50 – Exam Day

Written June 26, 2015

This morning I sat for the Dalf C1, a French proficiency exam that when passed exempts you from other language exams when entering a French university. It is also required for various other learning institutions in France and in Switzerland, but it is generally not something a 50 year old American woman would set out to conquer just for the “fun” of it. Yet there I sat in a room of about 20 twentysomethings, mostly Swiss students, grinding through one of the most difficult tests I’ve ever taken.

I decided to document my experience for those contemplating a similar journey. Other bloggers on this topic seems to be of the highly successful sort – those who probably could have passed the highest level, C2, without breaking a sweat. While I admire their achievement I think it is also important to document the opposing experience, someone who worked hard, struggled with the exam and may or may not have succeeded. I will, therefore, post my results of the exam when I receive them in mid-July.

What is the Dalf C1 – There is a lot of information on the specifics of the exam, so I will be brief here. The CI is part of a series of proficiency exams that test the four disciplines of language learning – listening and reading comprehension and oral and written production. Click here for the official French site.

What is it like to sit for the exam – I took the exam at a testing center in Montpellier, France, however it is also possible to take it at any one of numerous testing centers around the world. About two weeks before the exam I was given the dates and times for the exam. The oral production part was scheduled for a Wednesday with the other three sections of the exam on the following Friday.

Oral Production

For the oral exam, all the students scheduled around the same time prepare their oral presentations in the same room.  In my case there were three others. At my appointed time I entered the room and checked in with the monitor. I had to whisper because other students were already preparing for their presentations. I gave him my cell phone and my ID, left my bag, and took just a pen, tippex (a European ink eraser) and the scratch paper provided to my desk.

He then showed me three papers, folded so I couldn’t see the subject. I chose two. I then quickly looked at the two subjects, consisting of two documents on a given theme, and chose the one I wanted to present. I had the choice of biodiversity or advertising.

I had an hour to prepare my notes. I was not allowed to write on the documents in any way. There was no clock in the room the day I prepared for the oral exam and I had to check with the monitor for the time. Near the end of the allotted time he kindly placed his watch on my desk.

At the end of the hour I took the documents and my notes into another room where I sat at a desk directly in front of the two desks where the judges were seated. I was told that I had twenty minutes to present my topic and therefore to take my time and not talk too fast.

Without much expression they watched and took notes while I presented my topic. After I finished they ask me questions on what I presented and other issues discussed in the documents that I may or may not have mentioned. There was very little feedback concerning whether or not I was on the right track. The presentation plus the interview took about 30 minutes.

Listening, Reading and Writing

I returned to the testing center the following Friday for the other three sections of the exam where we checked in at the same room. This time there were about 20 of us. We again gave up our cell phones and IDs and were assigned a desk. We took what we needed for the exam –  pens, markers, tippex, water bottles, snacks and  Kleenex, were all allowed, but no pencil bags. The rest of our belongings were left at the back of the room. We were told to use the bathroom now because we would not be allowed to leave the room again until we finished all the exams, meaning not for four hours.

We were given all the sections of the exam at the same time. They were divided into two packets, the listening and reading comprehension in the first, and the written production in the second. I wrote my id code (from the convocation letter) and my name on the front cover. The monitor, a funny little man, tried to ease our nerves with a little humor, something about his squeaky shoes as he passed down the isles during the exam.

Listening Comprehension

At exactly 9AM the exam began with the listening comprehension section, which was comprised of three segments. The first, which is longer more complicated, we listened to twice. The other two we got just one chance to understand the important information. The entire exam was played on a CD player meaning the time we had to read and answer the questions is timed by the recording. We had about 3-5 minutes to read the questions before the first listening, about 3 minutes to answer the questions before the second listening, and about 5 minutes to finish answering the question before they continued on to the second segment. The process was then repeated for the subsequent two listening segments except the times were shorter and there was only one listening for each. The subjects for the three segments were light pollution, followed by artificial intelligence and the Goncourt prize (a French literary prize). Other than a few multiple choice questions most of the questions were open-ended, requiring a phrase or sentence as an answer and varied in level of difficulty.

Reading Comprehension

After the listening comprehension we start the reading comprehension. The texts used are about 1500-2000 words long and generally pretty dense. I found most of the practice texts and the actual exam text more difficult than reading a newspaper, for example. Answering the questions was also difficult as some questions require an interpretation of the information while others require rephrasing specific information found in the text. The question types are open-ended, multiple choice and true/false – requiring a justification from the text. The exact wording from the text is allowed for the justification but not for the open ended questions. Also, it is my understanding that they have stopped using multiple choice questions requiring multiple answers, such as both A and C must be checked for a correct answer. Our subject dealt with how the French universities have adapted their curriculums to better suit the needs of the employment market.

Written Production

There was no strict time limit between the reading comprehension and the essay sections of the exam. We were advised at an hour and half into the exam (2.5 hours remaining) to start the last section of the exam. This exam consisted of a 220-240 word synthesis and a 240 word essay on a related topic with specific instructions. Dalf preparation books cover the general guidelines on how to write these types of essays. I received differing advice on appropriate writing styles from the two instructors I worked with to prepare for the exam. Since I don’t know how I did on the exam I can’t really say what information is accurate, however both instructors advised me to use a lot of connector words, i.e., en outre, par contre, tandis que, cependant, to chain together my ideas. They also advised making the essay more personal in nature, including making up a persona, instead of just reformulating ideas already stated in the synthesis. In any case you should read the essay instructions carefully as they may include specifying the point of view to be taken. Our topic for the exam concerned the role of computers in the classroom.

Time limits: I was very stressed and rushed during the examination. It was hard to stay focused and not let the time pressure block my ability to produce good answers. The younger students seemed to work faster than I did, so it may also be a function of age. Sitting in a chair for four hours concentrating on an exam is tiring, especially in another language, thus it is easy to make silly mistakes. Try to give yourself enough time at the end of exam to review your work carefully. I ran out of time and didn’t have a chance to read through my last page. You actually can read through all three parts, time permitting, before turning in your exam as they are collected all at once.

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