Yesterday was a slow day at the school so, following my own advice in Monday’s article – Time for a seasonal language-learning rethink – I decided to take a couple of hours and self-evaluate my progress with Swedish.
I passed the A2 Swedex exam back in September, which was a proud moment – my first language qualification since an ‘O-level’ at the age of sixteen!
After that, in a fit of enthusiasm, I downloaded the sample papers and audio recordings for the next level up, B1, but never got around to looking at them.
(If you don’t yet know about the CEFR system of levels, see this helpful .pdf checklist.)
Yesterday afternoon I remedied that and tried three out of five of the exam’s sections, skipping the writing because you always need to prepare effectively for that one, and the speaking for obvious reasons.
I completed all three papers in the time allowed, despite various interruptions (phone calls and stuff – I was on reception.)
The ‘Words and Grammar’ paper was predictably the hardest, as I’m lazy about studying and especially vocabulary and grammar.
But still, 75% wasn’t bad. A clear B1 pass!
And many of the wrong answers could have been avoided if I’d had a few smiliar exercises to practice with beforehand.
I was a lot more confident about the ‘Reading’ paper, given that I do a lot of reading, much of it ‘non-simplified’, such as news articles.
And indeed, I scored 90%. I looked back at the wrong answers, just to see what I’d missed. One was the result of not having read the instrutions clearly – something that a little practice would have helped me avoid. The other was genuinely wrong, so fair enough.
As regards the listening, well…
Again, I do a lot of listening, both ‘simplified’ (easy news) and ‘authentic’ (radio) so I wasn’t anticipating major difficulties.
But it WAS difficult!
For a start, the volume was low, even at the maximum.
And the voices were ‘real’ Swedish people, mumbling, sucking snus, and so on.
There was a lot of humming and harring (imagine a Swedish accent here):
Oh, I don’t know what you mean… Um, let me think about that. Well, I suppose… No actually, what I mean is…
Cioè, not actors reading a script, but real people. One of the four sections was six short interviews, each person answering the same question, though as it was asked in different ways, it took a little time to figure that out.
“What would you do if you won ten million kronor?” (That’s about a million dollars…)
Each interview was maybe a minute long, a question and an extended answer, and there were (I think I remember this correctly) four True/False options for each question, different options each time.
Would Interviewee 1: give up work, buy an expensive car, go on holiday, save the money?
You get the idea.
So, listening to real people answering the same question but in different ways and saying different things.
An easy-enough task if you’re a native speaker, but no piece of cake for a learner.
One thing I noticed as I proceeded through the four sections of the listening exam was this:
often I had NO IDEA what the correct answer or answers were the first time I listened!
But listening that first time gave me valuable information for when the audio was repeated for the second and final time.
So I was mostly able to choose an answer.
The second thing I noticed was that, while I felt that I was managing the tasks reasonably well, I often understood only a fraction of what was being said.
At a general level, I understood what they were talking about. But a lot of the specific information was missed.
That said, that wasn’t always a problem.
In another task I had to listen to a phone message giving directions through a village to the speaker’s summer house, and mark both the route and which house was the intended destination.
No start point was given, so I had to figure it out from what I heard. But then it said to go over the bridge and past the church. Working backwards, I could confirm the start point I’d heard was correct.
And working forwards – go past the field of cows, not as far as the village square, turn right – I now knew where I was.
But then, ‘left’ and ‘right’ got mixed up in my head.
Fortunately, it wasn’t a crossroads, just a left turn, which unmixed things again.
Just as well, as we were now in the right street and there were summer houses on each side, left and right.
But which? I’d heard the word, but was unsure what it meant, which side to mark.
And the map was upside-down, if you see what I mean.
First I chose the first house on the left. Fortunately there was still the chance to listen to the whole phone message again, and this time I was alert to the left/right thing and listening as if my life depended on it!
I modified my answer – the first house on the right. And I’m SURE, for a change.
Correct. Final score on the listening test, which as 45 minutes long, 90%. Like the reading.
But not like the reading, actually.
“Congrats, Daniel. You must understand Swedish really well!”
Ah no, you see. That’s the point of this article, really.
Listening comprehension is not an absolute. It’s sort of like a process, and one involving a lot of guessing.
Or to put it more scientifically, hypothesising and searching for confirmation.
90% doesn’t mean I understood 90% of what I heard. It means I got 90% of the questions that were put to me correct.
If the questions had been harder, I would have understood the same, but scored less.
If the questions had been easier, I would have scored 100%, I dare say.
The material was designed to test my listening level against a certain level-descriptor, in this case the CEFR B1.
Here’s a quote from the .pdf I linked to above:
I can understand the main points of
clear standard speech on familiar
matters regularly encountered in work,
school, leisure, etc. I can understand
the main point of many radio or TV
programmes on current affairs or
topics of personal or professional
interest when the delivery is
relatively slow and clear.
The key words are ‘main points’ and ‘relatively slow and clear’, which the audios mostly weren’t, but the design of the questions (true/false, multiple-choice, etc.) helped with.
Students, language-learners (rarely, but sometimes even teachers) tell me when they’ve listened to a text in the language they’re learning:
“I didn’t understand ANYTHING!”
It’s never true.
– “Were there two speakers, or just one?”
– “Were the speakers male or female? Old or young?”
– “Who was interviewing who?”
– “What general topic were they talking about?”
“There was a young woman asking an older man what he would do if he won ten million kronor. The old guy mentioned buying a mobile home, but other than that I’m not sure…”
– “For someone who didn’t understand ANYTHING, you understood quite a lot, don’t you think?”
“Beh, but I didn’t get the second thing he wanted to do with his winnings.”
– “Ah! You mean you didn’t understand EVERYTHING. So listen again. That’s what the second time is for. And if you still don’t understand, then eliminate the ‘definitely not that one’ answers. And then take your best guess and cross your fingers.”
90% at B1 means I’m ready to start studying at B2 (except for the writing…)
Not that I understand 90% of what I heard.
It’s an important distinction.
Fancy trying this for yourself?
I don’t recommend Italian language exams normally, especially not the appalling CILS.
However, for the purposes of helping you repeat my own experiment described above, take a look at the link below, to a page which has sample CELI exams.
(They’re probably not better than the dreadfully-managed CILS, but CELI hasn’t yet done anything to infuriate me.)
You’ll see that there are six exams, corresponding to the CEFR levels A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, and C2.
Next to each, there’s a section entitled ‘Documenti correlati’ (in bold).
It’s the last item in the list that you need, the ‘prova d’esame’, with links to esempio 1 ZIP and so on.
Be aware, these are heavy compressed folders containing the exam papers themselves, instructions on how to use them, the answers, and importantly, the audio files.
Which means you shouldn’t download them on your phone or tablet when you’re away from a WiFi zone, as they could use up masses of data. I’d suggest doing this at a computer so you can, if you choose, print the papers (I didn’t…)
Oh, and some more gratuitous advice?
Free example sample papers are rare, so use them sparingly.
There’s only one for each level in Swedish, which is why I left it eight months before looking at it.
Hence, why not start with the level BELOW where you think you are?
It gives you a chance to get familiar with the exam format, and a way to benchmark your level.
If you try A2 for example, and get 90-odd percent, that means you’re likely OK for B1.
So go ahead and give it a try, now you know what’s involved.
But if you only get, say 65% on B1, then best allow a little time before having a go at B2.
Otherwise you’re ‘wasting’ material you could employ more effectively in six months’ time.
I’m sure you get the idea – have fun!