Think you know some Italian?
Did you know that on the CILS (Italian language exams) section of the University of Siena’s website you can download last year’s exams to try for free? Complete with listening, reading, grammar & vocabulary sections? Plus answers?
I came across these great resources on a Sunday afternoon and, curious to know how my Italian would measure up, decided to put it to the test. How would I get on?
Though I’m British, so famously incompetent at foreign languages, my wife is Italian, and I’ve called Bologna, Italy, my home town for nearly 15 years. My three children were born in the local hospital. I own a house and run a business here, so use Italian every day.
I’ve never formally studied the language but I reckon that I get by pretty well. After all, when there’s a difficult business conversation to be had, a contract to be read, or a formal letter to be written, my wife always insists that I’m the one for the job.
So, which level to try? There are six, from A1 to C2, plus specific versions of the exam for children and teenagers, and one for foreigners applying for the Italian equivalent of a green card (“integrazione in italia”)
For a moment I contemplated trying the A2 “green card” version of the exam, but I rate my reading and listening skills as way better than the 2nd level out of six, so in the end I decided to go for C2, the most difficult level. At least that way, I’d know.
The download page on the University of Siena site, though incredibly ugly, offers all the material from last year’s exam, a total of ten free downloads for each level. Take a look – there’s a link at the end of this post.
The important parts on the download page are the “Quaderno del candidato” (question booklet) and the “Prove di ascolto” (listening tests). You’ll also need to download the answers, if you want to know how you did.
My plan was to sample the reading, listening and “analisi delle strutture di comunicazione” parts, which I could mark myself, and skip the oral and writing parts which I would not be able to self-evaluate. Doing the whole test takes more than half a day, but you can get an idea by trying just some sections.
So, how did I do?
First of all, I had to work out how to play the downloaded track for the “Test di ascolto”, which was in .rm format and so not recognised by my Windows computer. Googling the problem brought me to a free download of “Real Alternative”, which just took a few seconds. The second time I clicked on the .rm file, my test began.
The listening test is made up of three parts. I opted to do just the first, which was a radio interview with a famous actor (Who?). There were seven multiple-choice questions to answer, and as I listened it became obvious that the wording of the questions and answer options was not to be repeated in the text I was hearing: it was necessary to listen and to get the general idea of what was being said, then to choose the closest answer, which would often contain synonyms of the words used in the interview.
I was allowed to listen twice. After the first play through, I already had six of the seven answers pencilled in, plus a big exclamation mark next to the missing answer. I was sure I’d be able to get that one too on the second listening, but no. Hearing the interview again gave me a chance to confirm my first six choices but left me no wiser as regards the last one.
Final score? As expected, six out of seven. Not bad for starters, and so, on to the “Comprensione della lettura”!
Again I opted to do just the first section out of three, a page and a half of text on the topic of travelling to Mars, with seven more multiple-choice questions.
Having spent the first part of the afternoon in bed with the “Corriere della Sera”, the reading paper was always going to be my strongest. Understanding the article felt effortless, though a little slow in parts, and the questions were easy, except for one, just as with the listening paper. None of the four answers to question seven seem exactly right, but I chose one anyway without any real doubt that it would turn out to be the correct answer. Wrong! Six out of seven, again.
On to my bête noire, the “Test di analisi delle strutture di comunicazione”, the very title of which reminds me always of why, despite working in an Italian language school, I’ve never quite got around to taking any courses… I know I suck at grammar, so this time I was expecting the worst.
Part one, straight gap fill, no clues given. Here I remembered the advice I give to my own students when they face a similar task (I’m an English teacher): for this test to be valid, given that there are no options from which to choose, the answers must be words you KNOW, therefore “grammary” words such as articles, prepostions, and so on. To find the correct answer, one therefore focuses on the meaning of the text and tries to work out which grammatical element is missing.
And focus I did. I read through the text once to get the general idea, and then again slowly, pondering each gap and choosing what seemed the most likely answer, sometimes with a degree of confidence but more often with no real certainty.
Oops. Just twelve correct answers out of twenty. I wasn’t sure what percentage was needed to pass this exam, but 60% seemed at best borderline. More practice was clearly needed.
On with some trepidation to the “conjugate the verbs to fill the gaps in the text” task, section two of four. This one was an interview with Umberto Eco and I was expecting a variety of impossible verb forms of which I was barely aware. One gap definitely seemed to need a plural congiuntivo, if such things existed, but I had no idea how to conjugate “essere” to provide it. Other than that one question, things seemed pretty straightforward, even worryingly so, with lots of examples of what I hoped was the imperfetto.
Moment of truth time. Disaster! Just six correct out of twenty. A clear and present fail. Part of the text I seemed to have completely misunderstood, and there were plenty of examples of the passato remoto that I hadn’t used even once (does anyone?). The mystery congiuntivo was “siano”, which did seem vaguely familiar. Clearly if I ever decide to take this exam for real, I’d have some studying to do.
Finally I decided to try the multiple choice cloze, which is essentially a vocabulary task, requiring you to select one of four similar-looking options to complete each gap in the text. No verb conjugation was involved, so this section would, I hoped, play to my strengths.
As with the reading, understanding the text itself seemed effortless, but again there was at least one question where I had no idea of what the correct answer would be (all four seemed wrong..). This time, though, my level of certainty regarding the remaining questions was much less: I annotated four of my answers with a question mark, and changed one to an alternative that may or may not have been better. I estimated that I would have a good chance of scoring eleven or twelve correct out of fiftteen.
Result! Fourteen correct, out of fifteen. My afternoons in bed with the newspaper had given me a good sense of what “sounded right”. The wrong answer was the one that I had had no idea about, and having seen the correct answer and reviewed the text I was no wiser.
By now, it was aperitivo time, an excellent excuse to skip the final section (which involved rewriting sentences and looked like another of my weak points). I poured myself a glass of cold beer and reflected on what I had found out about my Italian.
Certainly my listening and reading was strong, unsurprising considering my day-to-day use of Italian at work and at home. My vocabulary was actually better than I would have imagined. But the grammar? Well… let’s just say I wasn’t exactly surprised to have failed the two grammar sections I had tried. After years of avoiding any type of formal study of the language, there was no doubt that this was going to be my Achilles heel.
My wife reassured me, “Don’t worry. Everybody fails ‘Analisi delle strutture di comunicazione'”
Oh, well that was all right, then.