A lady in the USA wrote to me this week asking for feedback on her study plan, which involves getting to B1 (intermediate) level and taking the CILS exam in December this year.
This sort of query is bread and butter for anyone who works in a language school, as I do, so . We’re always happy to answer questions.
But I mentioned, in passing, that I no longer recommend CILS Italian language exams.
“Why would that be?” she wanted to know.
Beh, since I’m on record as promoting exams as an effective language-learning goal, I thought I’d better explain…
Wanna hear my rant? Read on.
Rather not spoil your Friday with me moaning?
In which case, here are two more listenings to do instead:
I’ve been working as an (English) language teacher since the early ’90s, and have often prepared students for exams, and been an oral examiner myself.
So naturally, when we started our Italian school, back in 2005, we looked into Italian language exams: what was available, and whether we’d be able to offer them here in Bologna.
As you’d expect, it turns out that the market for Italian language exams was miniscule compared to that for English.
But nevertheless, there were various options available.
The two main ones, CILS and CELI are run by the two competing Italian ‘Universities for foreigners’: Siena and Perugia.
These are actual Italian universities, but also big players in the private Italian courses market.
Anyway, after a few years we were accepted as a CILS testing center (hurrah!)
We had our teachers trained as invigilators and oral examiners, and got to work promoting the exam.
Exam fees count for just a percentage point or two of our school’s revenues.
But I thought then, and still think, that having an exam to work towards is an excellent motivator!
Gaining a qualification is a great way to measure your progress with a languge, too.
And another advantage is that studying for an exam which tests the main skills helps you ensure a balanced study program.
That said, there was little demand from our students, who mostly hadn’t heard of either CILS or CELI.
I therefore put a lot of effort into the marketing, with articles on the school’s website and here at the club.
Though it wasn’t a money-spinner, this was something we believed in.
The problem, if there was one, was the usual Italian thing with efficiency.
And remember, we’re talking about universities here – professors with tenure who, to all extents and purposes, are a law unto themselves.
Still, this is Italy. You get used to things being a little different.
For example, we’d be told the deadline for enrollments was a certain day.
We’d organise our marketing accordingly but then, come the deadline, it would be extended by a week or so.
No big deal, though. The government does same thing with new laws and taxes (really!)
Other than these predictable hiccups, everything proceeded smoothly.
Year in, year out, we signed people up for CILS, organised the exam itself, and sent out the certificates.
Until, one day, someone in our school made a mistake.
One little sideline the school has is to help out a local training organisation.
They offer funded courses to foreigners who want to be, say, assistants in retirement homes.
We’re talking middle-aged ladies from Eastern-Europe someplace, trying to make better lives for themselves.
The organisation’s funding protocol reasonably requires that they ensure that the Eastern-European ladies on their courses have a minimum level in Italian.
And given that the ‘official’ exams like CILS and CELI run only twice a year, the only way that could happen would be for a school to do a quick level test and put something down on paper.
We were happy to help.
Candidates would phone to make an appointment, we’d give them our standard level test and an oral interview, then write a letter certifying that. in our opinion, so-and-so has the minimum level needed.
They always do, as they’ve often worked in Italy, officially or unofficially, for years.
The whole process takes about half-an-hour and we charge thirty euros for the service.
Which pays for lunch but otherwise is of no significance, except to the candidates who are now in a postion to access the training they need.
Anyway, one day out of the blue, we received a furious email from the professoressa in charge of CILS.
The problem, it appeared, is that our certification letters were printed on our standard notepaper, which as well as bearing our logo, and that of ASILS, had the CILS logo too, as part of our efforts to promote the exam
And one of these letters had got back to her somehow.
That was careless, I admit.
And you can see why they’d be annoyed when they found out about it.
It was a clear, if unintentional, breach of the guidelines we had agreed to.
Heads would roll!
No, not really.
This was trivial by anyone’s standards.
Nevertheless, the person concerned was upset to have made an error of judgement, and keen to put things right.
In the email, the furious professor had demanded that someone phone her to discuss the situation at 09.00 the next morning.
She provided her cellular number so we’d be sure to reach her and receive our telling-off.
So my colleague, after hours of preparation and a sleepless night, dialled the number she’d been given.
The call was not picked up.
By email she agreed with the professor other days and times to speak, but again, her calls were not answered or returned.
Weeks passed and the CILS season came around again.
As normal, we started publicising the exam and signed up thirty or so students, our best ever total!
But when the time came for my colleage to access CILS’s automatic system for registering students, we found ourselves unable to enter.
The online system just stopped working.
We had no error message, nothing to say if it was an issue affecting everyone, or whether it was just us.
Phone calls established that it wasn’t a general technical thing – we couldn’t register students because we’d been suspended from the system.
“For how long?” we asked.
They couldn’t say.
That was embarassing, and could have been easily avoided, but we urgently needed to know what would happen to our students.
Emails were not answered.
When we phoned, we were told that the person responsible was not available right now.
The deadline for final enrolment was approaching.
In the end we called EVERY number listed on their website!
We stressed to anyone who would listen that, whatever would happen in the future, we had already signed up students for the exam because no one had notified us that we couldn’t.
Finally, a friendly back office worker admitted that, yes, it would be a shame if all those people missed their exam.
She passed on our message, and our access to the system was restored, though still with nothing in writing.
We registered our students and organised the exam in the usual way.
The day of the exam came and went, with no issues.
Payment was made and (eventually) students got their results.
Later that summer we received a registered letter saying that the organising body had met, discussed our sins (no details were given) and permanently cancelled our authorisation to run CILS exams.
Beh, like I said, we made a mistake.
It was careless, but we didn’t profit from it in any meaningful way.
It’s their exam, so their decision.
Shame, though, that they were unable to comunicate with even the minimum of professionalism.
As I often remind my teenage kids when they moan about their teachers at school, half of the people in any profession are below average.
Clearly the same is true of exam boards.
And that is why, lady in the USA, I’m no longer able to recommend CILS exams.
Though I still think that including an exam in your study program is a good idea.
Which is better?
But if anyone out there does know, or has an opinion about CILS, feel free to comment on this post.
I’ll approve any genuine and helpful links, too.