If you don’t know what the DELF system is, I explained it in my article on my first DELF experience, taking the A2 exam in Annecy. Gracie wrote an article about taking the B2, and now I’m filling in the gap by writing about B1.
Why Does B1 Matter?
One of the first questions that a student asked when our instructor was finished giving us our B1 exam briefing on test day was whether the official diploma was necessary for proof of B1 competency. The instructor had heard this question many times before and told all of us that for purposes of French administration, the test results were equivalent to the diploma. This was important because we could expect the results in 6-8 weeks but wouldn’t get the diploma for 2-3 months.
The room gave a sigh of relief as I was certain the overwhelming majority of my fellow testers were there for the same reason I was: certifying that we were at this level for our citizenship application. There are some French jobs that would require a B1 level of proficiency, but those employers are just as likely to informally assess you during an in-person interview than insist on a DELF certification, which would take some added time and small expense.
Taking My Own Advice
In the aforementioned article I mentioned that I chose the testing center I did last time because I wanted to see Annecy (awesome place) but also because that testing center had a very smooth registration process, including (gasp!) online payment. However, in April when I was looking for a summer test date, there didn’t seem to be any centers available with such an easy process. So I sent a check and printed registration form by postal mail to Prosodia, in the 20th in Paris.
I got an email about a week later telling me that the July date I had picked had already completely filled out but would I like the August date? No, I wanted the July date and was already planning travel around it.
But did I want to go through the hassle of finding a new testing center? And trying to register and getting the same potential result? No and no. So I accepted the date and adapted my travel plans. It turned out that in between a trip to Portugal and returning from the Baltics I’d stop in France for 48 hours to come home, sleep, take the test, and then fly out again.
Hiring a Tutor
I’ve never been as comfortable with my French as I am now, and I no longer get tired just from speaking it for hours, but I knew I wanted a refresher, not just because it had been a while since my last DELF, but because I wanted to do well. I met with a tutor once a week in July and focused on precisely what I’d be tested on.
Every DELF exam is the same, insofar as there’s an oral comprehension portion, followed by reading comprehension, and written production. After a break you will then be individually tested orally. At my test in Annecy that break was only ten minutes, as my slot for the oral examination had come right after the written, while others had to wait a couple of hours.
The difference between A2 and B1 are a few more tenses and a level of complexity in all these sections that indicate you’ve made progress beyond the basics of the A-levels, which are all about basic survival in France. At the B-levels you are expressing yourself more thoughtfully, sometimes running into conflict, and using more variety in your expressions.
What I found really valuable about this tutoring-for-the-test was the simple practice of doing the sections with my tutor. He had many copies of previously-administered exams and we were able to target where I was really strong and where I needed some polishing.
The oral and reading comprehension, comprised of short answer and true/false questions, were a breeze. We didn’t spend any more time after a first try of them and some homework.
The written production needed some work, for sure. Some of my expressions betrayed anglicisms, ways of saying, and thinking that we just wouldn’t use in France. The rubric used in the written production is “choix des temps et des modes” with a maximum of 2 out of 25 points, for “fait prevue d’un bon contrôle malgré de nettes influences de la langue maternelle.” Other parts of the 25 comprised use of vocabulary, proper orthography (punctuation, etc.), and coherence and cohesion of ideas.
After some diligent corrections (and some discursive discussions as I drilled into why the French would say something a particular way) we moved on to the last part, the oral exam.
There are three parts. The first is a simple presentation, i.e. my name is Stephen, I’m an American, etc. There’s no prep for that, as you should know who you are. 🙂
The second is a prepared presentation of an idea. Prior to walking into the room you are asked to pull two slips from a table and from those two slips to pick one topic that you wished to speak about. The topic is presented in 5-7 sentences. You’ll have seven minutes to prepare a presentation and when you go into the room you’ll be asked to present on this topic.
In between your personal presentation and this prepared presentation is an “unprepared” interaction. Once again you’ll pick two slips, and from those two pick one, and you’ll immediately begin the interaction. In my A2 test these interactions were quite simple, i.e. you’re going to a store and you wish to buy some souvenirs for a friend or family member.
What was universal about all the B1 scenarios was conflict. Something went wrong and you had to “negotiate” with your interlocutor to get to a result you want. Part of this was funny to me as I would have to effectively pretend to be upset, and then try to argue with a French person, who I am already convinced wouldn’t care and would be ready to shrug his/her shoulders and tell me it’s “not their problem.”
While I had some laughs with my tutor as we worked through different scenarios, he just kept reminding me to pretend and that the instructors were not looking to trip me up but would give me time and space. If I hesitated or took a little longer to articulate an idea or sentence, they would wait with me, not start writing down on the exam sheet, “responds too slowly.”
The exam at Prosodia was at 10h00 on a Thursday and I showed up about two minutes before testing time, knowing that they would be registering people and we probably wouldn’t start until 10h30. I was right and I had plenty of time to sit at my desk and even review some notes while waiting.
The first three sections flew by: oral and reading comprehension and then the written production. My topic was ways that someone who was leaving the workforce to go back to school could earn some extra income.
My individual oral exam was scheduled for 14h00 and I was done with my test by 11h50 or so, so I took the opportunity to go to a favorite nearby place for lunch (The Hood) and was back in time for my slot.
I smiled as one of the two slips I picked up was on the Marie Kondo phenomenon, her book, and whether decluttering was a successful idea. I happen to love Marie Kondo (and her book) and my pen flew over the page. If these people didn’t love Marie Kondo before my presentation, they would know all about her after I was done.
I walked in, still slightly nervous as all people are in testing situations, and was asked to introduce myself. There was some follow-up from the instructors about some of what I did for a living and my clients before they asked me to pick my slip for the interaction.
The scenario was arriving at a rental car location and finding out that they did not have the rental car I needed. Remembering my tutor’s advice I gamed out a “pretend” scenario and remembered that the instructor had as little preparation for this as I did, given that I was going to be leading the interaction anyway.
My scenario was that I was renting an SUV to do some moving and he responded that all they had was a Twingo. I lost my bearing a bit at this and laughed because a Twingo is possibly the smallest car that Renault makes. Think of the Mr. Bean car, but slightly bigger.
The other instructor laughed at my laughter and I gathered myself and kept going, asking if there were other size possibilities before settling on asking if any of the other locations would have one. The instructor played along, pretending to search on a computer and saying that there was one vehicle that would work for me at a certain location, but it wouldn’t be ready before a particular time. I said that was fine, and asked for directions, etc. and the interaction played out.
Finally, it was time for me to share Marie Kondo with these people and they had their notebooks out. One would be grading my expression, the other would be noting questions to follow up with. Just from reading facial expressions I felt that one of my instructors was definitely going to check out the book sometime given my enthusiasm. But the best part was when I finished, they looked at each other to ask if there were any follow-up questions, and there were none. “The exam is finished,” they told me.
I felt great, as it meant I had expressed everything well and they didn’t need to give me any chances to redeem myself via follow-up questions.
That feeling when you really ace a test, that you might remember from your school days? I felt that walking out, and looked forward to getting my results in a few weeks. A few weeks after that, I’d be submitting my citizenship application.
Oh, and if you need a tutor to prep for your DELF, drop your email in the comments and I’ll connect you with mine. He’s strongly recommended!
Photo by Skylar Kang.
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