What do language teachers miss?
Welcome, aspiring polyglot! One of the things that public schools tend to focus on more than the development of language skills is exam preparation. While this can be frustrating and will rarely result in long term language learning success, it happens for a reason. At the end of the day, the school is not measured on your fluency, rather it is judged on how well you are able to prepare for and take an exam.
Though I prefer to focus on the things that will drive you towards fluency, exams are a good way of measuring your technical abilities and problem solving skills. For students who are approaching college, the exam that may pay off the most is the CLEP exam. You can read more about that in this article:
Language learning geared towards passing exams
When it comes to learning strategies, the things that will drive you towards being conversational often do not help much when it comes time to pass an exam. Communication strategies and test taking knowledge are different things and since most exams lack a speaking portion, especially before university, being able to write effectively and mastering reading comprehension is vital.
Many exams place an emphasis on things that are meant to trip students up. Mistakes you make when taking an exam are things that may not even be noticed by a native speaker. With that in mind, know what is in the test is important when developing strategies in second language acquisition for yourself.
As a language learner, how you approach your target language is largely going to be dependent on your goals. If you are not planning to take any exams, simply being able to speak and effectively communicate is more important than memorizing grammar rules and using flashcards to study vocabulary words.
However, for those who are planning to take exams, listening comprehension, reading comprehensible input, and writing are going to be more important than speaking. For most tests, you can find the breakdowns online like the below example. This is from the CLEP Spanish exam.
Once you know what the exam will entail, you can start to develop a framework that you can plug your language learning strategies into so that you can maximize your chances. As you read the two things you will want to focus on are comprehensible input and grammar rules.
Most of the time, the easiest way to trick someone is by placing two similar words together to test whether or not the grammar rule being used is recognized. If you don't master grammar you may find that you are having a hard time with questions that seemingly have more than one correct answer.
By learning to read contexts and understanding the things that are being looked for by the test makers you can set yourself up for success. Irrespective of your learning style, you need to be focusing on the things that will take you closer to achieving your goals. If you want to speak, you need to be speaking as often as possible. If you want to pass an exam, you need to be studying grammar and reading up on the things you can expect going in so that they are not surprises.
Grammar rules the exams
One of the more frustrating things about exams and structured learning when it comes to learning a second language is that it tends to lead to a lot of nitpicking. At the end of the day, if you are speaking a romance language and you get the article incorrect, no one is going to bat an eye. If you are speaking German and put words in a slightly abnormal order, no one is going to point it out, unless you ask them to do so. On an exam, however, nitpicking the grammar structure is how you will be judged.
With that in mind, it is vital that you double check everything. Read and reread each text you are given, read and reread everything you write. Take time to think about whether or not what you are saying is the best possible way to say that thing.
Writing is probably the best way to ensure you are mastering the grammar as it is something that is pretty black and white and, once you've written something, the only thing left to do is go back and ensure it is all correct. Double check everything you do to ensure constant improvement across iterations.
That said, when you get into the habit of constantly improving the things you've done, it can start to feel like your first guess might not be your best guess. When it comes to exams, this simply is not true.
Most of the time, if you second guess yourself, you are going to be changing what would be a correct answer to something else. Going into the exam, hopefully you will be at a point where you feel confident enough to go with your gut.
Vocabulary words will be important
While grammar is going to be important for any exam, having a large vocabulary can be highly beneficial. For those who struggle to study grammar rules day in and day out, vocabulary words can create a unique opportunity. Oftentimes, you will be confronted with a text that contains multiple things you do not know about or have prior knowledge of as you read for the exam.
By having a large vocabulary base from which to pull words, you will find that you are able to understand what is happening and perhaps even define the word simply by using the context clues available to you.
The best way to go about this is by constantly trying to say new things in better ways. This can be difficult to visualize, but once you start getting it you will find that it is actually pretty enjoyable.
When you lean into your creativity you will find that you are constantly seeking out new words in order to express yourself in the best possible ways. By doing this you will see an almost immediate return that will make itself known again as you start working towards taking exams. While grammar is certainly more important for exams, vocabulary is still going to be important to pick up the slack when your grammar knowledge falters.
Something many people may not think about when it comes to taking exams is, sometimes the process of elimination can save you. When you have a large vocabulary base, you can recognize when words do or do not belong in a given set and this can make your test taking experience all the more pleasant. Even if you do not need it, having this tool in your belt is always advantageous. It is worthwhile to develop your vocabulary, even if you know grammar will be heavily focused on during the exam.
If you know that you are going to be taking a test, you need to not only be looking at the material the exam will be covering, but also how the exam will go about covering it. Will you lose points for answering a question wrong? Will you lose points for leaving a question blank? Is it beneficial to read the questions first? What about the answers? What are the things you need to focus on most in order to ensure you are able to walk into the exam center confidently?
One thing many people tend to overlook is the time constraint. While learning a language on your own is great, it comes with the double edged sword that is having no time limit. It is great that you can take all the time you need and go at your own speed, but when it comes time to demonstrate your proficiency under time pressure you might find you struggle. The best way to offset this is by placing yourself constantly under time constraints. You play how you practice and if you never practice timing yourself you might find that you struggle when you are being timed.
Aside from being timed, the first thing you need to master is reading and understanding immediately what is being asked by the question. Rarely will the question state what it is really asking. Fill in the blanks are one thing, but when it comes to language exams you will see far more questions revolving around how effective your reading comprehension is.
The question might be asking which word goes where, but what it is really testing is whether or not you read carefully enough to fill in a grammar requirement in the abstract. Learn what the questions are asking and you will find you are battling less with the exam itself and more with your ability.
Hand in hand with understanding what the question is asking is reading it before engaging with the other materials. If you are given a text to read, going ahead and reading the questions and answers before you read the text is usually beneficial. When you read the given excerpt with the advantage of knowing what you are looking for you set yourself up for success in a very real way. It takes extra time, at first, but over time and with repetition you will find that you are making it through this process quicker and quicker.
Everyone starts learning a new language for a different reason. Whether it is because you want to travel, open up your dating horizons, or expand your career opportunities, it is more than likely you will want to test yourself. If you prefer self evaluation, that is a possibility, but for students and those who plan to use their language throughout their career, exams are going to be part of life.
However, knowing the language is only half the battle. Knowing the exam is the other half and by centering your learning strategies around a language exam you will set yourself up for success when the time comes to walk into that exam center. On the other hand, if you are not interested in exams, it is still worthwhile to ensure your strategies in second language acquisition align with your goals.
Learning a language is no easy feat, it will be difficult irrespective of how you approach it. But you can do difficult things and be great, so continue to do difficult things and be great. I will be here by your side endeavoring to do the same.
Be sure to check out Second Language Strategies to catch up on anything you missed, find me on Twitter or Instagram for some short form content. If you are struggling to get speaking in your target language, join our Discord! I look forward to seeing everyone’s progress in the months and years to come.