What do heights, Ikea on Sundays and language exams have in common?
They all scare the crap out of me.
Right now, I’m stressée because I’m taking an advanced French exam (called the DALF C1) in a few weeks, and I’m not ready yet.
But not to worry.
I’ve done what all good, last-minute students do and come up with a plan aimed at getting the best possible results in the little time I’ve got. In this post, I’ll share the strategies I’m using to get ready for the DALF C1 exam, which draw on the techniques I used to pass a similar Italian exam (C2 CILS).
Update: I passed! You can read about how the exam went here: I passed the DALF exam! Intermediate to fluent French in 5 months (what really happened)
If you’re thinking about taking the DALF C1 French exam, or any other language exam for that matter, you’ll find 14 strategies that’ll help you get the most out of your study time and give you a better chance of passing.
Before we dive in, let’s talk a bit about how the DALF C1 exam works, including:
- What is the DALF C1 exam?
- Why take the DALF C1?
- What do I have to do in the DALF C1?
What is the DALF C1 French exam?
DALF stands for Diplôme Approfondi de Langue Française (Diploma in Advanced French). There are two levels: C1 and C2.
At C1 level, you can:
• express yourself fluently and accurately in French
• use French with ease in social, academic and working contexts
• write clear, detailed texts on complex subjects
In short, the DALF C1 exam is a way of testifying that your French level is good enough to conduct your social, academic and working life comfortably in French.
C2 (mastery) is the next level up and the highest level French exam there is.
Why take the DALF C1?
Some people take the DALF C1 because they need it for work or study (although in many cases, the lower level, B2 will suffice).
Personally, I like the added motivation that comes from working towards an exam like the DALF C1. It’s exactly the kick up the bum I needed to stop floundering and make some real progress in French. In that sense, I’m already satisfied with the results as I’ve seen more improvement in my French in the last 3 months than I had in the last 3 years prior to setting myself this goal.
What’s the DALF C1 exam like?
There are 4 sections in the DALF C1 exam: reading, listening, writing and speaking.
The listening section is divided into two parts. In the first part, you’ll answer a series of questions about a long recording (around 8 minutes) taken from real contexts like interviews, lessons or conferences. You can listen twice. In the second part, you’ll answer 10 questions on short radio broadcasts, which are only played once. The listening section lasts around 40 minutes.
In the reading section, you’ll answer a series of questions on a long text (1500 – 2000 words), which could be journalistic or literary in style. It lasts 50 minutes.
The writing section is divided into two parts. In the first part, you’ll be given 2 – 3 texts to read and asked to write a summary (220 words). In the second task, you’ll be asked to write an essay on the same topic as the texts you just read (250 words). You have 2.5 hours to complete both parts.
In the speaking section, you’re required to give a short speech and discuss a series of questions with the examiners. You get 60 minutes beforehand to read 2 – 3 documents about a topic and prepare your speech. The speech + discussion lasts around 30 minutes, so altogether the speaking section lasts 1.5 hours.
In both speaking and writing sections, you can choose between two fields: humanities and social studies or science.
14 ways to prepare for the C1 DALF French exam
1. Do lots of exam practice
The most effective way to practice for an exam is… you guessed it, by doing exam practice!
However, not all practice is equal. As Vince Lombardi puts it:
Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.
To get the most out of your study time, it’s important to focus on the right kind of practice. This means not simply doing exam questions over and over, but taking time between each try to analyze what went wrong and think about how you can apply those lessons to your next attempt.
It also means learning how to do the exam, by developing skills that will help you answer the questions better. The following tips will give you some suggestions on how to do this.
2. Get a textbook designed for the DALF C1
It helps to get a textbook specifically designed to prepare students for the language exam you’re taking. I’m using réussir le DALF and it’s full of handy hints for each section.
It’s also a good idea to get your hands on a book with past papers, so you can do as many practice exams as possible.
3. Improve your speaking and writing with the translation technique
Ideally, I want to learn to express myself in a way that’s as close as possible to an educated French speaker. To move towards this target, I need a technique that highlights how my speech and writing differs from that of native French speakers so I can learn from my mistakes and discover how to talk/write more like they do.
With the following translation technique:
- Find examples of native French speaker answers to the writing/speaking tasks (like the one below).
- Translate the French text/audio into English.
- Wait a day or so, until my memory of the French version has faded.
- Translate the text/audio back into French.
- Compare my French answer with the original native speaker text/audio.
This technique is ideal because it gives you immediate feedback on your choice of words/grammar and shows you how to express ideas like a native French person would. And because you’re engaging with the French phrases in a very focused way, it helps you remember them more easily for future speaking/writing tasks.
4. Train your ear to listen for details
Does this ever happen to you?
When you listen to fast speech in a foreign language it sounds like gobbledygook, but when you see things written down you can understand them quite easily?
This is because in fast speech, strange things happen: sounds (and sometimes whole words) can be cut and others sound different to how you expect. For example, when French people speak fast, they often shorten the word “vous” to “v”.
I want to train my ear to recognize words and phrases in fast speech, so I can pick out details I’ll need in the listening questions.
To achieve this, I’m using a dictation technique, which involves listening to speech, writing what you hear, then checking what you wrote against a transcript. This task trains your ear to tune into the details of speech and highlights why you miss certain words, for example, if they’re pronounced differently in fast speech.
As a bonus, writing down the words helps me practice spelling, which is one of my weaknesses in French.
I’m using the C1 listening tasks from TV5Monde for this task because the listenings come with transcripts and cover topics which are similar to the DALF C1 exam (shout out to Elena from the hitoritabi blog for the recommendation!)
5. Listen to newsreaders on speed
Another way to get used to listening to fast speech is to speed it up even more.
On YouTube, you can make the videos faster by knocking the speed up to 1.25 (under settings). Once you get used to listening to everything 1/4 faster, normal speed French suddenly feels a lot easier! I’m using the videos on the France24 YouTube channel for this activity.
6. Listen everywhere
Download some podcasts and listen to them wherever you go: on the way to work, whilst doing the dishes or cleaning the shower. French radio interviews and news programs are great as they’re often similar to the listenings in the exam.
7. Improve your pronunciation
Pronunciation is important because it helps the examiners understand you more easily, which can positively influence their judgements on your speaking ability. Check and practice the pronunciation of tricky words by looking them up in an online dictionary with audio files (like wordreference). Listen to the sound file and practice saying the word aloud several times until your pronunciation sounds similar to the example. It helps to keep a list of the French words you struggle to pronounce so you can come back to them and practice them regularly.
8. Remember important words with flashcards
I store the new words and phrases I come across in my flashcard app, so I can review them later. Over the next few weeks, I’ll concentrate on making flashcards with formal French phrases that’ll be useful for the exam, like cependent (nevertheless) and en outre (furthermore).
Importantly, I won’t just review the words, I’ll practice using them too, as this helps them stick in my head better. One way of doing this is to make up new sentences in my head with each word as I review the flashcard. Another way is by writing example sentences.
9. Grammar: learn by doing
I need to dust off a bit of French grammar, so I’m working my way through a grammar textbook. But like vocabulary, I believe the best way to remember grammar is to practice using it.
To do this, I write conversation questions with the grammar points I’ve just learnt and discuss them with my online tutor. If I can make the topics similar to the ones in the exam, so much the better.
Let’s see this in action.
I’ve recently reviewed conditionals (used to talk about imaginary situations – if I were a cat, I’d sleep all day). For my next lesson with my online tutor, I’ve prepared some conversation questions with conditionals, using themes that often appear in the exam (environment, politics…). For example:
Si tu étais président, que ferais-tu pour protéger la planète?
If you were president, what would you do to protect the planet?
This helps me practice writing and speaking using the grammar points I’ve just studied and get lots of relevant feedback from my online tutor.
10. Do focused speaking lessons
My online French lessons used to be an opportunity for a nice relaxing chat, but over the next few weeks I’ll need to get focused. I’m going to use the sessions to practice debating and do a feedback session at the end so I can focus on areas I need to improve. I’ll ask my online tutor for honest feedback about my mistakes, what I could have done better, and new expressions to help me express my ideas more effectively next time.
11. Get feedback by recording your speaking practice
Another way you can improve your speaking is by making short videos and showing them to native speakers to get corrections. I’ll be posing mine on Instagram, as there’s a lovely language learning community who give each other friendly feedback and correct each other’s mistakes. If you’re not brave enough to post your video in public yet, you can record it and watch it back yourself (you’ll often notice your own mistakes when you’re not concentrating on speaking at the same time).
12. Get a teacher who knows the DALF C1
Most of the time, I don’t work with qualified teachers to learn a language: a native speaker who can give me corrections is all I need, as I can study the grammar and vocabulary on my own from textbooks. But for exam prep, it’s important to work with a teacher who understands the exam so they can explain how the exam works, spot your weaknesses and give you exercises to work on them. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be doing some lessons with an experienced teacher (online via italki) who knows the DALF C1 exam well and can give me pointers.
13. Do Deliberate practice
Lots of the ideas in this post aren’t about working harder, they’re about working smarter. These tips fit in with an approach called deliberate practice, which is an effective way to develop skills in just about anything. In his book Peak, the pioneer of deliberate practice, Anders Ericsson suggests that the best way to get good at something is to follow three Fs:
• Focus: Break the skill down into parts you can practice repeatedly.
• Feedback: Analyze your practice attempts and identify your weaknesses.
• Fix-it: Come up with ways to address your weaknesses so you can do it better next time.
If this kind of preparation sounds intense, that’s because it is. But if you can figure out ways to apply the three Fs to your exam preparation, it’ll save you time in the long run because it’ll help you get better faster.
Getting out of your comfort zone is a wonderful thing. It’s where all the good stuff happens. But while my mind has fully embraced this idea, my body is wondering what the heck is going on. I’ve been getting ill a lot lately, which is a sign I need to slow down and take care not to burn out.
I plan to look after myself more by making a few simple changes:
- Get a good night’s sleep. This means getting to bed at a decent time and no screens before bedtime (start reading at 10.30 and fall asleep between 11 and 11.30). Apart from weekends, bien sur.
- Eat healthily (more of the good stuff, like fruit and veg, whilst still enjoying treats)
- Take frequent breaks, with relaxing activities, like listening to music or going for a walk (au revoir Facebook!)
- Check emails/social media no more than once a day.
- Say no to new projects.
- If I’m feeling really tired, replace exam prep with more fun stuff, like watching French TV or reading a French book (so I can chill without getting out of the French zone).
What do you think?
Have you ever done a language exam before? How did you prepare for it? What other tips can you add to the list? Or, if you’re thinking about taking a language exam, which of the above tips will help you the most?