I passed the DALF exam! Intermediate to fluent French in 5 months (what really happened)

12th January 2018

Last summer, I set myself the goal of preparing for the advanced French DALF exam in 5 months. Find out how I did it - the good, the bad and the ugly!

There it was. That email I'd been waiting for. Back in summer, I’d set myself a goal: go from intermediate to fluent French in 5 months. At the end of November, I took an advanced level French exam (DALF) to check my level. The email was from the Institut Français and it had my results inside. Surprise. I’d passed the French DALF exam! Even more surprising: I got 83%, which is pretty good (the pass mark is 50%). Which got me thinking about this trite-but-true infographic. When I see people achieve things on the internet, it seems like they just set themselves a goal, sprinkle on some of their innate superhuman discipline then poof, done. It’s hard to imagine them feeling stressed or having days where they can't peel themselves off the sofa. So in this post, I thought it’d be fun to give you a sneak peek into what actually happened (and what was going through my monkey brain) as I went from intermediate to fluent French in 5 months. First I’ll reveal my very unglamorous journey to reaching my goal in French. Then, I’ll talk you through the details of the DALF exam and how it went on the day.

Preparing for the DALF exam: what really happened

End of June

My French level had been stagnating for a while. What I needed was a kick up the bum to help me push past the intermediate plateau. So I set myself a challenge: 5 months to get fluent in French. As fluency is a very slippery concept to define, I decided to take the top level French exam, Diplôme Approfondi de Langue Française (DALF), in November as an objective way of confirming my level. The DALF exam has 2 levels: C1 and C2. While the top level (C2) sounded exciting, I wasn't sure if I’d manage it in 5 months. I decided to start preparing for the exam and choose the level later. I knew it'd take a lot of work (I estimated 2-3 hours a day) but I was ready for it. I was feeling motivated and ready to take on the world. Related: How I'm becoming fluent in French (from my living room)

July

That feeling did not last long. Trying to squeeze the DALF preparation around all the other stuff I was already doing meant that I started to feel a bit burnt out. I got a bladder infection (told you this story would be unglamourous) with a high temperature. That, coupled with the 40-degree heat in Milan, left me feeling like merde. So I made an ass groove on the sofa, ate lots of ice-cream and binge-watched my way through all 3 series of Better Call Saul dubbed in French. As I slowly pieced myself back together, I decided to streamline my timetable so I could focus on preparing for the DALF exam without feeling overwhelmed. By the end of July, I was feeling strong and optimistic again, so I set myself the following French goals for August: Daily (except weekend)
  • 90 minutes focused study: grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and writing
  • 90 minutes fun stuff: watching films/tv series, reading magazines/books etc.
Weekly
  • One practice writing exam
Related: This extreme approach can help you learn a language faster by doing less.

August

Holiday time! I got the bus over to the South of France, looking forward to a whole month of French immersion. As soon as I got there, I realised that the “strong and optimistic” version of me who set those goals in July was an idiot because the current “on holiday” version of me didn’t feel like doing anything that remotely resembled studying. Instead of 90 minutes “focused study” every day and one writing exam practice per week, I did a bit of focused study occasionally and one very half-arsed practice for the writing exam in the whole month. I did, however, do lots of fun things in French like:
  • Chatting to French waiters.
  • Reading books, magazines and newspapers.
  • Listening to podcasts about the areas I was visiting.
I tried to orchestrate my trip so that I’d be able to speak as much French as possible, by booking rooms in Airbnbs where the ads were written in French (a good sign that the host would be happy to speak to me in French rather than English). But the first Airbnb turned out to be an unsociable dorm-type set up where people scuttled in and out of the kitchen to cook and take their food back to their room. So I spent the first week alone, wandering around museums listening to French podcasts, drinking wine and reading Tintin.

🇫🇷 Ce soir j'ai un rencard avec Tintin. 🇬🇧 Tonight I've got a date with Tintin.

Un post condiviso da Katie Harris (@joyoflanguages) in data:

  The following week, My Italian partner Matteo came out to visit. He’s also learning French so we spent a week speaking our new language - a mixture of French, Italian and English, or as we like to call it “Fritalianish”. Luckily, in the last 10 days, I found an Airbnb with a lovely, sociable host, Mireille. We hit it off immediately and I spent an amazing few days with Mireille and her friends, chatting in French the whole time (pausing only to stuff my face with lemon tarts and rosé).  
On the way back, I tried Couchsurfing and had a similarly awesome experience with my French host and her friends.  

September

With the deadline looming, it was time to start thinking about the DALF exam more seriously. While I wasn’t feeling confident about any of it, there was one particular part which scared the crap out of me... The production orale, otherwise known as the speaking exam. In this part, you’re asked to read 3 French documents related to humanities/social studies or science then give a 10 to 15-minute speech on the topic. In short, something I would find difficult in my native language. I made a decision (which later paid off) to throw myself into the difficult bit first, so I started practicing this as much as I could during Skype lessons with my online French tutors. My god was it painful! By now, I could chat reasonably comfortably in French in informal situations, but a formal speech? My poor tutors had to put up with excruciatingly long silences while I dug around my brain and tried to string a sentence together. I started to regret my decision to take the DALF exam. But it was too late to back out now.

Mid September

Time to call in a professional. I contacted a French teacher called Manon who used to be an examiner for the DALF exam. Booking lessons with Manon turned out to be the most useful thing I did during the whole 5 months - I don't know what I would have done without her! If you're looking for a French teacher to help with DALF, you can book lessons with her here. During our first lesson, she said she thought the higher level DALF exam (C2) was too ambitious. Given that I was already halfway past my deadline and wasn’t anywhere near as far along as I’d hoped, I agreed. We decided to go for the lower level DALF exam (C1). I felt a bit relieved. Manon was (rightly) still a bit dubious about whether I'd pass the C1 or not.

End of September

I had a bout of migraines which knocked me out for almost a week. When I wasn’t being sick and my eyes could handle the light from the TV screen, I curled up on the sofa and watched reality TV in French.

October

Where did the first week of October go? Time was whizzing by and I still didn’t feel ready for the exam. Time to get serious and come up with a game plan. Related: DALF C1: how I’m preparing for the scary French exam. Got a throat infection. Spent another few days curled up on the sofa watching French TV. Once I’d recovered, I continued following my game plan as best as I could.

End of October

Things started looking up. I realised I could now understand almost everything I heard and read in French. All that time listening to podcasts, watching TV and reading must have paid off. I did some practice listening and reading tests and they went pretty well. Sometimes I got close to 100%. But other times I didn’t understand the questions properly or ran out of time and only just scraped the 50% necessary to pass. I kept doing practice speaking tests with my online conversation tutors (3 x week by this point, sometimes more). After many, many practice sessions, I stopped being so terrible at it. But with all that focus on the speaking test, I’d forgotten about another difficult bit - the writing section! I did a couple of practice writing tests which were disastrous. The fact that I had very little experience writing in French combined with the tricky spelling system meant that I kept making babyish spelling mistakes that made my tutor cringe! Certainly not C1 level yet.

Beginning of November

I still wasn’t sure if I’d pass. But I was starting to feel happy with how far I'd come. Looking back to July, I realised that I’d already made a huge amount of progress in my French. No matter what happened in the exam, I’d already moved past the intermediate plateau. Related: Why you should have audacious language learning goals (even if you don’t reach them) Now to pass that DALF exam...

Two weeks before the exam

I began studying French every waking hour I wasn’t working or eating. Probably 4-5 hours per day, sometimes more. When I had the energy, I was doing practice exams. When I didn't, I was curled up on the sofa with YouTube videos and French TV series. I also watched lots of news and Tedtalks in French. Aside from being interesting, I thought they’d help me pick up vocabulary that'd be useful for the exam. My writing skills were still pretty crappy for C1 level. I realised that I probably shouldn’t have waited until a few weeks before the exam to start learning how to write in French.

One week before the exam

Great news! My tutor Manon was impressed with the progress I’d made. Despite her reservations about my writing, she believed I had already reached C1 level. All I had to do now was make sure nothing went drastically wrong on the day...

How the DALF exam went

Next, I’ll give some detailed information about the DALF exam, talk about how it went on the day and give a break down of my results.

Listening (compréhension orale)

The listening part of the exam takes around 40 minutes. First, you listen to a long recording (around 8 minutes) which is taken from formats such as interviews, lessons or conferences. You can listen twice. You can take notes as you listen and you get a few minutes between each to complete your answers. Next, you listen to a series of short radio broadcasts, typically newsflashes or adverts. You can only listen once. For this part, it’s important that you understand spoken French well because they often pick radio samples with fast speech where the audio is a bit distorted. As I listened to the 8 minute dialogue the first time, I panicked because the first part included a fast advert with quite a lot of sound interference. It whizzed by and I wasn’t able to concentrate on what they were saying. Luckily, the second time around I managed to catch it. I wasn't worried about the second part as I often got full marks in the practice tests. But in the real test, my mind wandered for a moment and... that was it. I’d missed the information I needed and I couldn’t listen again. Luckily, that only happened on a couple of questions, so it didn’t really matter. Result: 23/25

Reading (compréhension écrite)

In the reading section, you have to answer a series of questions on a long-form article (1500 - 2000 words). It lasts for 50 minutes. Despite the fact that I understood written French quite well, there were a couple of things that tripped me up in the practice tests:
  • I’m a slow reader! For me, it’s tricky to read a 2000 word document in French and answer a series of questions in 50 minutes.
  • Sometimes I found the questions a bit vague and struggled to pinpoint the kind of answers they were after.
Luckily, these things didn’t hold me back on the day. I felt a bit rushed for time, but I managed to answer most of the questions well. Result: 22/25

Writing (production écrite)

The writing exam has two parts. In the first section, you read a few documents (total: 1000 words) and write a summary. In the second section, you write an argumentative essay based on the contents of the documents. This is where things went wrong! When I started writing, I was so aware of my weakness in that skill that I overanalysed every word. Is that right? Does that sound too babyish? Needless to say, I got behind schedule. In fact, I was only halfway through the second task when the examiner shouted: 10 minutes! 10 minutes later, the examiner was standing over me saying "Madame, s’il vous plaît" as I scribbled down the last sentence. Leaving the room, it all felt like a blur. I’d written the last part so fast, I was sure I’d made loads of mistakes. I didn’t know if I’d passed. In the end, my writing was the result that surprised me the most - the lowest of the 4, but I was expecting much worse! Result: 15/25

Speaking (production orale)

Before the speaking exam, the examiners give you a few documents on a topic (you can choose between humanities/social sciences or science). Then, you have one hour to read the documents and prepare a speech on the topic. The actual exam lasts for 30 minutes: 10 - 15 minutes for the speech, followed by a discussion with the examiners on the same topic. Interestingly, although this was the part that terrified me the most at the beginning, by the time the exam rolled around I’d practiced it so many times I felt ready - I was even looking forward to it! When you walk into the exam room, you choose two topics by picking numbers at random. Next, you get a few minutes to sit down with the two topics and pick the one you prefer. I got lucky. One of the subjects was about learning and technology and as a language teacher, I have lots to say on the subject. The actual exam was nowhere near as intimidating as I’d imagined. I gave my speech, then had a lovely chat with the examiners, nerding out about the role of technology in language learning and teaching. When I left the room, I was elated - I couldn’t believe that the most difficult bit had gone so well! It felt nice to know that I’d just done something that seemed impossible a few months ago. Result: 23/25

Your turn!

If all that exam stuff sounds terrifying, don’t worry, it sounded terrifying to me a few months ago too. If you’ve been toying with the idea of taking the DALF exam (or any other language exam) then I say go for it. It might not be smooth sailing the whole way through, but it’ll be worth it! My most important tip for exam preparation is to start with the terrifying bits first. That way, once you get to the exam, you’ll feel confident. Do you have any other tips to add? Or, do you have any questions about the DALF exam? Let me know in the comments below!

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