As promised IRL to a few people, I wanted to write a debrief on the DALF C1 which I took last month. My advice can be summed up in one phrase: Just showing up is 80% of the battle. One you have hit a certain level in French, the only thing you need for the DALF is to learn the strategies on how to take the test and PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE. I was in class two hours a week and probably worked two to four hours a week on homework on top of it.
The test is in four parts:
1. Oral comprehension: If you don’t have this on lock, this is the hardest part of the test. You either have it or you don’t, and the only way to get better at it is to listen to the radio and tv or podcasts. Some of the review books (I will list the ones I used below) also give CDs with audio portions done in the style of the test. I’m lucky that I have lived in French-speaking countries for the better part of the last ten years so this was the portion of the test I studied for the least and was the most confident about after the test.
2. Written comprehension: Again, if you are used to reading in French, this part of the exam should not be major drama. Here, more than any part of the test, it is important to know “how” to take the test. My mistake in the practice test was writing too much- for example, my high school French teacher made us respond always in complete sentences. On this test is isn’t absolutely necessary as long as you get the information correct. In other words, spend time learning from the books or from you teacher what the format of a correct answer on this section looks like.
3. Essai and Synthèse: These were the hardest for me and my prediction is that this is the section I will get the lowest note on. This used to be what I was strongest at in university but since I have been working, I really have only used my speaking skills because at work most of the stuff I wrote in French was always the same thing (business letters, accounting stuff…). I always say that this part of the test is the most “franco–français” because their format is very picky and particularly French (I am not sure that kids in Romandie have to do synthèses in school). You need to be comfortable writing in French, and you need to know how to follow the format and identify what they are asking for. For example, in the exam, they could ask you to write an article, a letter, an essay…but it won’t be spelled out and the clue will be in how they assign the subject. For example, my essay in this exam was meant to be an article. These subtle differences are outlined in the reference books and by the teacher if you take a prep class. For the synthèse, it is one of those things where you don’t know how to do it unless you have written twenty.
4. Oral expression: You have a topic for which you have one hour of prep, then 10 minutes of talking followed by ten or fifteen minutes of a discussion with the jury. I had two ladies and one mainly took notes while the other did the talking. What people may not realize before the exam is that the jury is not there to play bad cop- their goal is to put you at ease and see how much you can talk. During this part of the exam, you have the right to a French-French dictionary (a Larousse for example) which they provided for us in the exam. Bring a watch and practice timing yourself to hit that 10 minute mark, and whatever happens, don’t stop talking. Talk about your cat, talk about your life, but just keep talking even if you run out of things to say on the topic. The questions after the talk are meant to challenge you and see how you speak on the fly. Remember than in our second and third languages it is always easier to talk about ourselves and our personal lives, so if you run out of things to say, talk about yourself. For example, my topic was e-books. If I ran out of stuff to say about e-books, I would have just started talking about what I like to read.
Prep classes and books: I took the prep class from Zurich’s Alliance Française. I recommend taking the prep class because the hardest part of the exam really is knowing how to take the test- unless you spent some time in the France-French school system, walking in to the test freestyle is kind of a crapshoot. I spent a year in a French university (taking regular classes not “foreigner classes”) and I still had a hard time with the formatting stuff. My teacher was awesome and gave us all of the reference materials we needed in class. I was the exception because I am one of those people who needs to have books around, so I got three books and used them all- some of the exercises our teacher gave us in class came from these books. I had Réussir le DALF C1 – C2 from Didier without the CDs (but some of the CD stuff we did in class). I mainly used that book as a reference to understand what was going on. A book I reached for more frequently was Cadre commun activités pour le CECR C1-C2 from CLE. This book has a lot of exercises that prep you for the level you need to take the test- a lot of vocabulary and culture générale. Because of the background prep it offers, if you are thinking of taking the test, I would recommend flipping through this book to see if it seems too hard or just right for you before committing to the test or the class. If it is too hard, you might want to spend more time studying for the test. Finally, for the written parts of the exam because I had no effing clue how to proceed, I loved Réussir le nouveau DALF C1-C2 La production écrite from Tegos (warning: website best viewed with Netscape Navigator). This book gives you 24 dossiers similar to the written parts of the exam with step-by-step examples of how to write them. This was important to me because I know it is my weakest area, but like all the books, unless you are into books I don’t think you need them if you are taking the prep class. Finally, the website Passe ton DALF was full of useful information.
The final piece of advice I have is that the content of the test is hard, but the bar is set very low. You only need 50 points out of 100 with 5 points minimum in each of the four sections. If you have a section or two you are strong at, then all you have to do really is write your name on the other ones, so you don’t have to stress for the exam.