Learning a language and exams
So you want to prove you can speak a foreign language.
You can now express yourself with comfort, you like practising the language, and feel like you deserve a certificate after so much effort. We agree!
But then you start lacking confidence, of course.
“What if I have nothing interesting to say?”
“What if I go blank and there’s an awkward silence?”
“What if they ask me to give my opinion and I don’t have one?”
Cover the basics
First things first: none of this advice will be useful if you don’t know what your speaking exam will be like…by heart.
You need to know how long it will take, whether you’ll do it alone or in pairs, how many sections the exam has, and the tasks it will involve: describing an image? Comparing two images? Talking about your opinion about a topic? Summarising information?
It might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised at the amount of language learners who walk into a speaking exam not knowing what will happen. Don’t be one of those people! If needed, explain a friend or a family member what your speaking exam will be like stage by stage. This will help you prepare mentally for what’s to come.
Don’t stay in your comfort zone
All speaking exams have common points. Most of them ask you to introduce yourself, talk about your home country, talk about the languages you speak, why you have decided to learn this new language and your occupation. However, not all topics are comfortable and predictable. I will always remember when I was taking the IELTS speaking exam and the examiner suddenly said: “Let’s talk about plants.” At that moment, I was terrified. Plants?! I had never even thought that this topic would be possible. I had prepared to talk about music, movies, personal taste, education, my neighbourhood…but plants?! This comes to show you should prepare even for topics you dislike or find boring. There are endless lists of topics to prepare for speaking exams, so take advantage of them.
Don’t worry about being interesting in your speaking exam
Examiners don’t care about your life experiences. They do not want to be friends with you. They want you to answer the question. That’s it. They want you to show you can speak the language. Stop worrying about giving interesting answers, and start giving practical ones! Too often, people worry about giving clever answers, and that’s why they go blank. Don’t worry about giving complex opinions, telling incredible life stories or impressing with your ideas, unless you are already at a C1 or C2 level and can easily do it. Go for simple ideas, but explain them well. Which leads us to…
Learn to lie
Don’t lie about your identity, your address and your exam conduct. Apart from that, examiners aren’t really worried about your real opinions or perspectives. The only condition is that you express it well. Most of the times, you won’t have much time to think about complex opinions before you speak. Practise answering complex questions without going blank and not worrying too much about your true ideas. Go for simple and well-spoken.
Practise for specific sections of the exam
Depending on the speaking exam at hand, there will be a different structure. Different sections will require you to do different speaking activities, because they test different things. And that is what most learners don’t do: they think they can just speak to someone for days and get ready for the exam that way. Unfortunately, this is not a good preparation. You have to know your exam sections by heart, know what you are expected to do for each, and practise that exact same thing as similarly as possible in the comfort of your home. For example, if a section of the exam requires you to compare pictures or describe people, that is exactly what you need to practise at home. Speaking without a purpose will not be enough.
Have an awareness of time, but don’t let it control you
Time yourself while practising at home. Really. Use a timer for every single answer you give. If you can do it in front of other people, even better. Have a family member, trusted friend, partner or teacher ask you several questions and practise specific skills that your exam will be testing: describing, comparing, giving an opinion, talking to a partner to share opinions, and so on. At first, you will probably be shocked at how time passes by so quickly. But the more you do it – aim for lots of practise, not just 3 or 4 repetitions – you will slowly start getting comfortable with time and be able to give satisfying answers in one or two minutes.
Practise reaction and pause when speaking
You don’t have to spend your entire speaking exam as if you are suffering through a job interview. You can definitely have your vulnerable, human moments…in your target language, of course! Examiners actually count it as a positive if you can use expressions like:
- “That is an interesting question!”
- “I had never thought about this topic before.”
- “I’m not quite sure, but I think…”
Also, please don’t fear pausing once in a while. Of course, several seconds of silence aren’t advisable, but neither is talking endlessly without breaks or taking any time to think. Pausing is a natural part of speech!
Avoid short replies that make examiners fall asleep
Dead-end answers like a short “yes”, “no” or “I don’t know” are forbidden in a speaking exam. Well, not exactly forbidden by the examiners, but…forbidden by this blog post, if you want to achieve a fantastic grade! Unfortunately, it is not your examiner’s job to force you to explain yourself or ask “Why?” constantly. It is your responsibility to develop your answers, justify your opinions and show your vocabulary range. Let’s take a look at a basic example. If you answer the question: “Where are you from?” with “Germany”, you’re doing it wrong. A good alternative would be: “I’m from Germany, specifically from the outskirts of Berlin, which is the capital city.”
Remember it is ok to ask the examiner to repeat
Even native speakers can’t understand everything from time to time. Examiners do not expect you to understand everything at first, and it is ok for you to politely ask: “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite get that. Could you repeat, please?”. If you didn’t understand the second time either, it is a good idea to ask them to repeat again. This is why: it is better for you to go through one or two painful seconds of trying to understand the question and then giving an appropriate answer, than pretending you understood and giving a completely unrelated answer that has nothing to do with the question. Which leads us to…
Always answer the question…or questions!
When an examiner asks you a question, answer that question exactly. Don’t change the topic, even if you think it is interesting (remember, your goal is not to be interesting!). Also, keep in mind that some speaking exams include two or three questions in one. They do this on purpose to test if you can keep up with the task and answer all questions without getting lost in your thoughts. Imagine you receive this task in your speaking exam: “Look at these two images. Describe each image, compare them and then answer the question below.” Most students would run out of time while describing the images and completely forget they have to do the rest!
If speaking in pairs, prepare for some differences
Some speaking exams happen in pairs, not individually. Make sure to read the instructions and know which you will find. When you find yourself alone, you will be tested for different speaking skills, such as describing, giving an opinion, connecting ideas, using a good range of vocabulary, using proper grammar and accurate pronunciation. When you work in pairs, however, you’ll have an extra challenge: you are also expected to know how to interact, manage your speaking time and acknowledging their ideas, too. If you know you will have to work in pairs, practise interacting and reacting in your target language:
- “I definitely agree!”
- “I’m not so sure.”
- “I see what you mean!”
- “That’s an interesting perspective.”
- “And you? What do you think?”
Those are our tips for the day.
Remember: a speaking exam is nothing more than a short conversation in which you show you can speak the language.
You don’t need to be a specialist, you don’t need to be able to talk about chemistry or politics, and you certainly don’t need to be perfect! There is room for mistake, pause, asking for repetition and interaction.
Most of all, you want to be prepared. So let’s do this – go back to your exam description, check the details of your speaking exam, and share your plan with us!