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At an average NT2 Staatsexamen, the second part of the first day is the speaking test. The listening test itself takes about 30 minutes, but it is perhaps the most precarious of the four parts. After the one-hour break following the writing part, sitting through registration and the identity check again takes enough time for our blood pressure to seriously drop to near zero, which is anything but what we need for this part.

The speaking test on Level 1 has about 20 questions in two parts, consisting of 20-second and then 30-second answer intervals, whereas on Level 2, the 20 or so questions are grouped into 20-second, 30-second answers with a third part requiring two two-minute answers. As to topics, what we have said about level differences in general holds here too, with Level 2 requiring more professional answers.

The questions in the first part require fairly simple, short, one- or two-sentence reactions within 20 seconds. Time before the following situation is short, the candidate has to put themself into new shoes rather fast and then respond very quickly again. This is fairly do-able due to the relatively simple situations, but if the candidate’s blood pressure has already fallen, it is difficult enough to suddenly speed up.

The questions in the second part tend to be a lot more complex, and the changes in topic follow each other similarly fast. We noted that the 30 seconds allowed for response prove too often to be rather short. Chatty types could do it better, but the questions require anything but a chat. With the frequent demand for the explanation of two or three different aspects of the problem, illustrated in three drawings, or sentences, a decision supported with minimum two reasons often proves too much for 30 seconds.

What a prospective candidate needs to bear in mind is that preparation for those two parts of the speaking test mainly requires preparation on their own in the most unnatural circumstances. We have to get used to communicating our fast shifting personality to someone who never reacts to us. This is as far from normal human interaction as can be, but this is the basis for the examiners to assess our speaking skills. No matter how appropriately we can communicate in real life, here we have only 20 or 30 seconds to say something, and properly at that, otherwise we lose valuable points and may fail easily.

Computerization is inevitable, we all know, but my personal opinion as an experienced oral examiner in Hungary is that a 15-minute personal dialogue about three various topic areas provides a far more reliable impression of the candidate’s language skills (and overall communication abilities as well, as human interaction is far more than speech) than such lightning-quick, impersonal attempts at reaction. Even with  secondary impressions sometimes at play. IELTS, Cambridge First Certificate English (FCE), or Cambridge Advanced English (CAE) tests provide similar examples of well-documented dialogues as speaking tests. There, there is possibility to bring out what the candidate is capable of, here, the candidate’s shortcomings are mercilessly brought to light under unnaturally intense circumstances. Here, momentarily forgetting just one key-word is enough to ring alarm bells in the mind and to lose half the time for a response, not to mention a potential to lose quality through embarrassment to oneself. Besides, I am not sure there is less time needed for evaluation here. The two evaluators have to listen carefully for 30 minutes of recording from each candidate and then decide. In the classical oral format, the two examiners rarely need more than 15 minutes per person to come to a decision, and in a much more relaxed atmosphere. Of course, we can say that, due to the standardized format, evaluation based on computerized answers here may happen extremely easily, almost automatically. But is it not this that allows for the complete loss of the individual?

Under the circumstances, this sort of testing requires rigorous preparation. The candidate has to get used to what he or she never faces in real life, after all. Alas, such training is often missing at courses. Most teachers preparing you for the exams feel the need to control the language use of the students, the need to correct if something is not completely good. But such approach demands far too much time, and does not make it possible for the students to get accustomed to the demand that they need to give rapid reactions for anything that gets thrown at them appropriately and sometimes even with mistakes. The stress involved is the most demanding, most important to be used to, but that seems to be least practiced. At the James Boswel Institute at the University of Utrecht, the necessary first step was taken, with recording the speaker and the output analysed afterwards, but then again, it happened only once or twice to a few people for 20 or 30 seconds. Hardly anything in terms of training for the stress involved in keeping it up for half an hour and taking turns of personalities about 18 or 20 times. So a prospective examinee must do the whole thing on his/her own, with his/her own recorder at home. It’s only that he/she needs to make up the questions themself too, because the one or two practice sets used at courses are far from enough, and they are usually not to be taken home either. How realistic does all this sound?

I have to add that the last two questions of the Level 2 exam are much more complex than those before, but there are two minutes of preparation time and two minutes of answer time provided, so the stress is far less. Also, these questions do not require four times as complex and detailed answers as the 30-second ones, and the candidate  has enough time to accommodate themself to the new circumstances and roles. Almost a cinch, compared to the previous 15-or-so questions.

On the second day of a full state examination, the candidates face a two-hour reading test followed by a long break, and then a somewhat shorter listening test of around 70 minutes answer-time. In both parts, 40 questions have to be answered.

In the reading part, you have to read six different texts on paper, but that number may sometimes vary, and one can wonder what it will look like if they completely computerize the texts as well. The questions have to be answered on the computer screen, usually out of three possibilities, occasionally out of four. The candidate can follow his/her own speed and rhythm, which seems to make this part relatively easy, but mind you, the texts and answers tend to grow in complexity towards the end, so the two hours provided are normally just enough. To divide your time in two hours is also a lot more difficult than within one hour, not everybody finds it comfortable, so do not make the mistake of thinking that this part is easy, all the less so because the vocabulary and complexity of text is here on the highest level of all the four parts, coupled with the necessity to have good analytical skills. However, on courses, this type of work is the most frequent, so you are already well used to such tests. That said, this part is not very stressful, but, due to the language level and complexity, tiring enough so that we need the break afterwards.

The listening part could again prove quite stressful. At courses, listening tests are sometimes done, but very rarely discussed, so I would say that the logic of choosing answers and the language points involved are not properly trained beforehand. In my own experience, at a summer school provided for hard money at the James Boswel Institute at the University of Utrecht, listening tasks were not covered at all.

The test itself, consisting of the usual 40 questions, is a continuous fight for fast understanding. Before each question, there is the same time provided to read the question and the three alternative answers, whether the answers are short and simple, or consist of longer and more complex sentences, so very often, you do not have enough time to read through the questions properly before the relevant snippet of one of the five or six dialogues already begins. Even if you can easily follow the dialogue, which may or may not be the case, if you need more time afterwards to browse through the options again and choose, you lose your time to properly read through the following question and answers. And that is where you may get stressed and frustrated again. You can later go back to a previous question, but only in your own time for another answer and also without the possibility to listen to the relevant part again, so it is strongly advised not to do this. What I deem necessary is to fully understand the question and the options as well, and then to memorize the gist of all the options. With that in mind, we can choose the correct option while we keep listening, then check ourselves at the very end of the snippet and click. Not always easy, but must be done. That having said, I can say this part is do-able, especially if one already has some practice through frequent talks to people in real life, or watching television, or doing the listening tasks most likely coming with a course book.

Candidates get the official result by post six weeks after the exam, but it is already available to be seen on the DUO web-site with your registration number after five weeks. It is possible to get diplomas about each successful part if you do not succeed overall. One re-take per year is possible, and if fully successful in all parts after that, DUO  is ready to issue a full diploma if requested.

With these explanations, I hope we have provided prospective students of Dutch a useful overview of what can be expected at preparatory courses and at the exams themselves. We wish you good luck and success.

by Z.J.Shen and P.S.