What fluency means to me & why I won't be taking any more C1 language exams

“So are you fluent then?” I get asked this all the time about my Spanish and in the past I was never sure how to answer. Now I say yes, but the word fluency is still a bit of a minefield and means different things to different people. For some people, it means being able to go about everyday life in the language without too much difficulty, for others you are not fluent until you reach level C1 of the European framework for languages.

As part of my Spanish journey I chose to take the DELE exams  - formally recognised language proficiency exams, the Spanish equivalent to the Cambridge English exams for non native English speakers. The intention was never to use the formal qualifications to further my career or put on my CV, they were purely a motivation to study and make sure I progressed rather than hitting a plateau.

I took and passed the A2, B1, B2 and in each case I really felt like studying for and taking the exam improved my Spanish. I debated for quite some time before signing up for the C1 - I didn’t need it for any academic or career purpose, but it was just something that I felt like I should do - it was the logical progression.

Studying for C1 was different to the others from the beginning. First of all the gap in terms of vocabulary between B2 and C1 really is a chasm, particularly understanding the nuances between words that are very similar in meaning. Then there is the need to structure a verbal presentation or written argument well - not just use the right words but make sure it flows well and is structured logically.

I was lucky and found a great tutor on italki with experience of C1 exams and she gave me invaluable advice - I genuinely wouldn’t have passed the exam without her. Yes that’s right, I passed! I was really pleased to have done so, but when I reflected on it I didn’t think it improved my day to day Spanish like the previous exams did. Was I really going to use the phrase ‘by putting emphasis here the writer insinuates that…’ or ‘to further develop the argument in an academic context’ in my next conversation with someone on the streets of Madrid? Probably not!

In my quest for C1 I had learned some impressive, high level vocabulary and phrases but they were ones I would probably never use again. I questioned whether it was really worth spending the time learning this, or would my Spanish have improved more by spending more time interacting with native speakers, learning and replicating how they speak in real life, blending in by using the language the way they do. In hindsight, had I learned more from talking to native speakers in my Spanish conversation club than from classes?

To give myself a little more context in terms of what does C1 really mean, and to have something concrete to compare it to, I downloaded a C1 Cambridge English past paper and did the reading and use of language part. It was hard – harder than I thought it would be! I finished before time because I knew the format well but parts were really difficult.

There were words that I didn’t know and had to look up. Anachronism anyone? Pseudo Esoteric? Me neither! I am convinced that without the proper practice many native English speakers would fail the C1 exam let alone the C2. The long texts in particular were complicated for the sake of being complicated – they don’t read naturally at all and are hard to follow even for a native speaker. They use deliberately obscure words and sentence structures when a simpler one would have been perfectly fine, better even.

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