“Weighing the pig won’t make it fatter. Feeding it will. ”
In Greece we’ve been experiencing this dystopic, unprecedented situation, where teenage (or even younger) students collect “degrees” in foreign languages. We’ve got special names for them, unique to us, with the ‘Lower’ being the most prevalent among them. Parents and teachers’ pride and joy is to share the news with their entourage: ‘we got the Lower’. Mind you, it’s always ‘we’, not ‘s/he’. We, together. This long-coveted and sought-after social recognition (a B2 language certificate) is a joint (parent-teacher-learner) achievement.
Text by Maria Davou
But let’s see what these “degrees” are, how useful they are in the end (apart from their ubiquitous use as wall ornaments and as self-realization moments for the Greek parent).
A degree, of course, is not a degree at all. It is a certification (certificate) of the level that one has achieved at a given time in a given language. We call degree a university, college or higher education certificate that signifies the completion of your studies at a tertiary level. A language certificate is not a degree. So, for starters, let’s stop calling them “degrees” (=πτυχία) and let’s stick to calling them what they are: certificates (πιστοποιητικά)
For B2 level (the well-known “Lower”) there are currently about 25 (or is it 27? the list seems never-ending) certificates recognized by ASEP. Yes, 25! Are they equally valid? For ASEP, yes. For the job market, no. For academics, no. For linguists, no. Of course, it is not an easy task to scientifically tell which foreign language exams is really at B2 level and which isn’t. Not all exams that claim this or that level are actually “mapped” to the CEFR. But the CEFR itself is not entirely clear either.
Which certificates are actually recognized depends on the purpose for which you need them. To get “points in the public sector”, everything is fine. If you want to work in the corporate world or in a start-up, 1–2 certificates are considered reliable but again, no one really cares about your language certificate. Your level of English (and the kind of English) will be evaluated in the job interview and finally in the job itself.
If you want to study abroad, it depends! On what? ONLY on the university’s admission requirements. For some universities, you are OK with this or that B2 certificate. For others, you must have obtained your certificate pretty recently. For others, it does not really matter, you have to take an Academic English test anyway. There is no general rule.
Does exam preparation help you learn a foreign language better? Again, the answer is by no means a straight forward one. Many pass exams and certify their level just fine. Yet holding a certificate does not necessarily mean true knowledge of the language. And yes, even the “good” ones do not necessarily mean that you can do everything you are supposed to be doing at this level. As we said before, a certificate shows the level that you have achieved at a given time (and we all have bad or good hair days).
Eventually, do I learn? Yes, maybe, no. The language tested is not necessarily the language used in real life. Exam language is almost an idiolect. It’s great that students learn all these idioms, proverbs and expressions by heart. But are we sure they understand when and how to use them? What self-image do they communicate? Language does not exist in a vacuum. It is socially charged, it exists only in social contexts and as a social tool. Are we sure this old-fashioned idiom suits us or them? Are we sure we know the register of this phrasal verb we just used in the transformation exercise? Are we sure we understand how rarely and for what (almost political) reasons we use passive voice? Are we sure we use the right intonation as a politeness device? Do we teach all these things for the ‘lower’ exam?
- Yes or no?
Let’s start from what matters: we need to teach the language because our learners need to use it to be who they are in the English language as well. How should we teach for the B2 exam? Through exposure to authentic material, and authentic speech. We watch movies, series, we listen to music. We speak, communicate, think, exist in the foreign language. We write poems, we tell stories, we reflect, we analyze, we summarize, we discuss, we explore the world in English.
As teachers, we study what CEFR B2 means. We do not look at the exam, we look at the can-do statements. We check if our learners can actually do these things. We are not on the lookout for errors (“oh how many times do I have to tell you the difference between Present Perfect Simple and Present Perfect Progressive?”) but we focus on achievements (this is the meaning of ‘can do’)!
Forget about practice tests as teaching material. Yes, use a couple of practice tests to familiarize your learners with the format of the exam, to help them with time and stress management. A practice test does not teach. We need to teach the language. Teach the level. Teach the individual.
Should our students take the ‘lower’? Yes! But take the B2 exam BECAUSE they learned the language, and not TO learn it. Exams can act as an incentive, become an opportunity for repetition, for concentration. Exams can serve as a personal map of our language development, and this can give a sense of achievement. Now, which exams and for which certificate? This is up to you. If you know the language, you prefer the ones with the highest recognition in the job market. If you do not know the language, go for the easiest.
But let’s not forget: just because you got that certificate, you did not necessarily learn the language.
The real exam is real life.