Top tips for acing your language oral exam

Preparing for foreign language exams can seem daunting, and there’s no section that strikes more fear in the hearts of language students everywhere – whatever the qualification or exam board – than the speaking part of the test. But don’t worry! Take note of these confidence-boosting tips and you’ll be breezing through the role plays and chatting like a native in no time. Read on to discover our eight top tips for acing your oral exam and keeping those pesky nerves at bay. Allons-y!

 

Preparation is key

Start early and form habits. Getting ready for a speaking exam can seem like a huge undertaking, but if you start your preparation early, you’ll be able to break down the topics into more manageable chunks. For many exams there are only so many themes you could be tested on, so find out what they are and make sure to cover them in-depth. Then, practise, practise, practise. And practise out loud! If you’re reading your notes on the bus, maybe not. But the exam is a speaking one and reading in your head is a very different skill to physically moving your mouth around the words and getting to grips with the accent. Take care to practise sounding natural, though. You’ll likely be penalised for sounding as if you’re reading from a sheet, so make sure to get in realistic pause sounds or filler words in the target language (see below for ideas). One way to test yourself is to practise speaking in a mirror or record yourself talking, so you can listen back and assess your own pronunciation.

 

Come up with content

Often in a speaking exam, we are required to talk about topics that we might not be particularly interested in. Thinking about the questions and answers in English can be really useful for generating ideas around a topic. You need to be able to expand on your answers, not just give a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response and being able to provide opinions and justify them is crucial. It doesn’t matter if you don’t truly believe what you’re saying when arguing about the dangers of mobile phones or the importance of recycling, you just need to be able to produce accurate content and back up your opinions.

 

Don’t forget to listen!

Remember, a conversation is a two-way process. You might produce the most carefully crafted proclamation in the exam, only to be so relieved that you’ve managed to communicate your thoughts so eloquently that you totally forget to listen to the next question. It’s important, therefore, not to neglect your listening skills in the run-up to the exam. Listen to the radio or podcasts or watch TV or films in the foreign language with and without subtitles. Find music that you enjoy, try to write down the lyrics then look them up. Find a YouTuber that you like from the country in question or watch a Ted Talk in that language. All these activities are ideal for getting your ear tuned in to the language you’re studying and will not only aid your listening but will broaden your vocabulary and improve your pronunciation.

 

Practise pauses

Pausing in another language isn’t the same as in English. Practise a few filler expressions so they come naturally when speaking. Using these in the exam gives you some breathing space to decode what the examiner just said, buys you a bit of time to think about what you want to say without panicking and will definitely make you sound more like a native. Here are a few good filler phrases for British students to try out:

French

Alors… = So…
Eh bien… = Well…
Enfin… = Well…
C’est-à-dire = That is to say…
And finally, the English ‘Uhhhh…’ is generally more of a ‘Baahhhh…’ in French!

 

Spanish

Bueno… = Well…
Así que… = So…
O sea… = I mean…
Pues… = Well…
Esteee… = Um/Ah…

 

German

Äh = Ahh
Also… = Well…
Jedenfalls… = Anyway…
Ja = Yes (Here, used as more of a filler word than actually meaning yes)
So… = So/thus…
Wie dem auch sei… = Be that as it may…

One more key phrase that you should absolutely learn off by heart is to ask the examiner to repeat the question – make sure you know this!

 

Find a partner

Whether it’s a parent, a friend or a neighbour, find a willing participant to test you and get them to ask you random questions. Even if they don’t speak a word of the language, it’s excellent practice for you. Try to recreate the exam setting as much as possible and you’ll feel a lot more relaxed when it comes to the real thing. Notice the areas that you struggle with more and go over that content again in your solo study time.

 

Ask questions!

Some exams, like GCSEs, have a section where you must ask a question, so check if yours is one of them. Make sure you’ve got your head around the grammar of question formation and prepare some possible questions beforehand. Then in the exam, don’t forget to drop one in there. If it comes down to it, even an: Et toi?/¿Y tú?/Und du? back at the examiner is better than nothing (though check you’re using the right register first) and in some exams is all you need to tick off that criteria.

 

Keep calm

If you’ve done all you can to prepare, then the only thing that could stand in your way is nerves! The immediate nature of speaking exams means you have to be ‘on’ and at your best for a very short period of time. Give yourself the best chance by getting a good night’s sleep before, eating something, even it’s just a light breakfast, and drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated and alert. In the exam, trick your brain into feeling confident by sitting up straight with your head high and speaking steadily – don’t rush! Sitting up also means you can regulate your breathing easier – take deep breaths in from your diaphragm and enunciate clearly.

 

And finally… mistakes happen

Don’t dwell on mistakes. We all make them in our native languages, so don’t feel like you’ve failed if you realise you’ve conjugated a verb incorrectly or said the wrong gender of a noun. If you can, correct yourself. Otherwise just carry on and focus on what you or the examiner is saying next, not on what’s already been said. Stay positive!

 

For more speaking exam support, take a look at the exam tab on our MFL resources page or check out our blog posts on how to improve pronunciation or how to study for any language exam.

Anne-Marie McLeman

Anne-Marie is our Content Assistant who loves both the teaching and learning side of languages and has a curious passion for grammar. In her spare time, she enjoys taking dance classes, testing her knowledge at pub quizzes and trying out new recipes. Feel free to contact the FlashAcademy team on Twitter at @Flashacademy_HQ.

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