For my final answer to this question, ask me in just under two weeks, when I’ll be taking my exam.
For my interim answer, though, I think the truth lies in the description used for B1-level language exams in any tongue: in Spanish the term is umbral, which translates to English as “threshold”. This conjures up a nice image of an entryway, the door into the house of the language- and the successful B1 speaker is permitted to come inside. While reading through forum pages filled with the comments of previous DELE candidates, I have seen the B1 level dismissively referred to as “Basico Uno” – and I’m sure, to more advanced speakers, that’s how it must seem. But the truth is that B1 in any language is a meaningful achievement: for people who wish to apply for indefinite leave to remain in the UK, or to become new British citizens, they must be able to prove a minimum of a B1 standard of English. Equally, Spanish students now have to prove a minimum of B1 in another language in order to be able to graduate.
While at A1 and A2 you learn simple things such as telling the time, introductions, and ordering food in a restaurant, the B1 level requires something more – if you’re used to the British education system, it’s like the shift between learning a Romance language at GCSE (lots of vocab, but essentially easy) and AS or A Level (suddenly lots of grammar and a scary new thing called the subjunctive).
My DELE study tips
1. The level test. If you’re considering taking the DELE, the Instituto Cervantes has a very useful level test which can help you to work out where you are. A word of caution, though. When I took the test for the first time 11 weeks ago, my result was B2.1-B.2.2, which was flattering, but a little optimistic. I took it again 5 weeks later (after beginning to study properly) I achieved B2.3-B2.4 -it showed progress, but again, I know my Spanish isn’t that advanced! Due to the on-screen nature of the test, it favours reading skills, which happen to be my strong point, hence, I think, the inflated grades.
2. Classes. I don’t mean you have to sign up for one of those pricey DELE prep courses in Madrid. I just mean, ordinary Spanish classes. For me, I’m lucky enough to live within an easy commute of at least four universities which offer evening and weekend language programmes, so I started taking classes at Leicester University, which happens to have one of the most highly ranked language departments in the UK. While I was doing OK on my own, nothing compares to having an experienced native teacher explaining the complexities of grammar to you. I’ve also heard good things about italki if there’s no similar programme near you.
3. The official Instituto Cervantes website. The official website has at least one real former paper for each level, as well as a ton of information (in Spanish, por supuesto) regarding the requirements and marking of every level of exam. Especially useful to me was this page about La prueba de Expresión e interacción orales, featuring recordings of two B1 candidates (the first candidate no apto and the second candidate apto) with commentary and a mark scheme breaking their performance and grade down. Very helpful, as it gives a real example of how good you have to be at speaking to pass.
4. Study books. There are lots of them out there. The two I bought, after much googling of reviews, were El Cronómetro and Preparación DELE (pictures of both featured in this post!). El Cronómetro gets a lot of love from DELE takers, and it features 5 practice exams, along with CD recordings and access to electronic versions and other study material online. For me, I found the level of Spanish slightly harder in this one, which is a good thing. Preparación DELE is annoying because you have to buy the answer booklet separately (WHY?), but it features 8 exams and has access to more material online as well.
5. Speak! Speaking Spanish is probably the hardest thing to do unless you’re actually living in un país hispanohablante, but it’s really important. I’ve set up home with a native Spanish speaker, which certainly helps, but I’ve also encountered Spanish speakers in a variety of locations (including, just in the past few days, in a job interview and a tea shop) and promptly launched into my best castellano. Setting up languages exchanges, using Skype, or visiting a Spanish-speaking country are all advisable. In the year that I’ve been learning Spanish, I’ve made 5 separate trips to Spain, with a 6th rapidly approaching! Here I am with my suegro‘s donkey. Her name is Catalina:
I’ve used all of the following to help improve my level in preparation for the DELE B1:
- Duolingo – everyone’s favourite language-learning app. Best for beginners.
- Coffee Break Spanish – I can’t recommend this podcast series highly enough. Despite being a Glaswegian, Mark Pendleton sounds like he was born and raised in Spain- and I have this from a native speaker. Thanks to him, I learnt Spanish while doing the dishes every night! Mark, Cara, Alba, and José – I love you.
- Memrise – another app. I specifically used the DELE B1 preparation programmes, which were useful, but it’s not as well-designed as Duolingo & it’s all a bit of a chore.
- Instagram – a weird one, I know. But I follow lots of Spanish teachers and Spanish-speakers and I’ve picked up plenty of expressions and “real” language items in context here.
- Youtube -a wealth of great (and not so great) videos. I especially liked
- Hispanorama. This is a weekly radio show which goes out every Saturday on Spanish public radio station Radio Exterior. To be honest, my level of Spanish isn’t quite there yet to appreciate it fully, but I like it because it deals with current events in Spain and Latin America, and has speakers with a variety of accents- just like the DELE exam.