Oral exams at university, and how not to cry your way through them!
The oral exam is often the most stressful part of a languages qualification. Everyone seems to get on okay with grammar, vocabulary, culture and even listening, but when it comes to speaking the language, people tend to clam up. It’s easy to appreciate why: unlike a writing exam, when you have time to formulate an adequate response which is (mostly) mistake free, an oral exam exposes your true knowledge of the language. Speaking from experience, the second an oral exam starts to go wrong it can seem like the 10-minute conservation is an interminable mess of errors, embarrassment and weird comments you’ve made because you can’t think of a way to express what you actually want to say.
However, following that positive introduction, I will say that I have found my experience of oral exams has improved throughout my degree, despite the fact that they are getting somewhat harder, which is mostly down to my better preparation and knowledge of how to play the oral exams game… So here are a few tips for how to survive oral exams!
I cannot speak for all languages at Warwick, but for the three I do (Spanish, Italian, Russian) I’ve always been able to give a presentation at the start (ranging from 2 – 12 minutes in length) which will direct the theme of the rest of the discussion. For Italian and Spanish I have spoken over the years about anything and everything: overcrowding and tourism in Florence; social media and adolescent wellbeing; youth unemployment in Southern Europe; Flamenco music and cultural appropriation of the Romani culture; animal rights and tradition…. and so on. The great thing about presentations is that you can choose a topic you know well, learn all the relevant vocabulary and themes, practice oit, but also prepare what questions might be asked after in advance. This means the whole “I have no idea how to speak this language” fear becomes less threatening. In Russian, which I speak at a lower level, the exams I’ve done have usually followed the following format: a small presentation about a topic (I have to prepare 3 and one is picked at random) then a few follow up questions, then a situation based role play (like ordering in a shop). Therefore, there’s no excuse to not know the basics, and hopefully only one question is a curveball.
Practice Practice Practice
Practicing for an oral exam is a hard one, partially because I think for most people it’s the part we’re most embarrassed about, leading to the lovely cycle of: I hate making mistakes when I speak my language but I have to practice speaking in order to reduce my mistakes. Over my degree I’ve done it all in terms of practice: speaking to randoms online (try and do this over a secure website like https://www.conversationexchange.com/); speaking with my classmates over Teams; speaking to myself whilst strolling about the garden (my housemates think I’m a bit crazy with that one); speaking to myself whilst recording myself and producing a video diary; speaking in the shower… It really comes down to a mixture of it all. It’s great to just speak to yourself to practice speaking in the language, but you need to talk to other people to iron out the errors and learn new things. Also, if you’re given the opportunity to prepare a presentation, don’t waste it and not practice.
Get in the zone
We all have different rituals: some people do power-posing before a stressful situation, others do shots. Whatever you need to do to ensure you don’t get too in your head before an oral exam, do it, and try and reduce your nerves as much as possible. I’ve always been a bit of a nervous babbler, and when I start making mistakes in an oral exam it goes down hill pretty quickly… Think crying… So, I really try to put myself in the best mental state before starting the exam, so that when it inevitably does go downhill, it doesn’t hit such a crashing low. I always book the earliest appointment I can so I don’t have time to get worked up about it through the day; I pick the professors I’m most comfortable speaking Spanish with (and who’s accent I get along best with), and maybe I have tried the shot thing once or twice…
To anyone out there facing oral exams in the coming weeks, I pray they go okay, and hopefully you can survive them without too many horror stories and awkward silences. One thing I really love about the Warwick Hispanic Studies department is that they recognise that no one ever communicates perfectly – think how many times you ask someone to repeat something in your mother tongue because you have no clue what they’re saying, even though you’re both nAtIvE sPeAkErS – therefore they do not penalise you for asking for clarification or having to explain something in a different way. The most important thing is to communicate, in whatever way you can, so persevere, and remember it’s only 10 minutes. Good luck!