Master the German language exams - Part I

A detailed guide to pass your German exam

An adult classroom
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I would like to introduce to you the different levels that you can achieve in an official German exam. There are two language certificates that are renowned all over Germany and possibly all over the world: The TELC, the ÖSD (Austrian standard) and the Goethe-Certificates. There are plenty of other certificates around and while they might be of the same quality as the ones above, for certain purposes they might not suffice.

There are also quite a few other standards worldwide which you can find in a neatly organized table here. According to the European reference frame, there are six language mastery levels which I will present to you over the coming months. Please be patient with me.

Quick Overview

The six language levels that you can achieve are: 

A1, A2         Beginner
B1, B2        Intermediate
C1, C2        Advanced

The division of A1-C2 into beginner, intermediate and advanced is not very exact but should rather give you an idea of what level of proficiency those levels are aiming at.

It is, of course, impossible to measure your language skill precisely and with every grading system, there can be huge gaps between a bad B1 level and an excellent one. But those labels were created to make language skills of university or job applicants comparable all over Europe. They have defined them as precisely as they could in the so-called Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).

Absolute beginner

A1 according to the CEFR would mean that you, I quote the above source:  

  • Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type.
  • Can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has.
  • Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.

To see a sample of how that would sound, I recommend that you take a look at ​some of these videos here.

What is an A1 certificate good for?

Next, to marking a significant first stage in your German learning, it often is a requirement for some nationalities to get a visa for Germany. For the reunion of Turkish family members, the European Court of Justice has declared such requirements as void. In case of doubt, I suggest that you simply call your local German embassy and ask.  

How long does it take to reach A1

You are probably aware of the difficulty to answer this question to anyone’s satisfaction. In case of a standard intensive German course here in Berlin, you would need two months, five days a week with 3 hours of daily tuition plus 1.5 hours of homework. That sums up to 200 hours of learning to finish A1 (4.5 hours x 5 days x 4 weeks x 2 months). That is if you are studying in a group. With individual tuition, you might be able to achieve this level in half the time or even quicker.

Do I need to attend a German course to reach A1?

While there are many things one can accomplish on one's own, with languages I would always advise you to seek some guidance.

It doesn’t have to be an expensive or intensive language course. Seeing a good German tutor for 2-3 times 45mins per week might do the job. But she would have to provide you with sufficient homework and direction to make sure you are and stay on the right track. Learning on your own might simply take longer as you might first have to figure out what material to use and how to establish a learning routine. Also, you will not have any error correction which might lead to the establishment of fluent but broken German which is very hard to fix. Those who say they don’t need a teacher, most likely don’t. If you can’t or don’t want to afford one, check italki or verbling or livemocha  for affordable tutors. Try three to five tutors and go for the one that makes the most competent impression.
An alternative is group courses at local language schools.

I’m not a big fan of those but I also understand that sometimes the situation doesn’t allow for anything else. 

How much does it cost to reach A1

Well, the costs, of course, depend on the institution that you are taking the course with. Those range from 80€ / month at Volkshochschule (VHS) to 1.200€ / month at the Goethe Institut (during summer here in Berlin, their prices vary worldwide). There are also ways to get your German learning subsidized by the government. I will talk about these in detail in the coming weeks but in case you would like to do some research on your own, look for German integration courses (=Integrationskurse), the ESF program or check out the requirements for a Bildungsgutschein (=education voucher) issued from the Agentur für Arbeit. Although the latter might rather be granted for learners at a higher level of German.

How do I prepare the most efficient way for such an exam?

When I still went to school to pass an exam it was always really helpful to take a look at older exams. Like this one gets an impression on what kind of questions or tasks are requested and will, therefore, feel already accustomed to the material. Nothing is worse than sitting in an exam and realizing that one doesn’t know what to do. You can find model exams for A1 (and the higher levels) on these pages:

ÖSD (check the right sidebar for the sample exam)

Those institutions also offer additional material for purchase in case you feel the need to prepare a bit more.

Get a free evaluation of your written skill

They all come with answer keys so that you can evaluate your skill yourself. To get an evaluation of your writing skills I suggest that you send your work to the lang-8 community. It is free, though they have a premium subscription offer that pays off in case you need your texts to be corrected a bit faster. You need to correct other learners’ texts though to gain credits that you then can use to „pay“ for the correction of your work.

Mental preparation

An exam is always an emotional experience.

If you are not the least bit nervous in such a situation, you are a „Kalter Hund“ or a very good actor. I think I have never really failed an exam (only once in fourth-grade elementary school in Religion) but I can clearly feel my stress levels rising when being tested.
To prepare a bit for this experience, you might want to use mental training which has proven to be effective for sportspeople. If you can visit the examination center beforehand to get an impression of the room and to check out how to get there smoothly in time on your examination day. Try to remember some details of that place or simply try to find images of it on the institution’s homepage. 

With these images in your mind and maybe after having watched those videos of oral exams above, close your eyes and imagine sitting in your exam and answering questions. In case of the oral exam, imagine how you’d sound like and how everyone smiles (some German examiners have a physiological disorder which doesn’t allow them to smile - see above videos) and how you get out of this exam satisfied with yourself. 

This might take just a minute or two. So repeat it in the morning when waking up and just before your go to sleep as early as a month before the exam takes place. You will find that it makes a significant difference.

That’s it for the A1 exam. Should you still have any question regarding this exam just contact me and I will get back to you asap.