December 02

Cambridge Proficiency Exam – Speaking

Today was the speaking portion of the CPE and let me tell you, even though I speak English all day, every day I’m very glad it is done and over with. We were a group of three and I’m pretty confident that we did well.

The first part is intros, ‘who are you?’, ‘what do you do?’, ‘why take an exam?’ kind of questions to put everyone at ease. It’s followed by a group discussion. We were handed a few pictures that kind of tie in together and then asked to talk about them, about what the mean and which ones would we choose for a campaign. That’s pretty straightforward and not really that big of a deal. You have to make sure to listen to the viewpoints of the others and things like that, but that’s about it. You should, of course, make sense, but I think demonstrating a good vocabulary and speaking in proper sentences is more important than content.
After that comes the worst part as far as I’m concerned. You’re given a random sentence with a couple of talking points and you have to speak for 2 minutes. You don’t get a timer, it’s just assumed you know when the 2 minutes are up. You also don’t get any time to get your thoughts in order. Your two minute talk is supposed to resemble an essay with an intro, a couple of points, opinion and conclusion. Personally I think that is a pretty tall order and I’m sure, I’d struggle with it in German too. I can do it in either language, but depending on what sentence you’re given, a few seconds to think would be very helpful indeed. In the end I think I did fine, I had to talk about how people change their attitudes as they grow older and I think I came up with a few good points and judging by the fact that I was neither stopped nor impatiently looked at, I assume I was fairly close to that 2 minute mark. All the 2 minute talks were on the topic of change and the last part consisted of a number of questions along the same lines that we had to answer separately.

I think oral exams are always somewhat nerve wracking and there certainly is a wide variety of examiners out there, but the only part I was really nervous about was the 2 minute talk, just because you have no idea what happens and if you draw a blank then a good grade is out of the window. With the pictures and the discussion, you feed off the others and their opinions and it’s not really all that difficult.

The written portions are on Thursday. Oddly enough I’m most confident about the writing. When I started preparing for the exam I was worried about my writing skills because it has been a few years since I wrote any kind of essays, never mind hand written more than a couple of notes on a post it. The Use of English paper is tough, but I passed all the practice ones I did. The listening on the other hand is where a good speaking exam really comes in handy. That one is hit or miss. I understand every single word, sentence, idiom, no problems whatsoever, yet I never managed over 72%. The questions are tough, nuanced questions and I find it incredibly tough to make a call on whatever is closest to what they actually said without missing the next three questions. One example:

The question: Rachel and Ian found it useful to teach others about business plans because?
Correct answer C: it helped clarify things they had not understood before.
And this is the excerpt that provides the answer: …, it was very enlightening for us because there were things that we hadn’t actually looked at, specific aspects of the business, and we’re finding that they’re very valuable to pass on…

Now I don’t think that not looking at something is the same as not understanding something. But it is somewhat closer to what they said than the other three answers. While stuff like that is fine for reading comprehension where you can go back and forth, I think it’s quite ridiculous for a listening exam. Alas, there is no point in getting worked up about it. Despite my view, the University of Cambridge is not going to change their exams because I don’t agree. The CPE ain’t for dummies I suppose.