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Nothing like a three-hour French test to get your day off to a good start

FRANCE | Monday, 7 September 2015 | Views [160]

One of the classes I’d registered for was French, so that needed to begin with a placement test. We were told to show up at precisely 9:00, and expect it to take about 3 hours. Because I can never get enough of French placement tests (why else would I have taken two when I was in high school?) I was just bursting with energy to go there. Which is why I found myself at 8:30 just leaving the apartment for what Google told me was a half hour walk or metro. Given Google has a tendency to assume people sprint or flagrantly defy speed limits and lights, I didn’t think I was going to make it in time. But I had to try.

Google also does not want to give me anything approaching a direct route. My options:

  1. Take one of the lines, follow it for a couple of stops, and walk seventeen minutes to the university

  2. Take the other line, follow it for a couple of stops, and walk twenty minutes to the university

  3. Take the other line, follow it for a couple of stops, get off, leave the station, walk to another metro stop, and follow that metro to the university.

Fortunately for Google, I do have a monthly pass, so the last option was a semi-viable solution. (I never should have listened to it on Tuesday when it told me that I got to the Pont Marie Metro by getting out at Saint Paul and walking. I think that gave it wrong ideas, because those are exactly the two stations it’s making me transfer at.)

Turns out that, at least for the moment, Google doesn’t assume you walk out of one train and into the next one you need without them coming to a full stop. So, for the time being, I can leave when Google tells me to leave to get there by public transport and still be on time. Maybe even early.

I showed up on campus with a couple of minutes to spare, and had no problem finding the correct building. It was exactly where I expected it to be and had a huge crowd of people standing outside of it.

Asking people from all different countries to show up at precisely 9:00 and form a queue seems like it would be an interesting experiment. Add to that additional data like what people do to amuse themselves,= and what they do when you take away pretty much all of their belongings, come up with categories for each, and check the data for statistical significance, and you could probably get a paper out of it. Do kind of need to wonder if that’s part of what they were doing…

While we waited in a messy line, (I wonder if it was neater for the people who arrived early) a few people at the front were let in at a time. It took about an hour for everyone to be let in. Once we were let in, we showed them a form of ID, they crossed our name off a list and told us to find a seat and put our bags and phone at the base of the room.Then we needed to sit and wait for everyone else to be as ready as we were.

Sitting to my left was a Portuguese and a German student, both enrolled in Paris 6 for next semester. So of course they spoke to each other in English. And, because it was more interesting than playing with my pen, I eavesdropped on them. They bonded over their frustration that every time they needed to get something done, it needed to be done in French when they were so much more comfortable in English, (seriously? French people insist on speaking French to other Europeans, but English to Americans?) and the discovery that they were staying in the same residential building, though it was pretty old and terrible. The Portuguese student asked about Oktoberfest, (response: It’s touristy and expensive, but yes, it is worth going to once. Also, he knew some Australians who flew in every year just for Oktoberfest, which was kind of insane.) and the German student wanted to know about the similarities of Spanish and Porguese. (Response: we can both understand each other if we try. But usually the Spanish don’t try to understand us.)

This was my favorite part of their conversation:

Portugal: But the restaurants nearby are all closed by 9. I almost missed dinner last night.

Germany: I thought the French ate late.

Portugal: What?

Germany: I’d always heard that French people had dinner late in the evening.

Portugal: No, not at all! They have it very early. Around 7.

Germany: That’s late for us. When do you eat?

Portugal: 9, 10:00. When do you eat?

Germany: 6 sharp. Not quite, but close.

Portugal: And when do you go to sleep?

Germany: It depends on if I’m partying or not. If I’m partying, 5.

Portugal: And otherwise?

Germany: Around 11, midnight.

Portugal: Do you eat after dinner?

Germany: Some people have snacks. But usually not.

Portugal: So you go all the hours between dinner and bed without eating?

Germany: When do you go to sleep? Probably much later...

Portugal: About the same. Around 11.

Germany: How can you do that if you don’t eat until 9?

Unfortunately, the conversation was interrupted by the start of directions, so I didn’t get to hear if the two managed to reach any universal conclusions about food and sleep. (I’ve been in Paris for a week and a half and the most interesting cultural difference I’ve found was a difference between Germans and Portuguese…)

The instructions took place in English and French. A French professor was speaking to a room full of Europeans (mainly mainland Europeans) using English because English was everybody’s second language, and they all understood it well enough to get by. So, although there are a lot of obvious advantages that come from having English as your native tongue, it’s kind of amazing to realize that most of my fellow exchange students are taking classes in their third language, and, when they’re confused, falling back on their second as a crutch.

The instructions were nothing terribly exciting. It was a multiple choice test, filled out in pen. There were three sections: oral comprehnesion, language and structure, written comprehension. The first part would take 25 minutes, the second and third would take a combined 60 minutes. Each snippet of the oral part would only be played once, so pay attention.

The oral exam was rough. There were a few questions of matching audio to appropriate image and vice-versa, then some questions where we had to listen to and answer questions entirely off what they were saying, and then another twenty or so where we had to answer questions and read and select the appropriate response.

I could tell the questions were getting harder, because my guesses were getting randomer and randomer as the CD played on. It was kind of tricky at the beginning, because they spoke quickly, and I was used to having a second time of hearing the conversations. (Stephanie, when she was asking me about how it went later: “But in class, the professor won’t repeat himself.” Me: “Yes, but in class, the general idea is often enough. I don’t need to be catching every single word so that I can turn around and respond to an incredibly specific detail about the conversation.”) By the end, the conversations were longer, the responses were trickier, and the questions were less obvious. It was quite a leap from the generic homework questions about people going to a movie together, what film are they going to see? to the proficiency exam “let’s separate the wheat from the chaff” questions like “two people are going discussing what movie they’ll watch together. How do they know each other?” (Options: work, university, children attend school together, they’re neighbors. Answer: Person A couldn’t go see 2001, A Space Odyssey because she works until 1, and person B really wanted to watch Star Wars Episode Six, but she needed to pick up her child from school at 4. Whereupon person A suggested that she make her husband do it, but person B said that he had a class he needed to teach at the university. However, The Avengers was playing at 1:45 and, since the theater was only a five-minute walk from their houses, they should be able to see it. [I exagerrate, but only slightly.]) And it was brutal. To make things worse, the audio quality got worse. I’m pretty sure the speakers for several of the questions was Quebecois, (he talked about being in Quebec and his accent sounded kind of strange. I obviously didn’t have the time to dwell on it.) several times there would be phone calls with a bit of static, and once there was someone talking over significantly loud music. I finished that part, thinking I would be happy if I got more than 25% of the questions right.

I went from long conversations and subtle questions to the first part of the language and structure: “Pierre says that they need beef for dinner. Which of the following places would he go? Bakery, hardware store, butchers, cafe?” It felt way too easy. But it was a graded test, so the questions got harder. Lots on the subjunctive, (I really hope those weren’t trick questions, because my general instinct is “when in doubt, use the subjunctive. Even if you’re wrong, it will impress people that you tried.”) and on conditional statements and conjunctions. It was my favorite part of the test, and I kind of wish it had been longer.

The next section was written comprehension. Again, the questions started by feeling way too easy. (Read this advertisement. What is it advertising?) Fortunately, this problem did not linger. By the end, we were reading formal letters and news articles. Without the full time crunch that had been present in the oral comprehension, I was able to better appreciate what they were doing. A lot of playing around with synonyms and alternate phrasings, so no one could just scan through the article and responses and get it right by matching. (I wonder if any of the standardized tests for English did that. I don’t think they did, but I’m not sure I would have noticed.) This part went much better than the oral comprehension had, but I found it so hard to stay engaged. I barely managed to finish the test on time, simply because my mind kept wanting to wander off, and the later passages were difficult enough that I couldn’t answer them without my full attention. As was, I got through the last question with a decent enough level of optimism about how I’d done on the last two sections. No time to check the last section, but I had a decent idea of what had been going on in each question, and I was ready to be done with the test.

We set down our pens, and someone came along the collect the question booklets. We were told to come back Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, or maybe even Friday to register for classes and find out what level we’d been placed into. And then someone came back for our answer sheets, and we were free to collect our stuff and go. It was 12:00. The test itself had only taken 90 minutes, but the entire process had taken 3 hours, just as promised. And now I had another language class to wait until next week to register for.

I am going to be so happy once I have my finalized schedule.

Tags: cultural differences, french, registration, tests

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