If there is one thing the French love, it is oral exams. I believe I took five during my university years alone. This doesn’t even include the oral presentations, or *exposés oraux*, that are routinely given by French teachers, regardless of what your focus of study happens to be. So if you are learning the French language and have oral exams coming up, keep in mind that this is not only a means of measuring your verbal capacities in French, but it is cultural exposure as well!
Oral exams are given in French language programs to assess progress in the oral component of French courses. Normally there are different components of a French class – these being speaking, listening, reading, and writing; the oral component addresses the first two. One stated goal on many French syllabi is to prepare students to express themselves verbally in French. A long-term goal of French curricula is to prepare students to be able to hold conversations in French, and even be able to conduct business transactions and participate in interviews in a French-speaking environment.
N.B.: In my last teaching position, oral exams constituted 10% of the overall grade. It was a significant, if not large part of the final grade. It was actually less than classroom participation, which was 20%. There is normally reasoning behind this grade breakdown, which an instructor or course coordinator can clarify for you, if you are curious as to why this is.
French Oral Exam Formats
The format for an oral exam is for an examiner to ask students questions, which they answer in the target language. The content of the questions is based on units of study. This is normally cumulative, as language courses build continuously on what has been introduced, e.g., a midterm oral exam could cover the first through sixth chapters of a textbook and a final oral exam for that same term would then focus on material from the seventh through twelfth chapters, with the expectation that students be familiar with all material learned from the beginning of the semester. This means that while a final oral exam will focus on structures such as past tenses, the passé composé vs. the imparfait, for example, students are still expected to know and produce present tense verb conjugations. This is logical, as the nature of language is to build upon prior knowledge.
Oral Exams are Usually Scripted
Oral exams are usually scripted, out of convenience and fairness. All students get asked the same questions by all examiners in a certain level course within one program. The script is based on units in the textbook. If the textbook includes activities in one of the covered chapters such as swimming and camping, this is the vocabulary you will be expected to know. If camping is not your favorite activity, just learn how to say “Je n’aime pas le camping”. Answering in complete sentences is important and it is also important that ideas follow logically. But if there are structures that seem too complicated, you can leave these aside in favor of simple sentences that make sense and reserve elegant turns of phrase for writing, for which this citation from Marcel Proust’s Le Temps retrouvé is an excellent example: “Aimer est un mauvais sort, comme ceux qu’il y a dans les contes, contre quoi on ne peut rien jusqu’à ce que l’enchantement ait cessé”. But pay attention to the structures used to ask questions and respond using the same structures, e.g., if there are questions asked using the subjunctive mode and you’ve done a chapter on the subjunctive, the instructor probably wants to see if you’ve learned this material, so it’s good to walk into the exam with subjunctive conjugations of a variety of types of verbs learned cold.
What Additional Questions are They likely to Ask?
If there is a course workbook, it is a good idea to follow the questions at the end of each unit. These may be more open ended, but guided, and meant for you to use the structures and vocabulary you have learned. If a particular unit covers food, for example, focus on vocabulary and structures involving food, e.g., “Nous buvons du café avec de la crème, sans sucre”. This may seem a bit artificial, since food items are limited for chapters in a language textbook, but this is a guide to the types of questions that will come up during an oral exam.
Hint: if you are a first-semester French student and it is fall semester in the US or Canada and the Thanksgiving holiday is coming up, you will almost certainly be asked to describe components of a Thanksgiving dinner.
Who Grades Me and How Will I be Graded?
Sometimes there are itemized sheets of paper examiners need to use in order to grade students. These include different components of a grade breakdown including grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, fluency, etc., with a certain number of maximum points allotted to each. Instructors will give students a certain number of points based on demonstrated knowledge of the material learned. For some classes I taught, I gave exams to other instructors’ students; for some, it was my own students. It can be daunting taking an exam with an instructor you do not know. Although the adjustment can potentially be disorienting, it is also an opportunity for another person to give feedback and can be helpful overall.
How to Prepare for a French Oral Exam?
The most important way of preparing for an oral exam is regular review of material. In this respect, it is more like playing an instrument, dancing, or participating in sports. Results are optimal when reinforced with daily practice. Aside from setting aside time each day to review French, in the days leading up to the exam you can put on any audio or video materials that come with your textbook while you are taking care of household tasks such as doing dishes or folding laundry. I did that with materials from my Chinese course and the sentence “您要买什么衣服？” is a fixture in my head, along with the chandelier that illuminates new structures, words, and expressions that enter my brain as I encounter new linguistic material. Sure, you already know what the people in these videos and audio portions are saying, since you’ve completed the homework, right? But this will reinforce the vocabulary, structure, and phonetics that you need in order to successfully complete an oral exam.
Keep your vocal cavity in shape. Even if you know in your head how something is supposed to sound, make sure your vocal cavity remembers where to go and what to do. Language is physiological as much as anything else and the vocal cavity needs to be kept in tune, the way your abdominal muscles need to be continually strengthened so that you will not collapse while doing the Pilates series of five.
Learn to Deal With Interrogative Phrases in French
Know how to deal with interrogative phrases, no matter what’s been covered in your units so far. Your examiner will be asking you questions, after all. One question likely to be asked by examiners, if they are not your regular instructor and need to note your name, will be “Comment vous appelez-vous ?” In addition to recognizing and being able to respond to this sentence, be prepared to spell out your name, especially if it is long and complicated or has alternate spellings, e.g., “Lee” and “Li”; “Bronwyn” and “Braughnwynne”. And yes, know the letters in French – that was part of unit one in first-semester French.
Addendum: I’ve spent my entire life spelling out my name, as my surname is spelled Wemyss in Scotland, and has the variants Wemes and Wheems, as well as Weems. My given name can also be spelled with a c, a k, or a ck. That’s just the nature of certain names.
During the French Oral Exam
While taking an oral exam, be very attentive to what your examiner is saying. As with anything else, communication is key, so walk in, make eye contact, wait for your examiner to finish taking notes from the previous interview, if necessary, and then greet your examiner as you would in a regular French class.
Sentence Structure in French
When asked questions, respond with the same structures that the examiner is using, as touched upon earlier. If you are being asked “Que faites-vous pour réviser les leçons de français ?”, answer using the present tense. You could say “Je regarde les vidéos et je fais mes devoirs”, which is a perfectly good, simple answer. If you are being asked “Qu’est-ce que vous avez fait pour vous préparer à passer cet examen ?”, you can say “J’ai écouté les sections auditives du cahier d’exercices”.
What If You Can't Answer the Questions?
If you happen to be asked something about material you just cannot seem to remember during your exam, you can bring the conversation around to something you do remember. An examiner may ask you to talk about your favorite places to travel, for example, and you may suddenly find yourself unable to remember prepositions for cities, states, countries, territories, etc. You can, however, respond by saying “Je n’aime pas voyager. Je préfère rester à la maison” and describe things you do around the house to relax. Or you can say “Ma ville préférée est Paris parce que j’aime le musée du Louvre” and proceed to give a description of your favorite artists.
Awkward Moments and Some Suggestions for Dealing With Them
I will preface this section with the assertion that your examiners would like the exam to go smoothly and are not eagerly awaiting mistakes made by students. I have been pleasantly surprised by students displaying clear and correct use of grammar throughout an exam or coming up with vocabulary that goes beyond the syllabus (“Quelles activités aimez-vous faire ?” “J’aime le yoga et la méditation”). There have, on the other hand, been awkward moments, such as the trou de mémoire one student had during an exam I gave and the awkward silence that ensued. In these cases, it is useful to collect oneself, go back a bit, and start from the beginning of the sequence of questions on a particular topic. I experienced speechlessness myself during my explication de texte exam that was a component of my MPhil. This is one of the least recommended scenarios you could find yourself in during a French oral exam but miraculously I was able to answer an obscure question about Renaissance poetry that had left my brain spinning for what felt like five minutes, but was perhaps thirty seconds.
In a French language exam context there are different ways to reset a sequence of questions. First of all, it is perfectly acceptable to say “Est-ce que vous pourriez répéter la question, s’il vous plaît ?” or “Est-ce que vous pourriez parler plus lentement ?” The instructor will adjust the questioning accordingly. Aside from slowing down, the instructor may simplify the question. Although this could potentially result in the loss of “points” for not using structures and vocabulary the instructor is looking for, it is far better than no response at all.
Another awkward situation was when I had to examine a student who sat hunched over in a large coat, his face facing some corner of the floor as he muttered different answers to my questions. As mentioned earlier, come in ready to communicate with your examiner, make eye contact, and sit up straight. This is an interview.
Hint: Examiners have limited amounts of time during which to examine each student. We cannot have too much delay and will try and get you through the exam in the limited amount of time we have for each student by making the conversation flow as much as possible so we can have something to assess you on! This is the case particularly with large classes. I’ve been in situations in which I was allotted five minutes per student, and once a colleague and I were asked to bring in two students at a time as time ran out for a particularly large class.
Confessions of an Examiner
Examiners get tired after the twentieth student. Someone I used to work with confessed that after so many students, her eyes began to glaze over. It is possible to feel as if you are on autopilot while examining student after student. In this case, examiners must come up with ways to deal with fatigue. The way I dealt with fatigue was to switch up the questioning, not adding something totally different, but working off of what was in my script and sometimes simply changing the order of the questions.
Once I was scheduled to give two oral exams, teach a class, and then give another oral exam, totaling four consecutive hours of interacting with and assessing students’ performance. I’m pretty sure this broke the labor laws where I was living, which require a 15-minute break after three hours of work.
Different instructors do grade differently – this has the silver lining of putting into perspective your exam results and not seeing your final grade as a reflection of your level of French etched in stone. It can also be a stressful aspect of oral exams, if you happen to get tough examiners who may grade you harshly. I admit having assessed other instructors’ students according to what I was experiencing in my own classes. I remember having a particularly strong class one term, which influenced what I expected to hear when I was examining other students.
One of the most cringe-worthy moments I’ve experienced during an oral exam was generated not by a student but by another instructor. Although we were giving separate exams, we were examining students in the same room, and I heard the other examiner make a really huge grammatical error while speaking to a student. While I do not advocate for perfectionism while learning French (quite the opposite, as language is learned through trial and error), I do feel that a certain amount of care should be taken for those whose job it is to be a linguistic model – we do want our students to learn beautiful French, after all.
Oral exams in French, or in any subject, can be quite intense, but also quite interesting. They are unique in that they involve interacting with another person in real time. Even if you initially feel certain qualms about taking one, an oral exam may reveal to you newfound capacities for communication. Getting through one is an accomplishment and you should give yourself credit for all the work you have done that has allowed you to be in this position. You may also want to reward yourself afterward – perhaps by answering questions asked in those language videos: “我想买一件衬衫！” – “J’aimerais acheter une chemise !”
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