The scariest part of any Spanish class is the dreaded oral exam. My second oral exam started off with my partner looking me dead in the eyes and saying, “Hola, hay es mantequilla en mi techo.” Translation: “Hello, there is butter on my roof.” My response? “Interesante, me gusta mantequilla.” Panicked, I responded with, “Interesting, I like butter.” Then an awkward silence swallowed the room as if I just admitted that Kanye’s got my vote for the 2020 election. The Spanish oral is the true test of how much you’ve paid attention in class. But with a few pointers, you’ll seem like a native speaker and get a “¡Muy Bien!” from your amused professor by the end of the exam.
1. Expect the worst
My second oral exam started off as a train wreck. Butter was the last thing on my mind when I walked into the classroom and saw that my prompt was, “What You Do On The Weekends.” Review vocabulary and maintain a solid grasp on ways to respond to any situation. Remember this class is a requirement for most students and Spanish definitely doesn’t come easy for everyone. Mastering phrases like “Repite por favor” (Repeat please) and “Lo siento pero no entiendo” (I’m sorry but I do not understand) will keep the conversation flowing. Make sure to keep the train on track with responses like, “There is butter on your roof? I’m sorry, but I do not understand. I like to walk my dog in the mornings,” Hope for the best, expect the worst.
2. Make Duolingo Your Best Friend
Staring at your book and memorizing words is great for written tests, but for an oral exam, you need to think coherent thoughts in Spanish. Duolingo is a fantastic free app that prompts you to listen and create responses of your own in Spanish. You’re not expected to have every single term memorized, but you should have flow in your conversation. Duolingo helps develop that.
3. Don’t focus on only one of the prompts
Your professor will likely tell you beforehand which prompts they’ll choose. Though helpful, feeling constrained to one prompt can hinder a performance. Before the exam, you might hear students say, “I hope we get ‘Things I did last weekend’ because I’m screwed on ‘Talk about what you plan to do in the next 10 years’ How can anyone know all of this?” It’s easier (and smarter) to learn a few sentences from all of the prompts, rather than learn everything about one particular prompt.
4. Small Conversations are Key
The tension in the air outside of a Spanish classroom on oral exam day equates to waiting to see if that friend of yours with the fake ID can get in the bar. Relieve the tension by having a small conversation in Spanish. This will help you better than reviewing phrases like, “I like to drink beer on Saturdays.” Having a small conversation in Spanish will help your mind switch to Spanish mode quickly before the exam.
5. Back to the Basics
It’s hard to tell whether you’ve been talking for five minutes or 30 seconds. Ease into the more difficult material that the exam covers by going back to the basics with some familiar introductory phrases. Hola. Buenos dias. (You remember those, right?) Time is your biggest obstacle. Filling up some of that time with simple dialogue will help the conversation flow, increase your confidence as a speaker and help you get a feel for how the other members of your group speak Spanish.
6. Share the Spotlight
Although you’ll probably be graded individually, it’s not a good idea to leave any of your compadres hanging if they’re struggling with a word. Your goal is to keep a coherent conversation, so just sitting there as your partner struggles to pronounce “afeitarse” may not be in your best interest. If your partner is struggling, try to help them and if that doesn’t work move on to something else. Don’t depend on the professor to intervene.
7. Listen carefully to those around you
Sitting in the hallway, headphones in and your nose in the book won’t help. Listen to the conversations happening around you and try to pick up on how your peers speak. You might be grouped with a few of these people and being able to make sense out of Billy’s southern drawl when he stammers, “Me gusta escuchar a Blake Shelton con mis amigos,” could make a huge difference in your grade.
8. Clear your throat and speak up
Breathe in, relax and clear your throat. Showing your nervousness through your voice might make it more difficult for others to understand you. Bring water with you so that the Pink Pearl eraser that has become your tongue doesn’t get in the way of your pronunciation. Hide your frustration with some energy. You may think it’s a ridiculous requirement, but having that attitude as you speak will only make it worse for everyone. Remember, it’s like ripping off a Band-Aid…or un vendaje.