Passing the DELF B2 French Exam
The language learner’s milestone
On November 4th, 2021, I sat the DELF B2 exam in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Not only that, but I passed (if only by a small margin). The main challenge is that studying for the DELF requires a highly focused strategy due to the exam’s rigid structure, while learners tend to possess more practical day-to-day and workplace communication goals. In this article, I describe the exam’s format and the conditions it is written in. Finally, I will share the strategies and resources I used to pass the B2.
What exactly does B2 relate to in terms of language proficiency? The Council of Europe defines it as follows:
Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialization. Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party. Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.
This description sounds like that of a speaker who can depend on their knowledge and confidence to finesse a mutually beneficial conversation with a francophone. No wonder why this level is often heralded as a major milestone for language learners.
The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) published in 2001 by the Council of Europe, was developed for grading language proficiency across the languages of Europe. The group divides languages proficiency into three levels,
A- Basic Users
B- Independent Users
C- Advanced Users
Further descriptions of each sublevel may be found on the COE website.
Now that we understand the purpose of the exam and why anybody would want to take it, let’s talk about the resources I used to pass. Afterwards, we will move on to my experience on exam day.
Simply, italki is a resource that connects speakers of one language with speakers of another. It does this via two services:
Professional Teachers and Community Tutors
Both categories are paid individuals offering standardized language services at different rates. The differentiating factor is that the educational background of Professional Teachers includes some sort of specialization that gives their practice an advantage, which inevitably increases what they can reasonably charge. While not usually education professionals, Community Tutors are native speakers of the language who offer invaluable insight at a lower cost.
Personally, I have been fortunate enough to have taken 54 lessons in French with a Professional Teacher over approximately two years. The majority of these lessons were with the same instructor who brought immense value to the table by offering course materials, homework correction, and pronunciation perfection. Most importantly, her students are encouraged to engage exclusively in their target language as much as possible. If you can afford the fees, I recommend this option to anybody.
The second option on italki: community features. italki includes a robust interface for communicating with all other italki users in open forums. Using these features, students may find learner groups or language exchange partners to help facilitate their language learning journey, for free! This is an option for self-learners who want a partner to practice speaking and listening with but do not want to spend the money on paid lessons.
Who hasn’t yet heard of the infamous Duolingo? This application is ground zero for prospective pupils learning any language across the world. Duolingo is a (primarily) free application for language learning which mainly employs translation activities to and from the learner’s target language to enforce language concepts.
The main draws of Duolingo are that it is fun and easy to use while not costing a dime for those who do not want to pay. Not only that, the free version is feature-rich and does not leave me wanting more.
I treated Duolingo as my first step into learning the french language to determine if it were an activity I would like to even continue long term. After completing the french tree, it is healthy to check back to ensure you haven’t lost progress or check for any new content.
Last but not least is kwiziq. This resource is fantastic. I would deem this the natural next step as a learner becomes comfortable with topics in Duolingo since the methodology is similar but with crucial additions.
Why kwiziq? This platform contains graded lessons from A1 to C1. Quizzes are the primary feature of the application. Each quiz is unique and targeted to reinforce concepts over time based on spaced repetition and learner performance. After a learner proves they’re competent in a topic, the algorithm adds new topics while periodically peppering in old questions to reinforce prior learned concepts.
If the learner chooses to review a topic, they may visit the expertly-tailored lesson containing theory and examples, with open and active comment sections.
What is the catch? The full service with unlimited quizzes is paid. However, all of the website’s educational content is freely available without signing up. Free users that do sign up get ten free quizzes per month. This means prospective users have access to a graded list of CEFR topics, and the ability for some active practice.
None of the above will serve better than a proper guide designed to help students sitting this particular test. The book I worked through in the month leading up to the exam was, ‘Réussir le Delf B2’. This book contains exercises, and mock exam material. When it comes to practicing for an exam, nothing beats a mock paper in test conditions.
Writing the Exam
Oral Comprehension (30 mins) — The candidate listens to two documents of various lengths and responds to a questionnaire containing multiple choice and short answer questions about the information presented in the media.
In my experience, this consisted of one short radio bulletin and one long radio interview. After each listening to the document, the writer is permitted to respond to the questions for a few minutes. Then, the process is repeated with a slightly longer audio file, with slightly more time to respond.
My main take-away from this: practice in real exam settings! The setting of my exam was such that the audio echoed fiercely, making it difficult to understand the voices in the audio examples. Real exam settings do not mean just time taken, but environmental distractions as well!
What worked best for me in preparing for this section was to listen to real french audio actively. That’s to say, do not just throw on a podcast at work but sit down and engage with a YouTuber or podcaster’s material. Leave a comment to increase the stakes!
Written Comprehension (1 hr) — The candidate is given two documents to read and a set of questions to respond to. Both documents are of the same length and can be either informative or an opinion piece.
This is the section I scored highest on. Why? Most of my learning of French has been via reading and writing. Naturally, this was my strongest point.
To prepare for this section it wouldn’t hurt to read a few novels. In my opinion, L’Étranger (The Stranger/Outsider) by celebrated author Albert Camus is a key milestone for French learners in the B1/B2 nether-zone. The book employs plain grammar to create a complex narrative. If the narrative doesn’t interest you, fear not as the novel is quite short.
Moreover, reading world news in French is useful since some topics are inevitably heard of in the learner’s native language. After reading an article in Le Monde, do you feel prepared to discuss it with a friend or colleague?
Written Production (1 hr) — Given a writing prompt, compose a document of a set character length, following standard french writing conventions.
I will be honest — I scored lowest in this section and I wish I knew why. Walking out of the exam, I fully expected my non-oral categories to be among my strongest. I was wrong.
Usual topics for these items involve writing to a mayor or director of some firm to air a grievance. In practice, I am sure francophones have just as colorful interpretations of letter-writing formalities as I know anglophones do, however in the context of a DELF exam the rules may not be bent. There are many rules and standard formulations in written French. To score the easy points, familiarize yourself with the rules to ensure nothing is left on the table.
Oral Production (30 mins preparation, 20 mins presentation) — Given a selection of prompts, prepare an exposé to present and debate with examiners.
While the most daunting of the exam sections for a self-proclaimed introvert, the fact that I passed this section at all was a welcomed surprise.
An exam administrator will prepare a table of cut-out topic cards face-down, of which three are selected. The candidate is then permitted to read each prompt and select their preference. After this, the candidate prepares an exposé around the topic in which the goal is to introduce the examiners into a debate. Your exposé is presented during 5–7 minutes, followed by a 13–15 minutes discussion with two examiners. Candidates are graded on their ability to discuss and argue, so be prepared to play devil’s advocate — there are no grades for the ‘right take’.
To say this category tests only oral production is misleading. I wrote myself a guide (in french) that provided the skeleton of my exposé so I could refer back if I lost my thoughts. To write the guide, it was necessary to understand the prompt. To debate, I had to understand my examiners. It is safe to say that you will be using all four of your core language skills to succeed in this section.
After four weeks of serious daily studying, I was able to pass the DELF B2 exam after three years of semi-dedicated self-study. During my study, I’ve had help from textbooks, to novels, teachers, and internet forums. With the right level of dedication and willpower, I believe any motivated student can do the same.
While I wrote about my experience in the exam room, note that the format of the exam at various levels is updating. According to L’Institut français du Royaume-Uni, short answer questions are being phased out in favour of multiple choice questions and a higher number of documents. Long story short, prepare for both until the old format is completely out of rotation.
About the new format:
For all DELF A1 to B2, the new format (Listening and Reading Comprehensions with only multiple choice questions and more documents) is being introduced progressively over the next few years and both the new and old formats will coexist at least until 2023. Candidates should be prepared to answer both open questions and multiple choice questions as they may encounter the old format when they sit their examination.
Please note that neither format provides an advantage in terms of difficulty, as the examinations are calibrated for each level.