Advice on what to do before/during an interview to assess my Spanish?
April 25, 2013 9:58 AM   Subscribe

I'm an intermediate Spanish speaker, and I have an interview in a couple days to assess my Spanish level. How can I be as successful as possible, both as far as brushing up/practicing, as well as keeping my nerves under control?

After a long break after college, I did a one month Spanish immersion program a few years ago that got me roughly back to the intermediate level that was my high point previously (around a B1 level or maybe somewhere between B1-B2.) Since then, I've tried to keep current/improve mostly by reading, with a modest amount of watching Spanish TV (and keeping up with a big deck of vocab flashcards I made right after), but I've barely spoken at all since then.

At this point, I can generally understand almost everything I read in Spanish (there are often words I don't know but I can almost always figure them out from context.) I can understand most of what I hear either on TV or overhearing people on the subway/etc, although I can definitely get lost from time to time when there's vocabulary I don't know, and I have some trouble following people who speak particularly quickly or have certain particularly strong accents (or if they're speaking quietly, there's background noise, etc.)

So now there's an extended volunteer program I really want to do where they say they require an advanced level of Spanish (just for the purpose of smooth interpersonal communication as far as I know.) I told them I was willing to take intensive Spanish lessons (20 hours+ per week) before I begin and/or alongside the 20 hour/week volunteer commitment, and they asked to do an interview with me to talk and see whether they thought it would work. (It's in Argentina... Argentina-specific language advice is definitely appreciated!)

I feel like my weakest point in speaking is grammar, particularly conjugating verbs. A lot of tenses like present (and the compound tenses/"ir a" future that just build off present) and conditional come basically naturally/automatically, but I sometimes have to hesitate picking between imperfect and preterite in some of the fuzzier cases, and it can take me more time than it should to make sure I'm conjugating preterite right in the 1st and 3rd person singular. And I'm not solid on subjunctive at all... we didn't get to that in my immersion classes, and although I've done some self-study on the conjugation and usage, I haven't practiced it much and I definitely have to think about it.

So what's the best use of a few hours between now and then, and then a couple immediately before the interview? Drilling on the preterite and/or subjunctive? Thinking of sentences I know I'm going to want to say and looking things up to make sure I get the grammar and vocabulary right? Trying to find the fastest Argentinian speech I can to practice listening to? Try to distract myself and ignore Spanish altogether so my nervousness doesn't spiral?

And then during the interview, should I try to use subjunctive, or is that going to have me second-guessing everything I say? How bad does it sound to skip it? (I'm already planning to skip using vos because I'm just not used to it and it seems like it would make me nervous about even the grammar that should be easy for me... unless focusing on a few hours of drilling that instead would give me the most bang for my buck?) What kinds of mistakes or flaws make you think "okay, she needs a bit more studying and practice/immersion, but she'll be fine" and which send the message "she's got a long way to go to be fluent and even with a month of lessons and immersion she'll still be a hassle to communicate with"?

And how do I keep calm and do my best during the interview? I'm an anxious and self-conscious person generally (and kind of a perfectionist), and I really want to do this program, so that adds to the pressure. Any tricks to keep from overthinking words that should come automatically? How important is it to keep talking fluidly versus pausing to get the word right, and if I need to keep talking, how do I quiet the voice in my head that says "That's wrong, you idiot, you sound stupid?"

Thanks so much for any advice.
posted by EmilyClimbs to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe find a teacher or conversation partner on Italki (or a similar language exchange / live language teaching site)? I can't vouch for Italki personally but this review is positive. Personally I'd say that the best preparation for an interview is actual conversation practice of some kind, rather than verb drills or listening comprehension. There are also other ways (and yet more ways) to find conversation partners for practice.
posted by pont at 10:40 AM on April 25, 2013

I had an assessment of my French for an immersion program years ago. They asked me progressively difficult questions, from present-tense "How are you?", past-tense "how was your flight?" to the more difficult past tense conditional "if you hadn't been able to come to this program, what would you have done with your vacation?" So I'd practice those kinds of verb conjugations.

For vocabulary, look up Argentinian slang, especially slang that pertains to the work you'll be doing. And also find out how the Argentenians use vos. I know it depends culture to culture, when to use it, when to drop it etc.

For fluency, about a day or two before the interview, just start thinking Spanish. You know that train of thought in your head? Make it 100% Spanish. And when you find something you'd want to say but couldn't, THEN go look it up. I find this a better method than sitting down and studying grammar on its own.

Finally, I find people judge me to be a fluent speaker because 1) my English accent is very tiny 2) I just roll with it, let it flow out comfortably 3) I speak just like "myself" but in another language. So all the expression & intonation that I would put in English is present in my second language. For eg., we all know how it would sound if someone said, "oh. my. god. I cant BUH-leeve he said that!" Well, put that kind of expression into your Spanish. (Work-appropriate of course!) Remember that communication is more than words!

Personally, I've found that I speak my best when I just let go of being perfect and instead focus on my love of the language, and the enjoyment of self-expression. No one, not even native speakers, are perfect with grammar.

Also this is a language interview AND a regular interview, so it depends on the work you will be doing. Keep that in mind with how you want to "project" yourself. Good luck!
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:45 AM on April 25, 2013

Whether or not you can find partners for conversation practice, I would also recommend that you practice talking out loud with yourself, maybe narrating events of your daily life, telling your personal history, or talking through some of the topics you expect to come up in the interview. Start doing this in small chunks of time now, and then spend more and more time thinking out loud in Spanish-mode in the days leading up the interview. That way, you'll get more practice speaking in a fluid manner, and you came make note of any areas where you may have gaps in vocabulary. Also, you might find it helpful to briefly study some videos (or real life examples) of natural Spanish speech in order to come up with some fall-back filler phrases you can use whenever you'll want to pause in conversation or give yourself just a few extra seconds to think of your upcoming words.
posted by datarose at 10:50 AM on April 25, 2013

St. Peepsburg has solid advice. As a Spanish instructor (and non-native speaker), two huge things that make a difference when assessing my students' abilities are accent/tone (sounding like they're speaking Spanish, rather than saying Spanish words with an American accent) and comfort/flow (not lots of long pauses). In other words, trying to speak as naturally as possible and worrying less about it coming out perfectly. (And answer with the same tense you are asked, i.e., if you are asked ¿Adónde fuiste en tus vacaciones?, answer with preterit; if the question has subjunctive, answer with subjunctive.)

Preterit/imperfect and subjunctive are two of the most difficult things for native English speakers to grasp in Spanish. This site has good activities I often point my students to for practice with preterit/imperfect or subjunctive/indicative in that it's auto-graded and tells you why your answer is right or wrong.

Argentina-specific: the slang can be difficult, but I find it very pleasing to listen to. Perhaps try watching some Argentine movies, like Nueve reinas or El secreto de sus ojos? And the vos conjugations are more regular than the tú ones.

Good luck!
posted by pitrified at 10:57 AM on April 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would focus on brushing up in the dialect you're most familiar with/exposed to up to now instead of trying to master the peculiarities of Argentine Spanish for the interview. It will be better to go in producing halfway competent Central American Spanish (for example) than to make a muddle of rioplatense.

In addition to finding a conversation partner, practice reading out loud and repeating back things you hear when listening to the radio or TV. And talk to yourself (out loud if you can) in Spanish as you go around your apartment, explaining your actions and thoughts to imaginary listeners. This is a good way to practice calmly and obliquely skating around the gaps in your vocabulary. It's going to come across better to be "umm, sabes, esa cosa, como se dice, la máquina que usas para hacer la ... cual es la palabra..., ah bueno no recuerdo la palabra pero de todos modos..." instead of freezing up or just being all "uh, uh, uh".

As far as grammar, I think you will get your bigger bang for your buck solidifying your command of the preterit than trying to figure out the subjunctive.
posted by drlith at 11:05 AM on April 25, 2013

I teach Portuguese as a second language, and I do level placement interviews all the time. Portuguese and Spanish are close enough structurally as to make my observations valid.

My first advice would be do not try to cram for this. Unless you are excellent at cramming, all it'll do is confuse you. So, if you really don't know how to use the subjunctive, don't. You can communicate just fine without it. That said, correct subjunctive use is something I do use to assess level, and I would never place anyone not using it at all above B1. However, I interview people in order to place them in the right level group, not according to how well they communicate. There's a big difference. Perfective vs imperfective tenses are very difficult for non Latin language natives, so if you've got that (mostly) down, that's great!

So, focus on communication and getting your point across as fluently as possible within your frame of knowledge. I have no idea what you will be asked in this interview, so I would advise you to brush up on your pleasantries and talking about yourself in as many different ways as you possibly can, as these will likely be the two first things that come up anyway. That way your nerves will be subdued because you've prepared, and you'll give your interviewer a really good first impression, which is also important. The rest should click into place after that. And remember, don't choke when there's something you don't understand: learn how to politely ask the person to repeat or rephrase, as you would in real life. That shows you can communicate and are able to cope with not being absolutely fluent. You should practise both in your head as well as out loud, in front of a mirror if you don't have a Spanish speaker with whom to do it.

Mucha suerte!
posted by neblina_matinal at 11:05 AM on April 25, 2013

I have taught Spanish (my mother tongue) and learned a foreign language as an adult, and I can give you two bits of advice:

1. The weeks before my intermediate exam I heard radio programs every day to improve my listening comprehension and I think it made a huge difference in my performance in the exam. It also made me more confident talking, somehow...

2. To improve your grammar, make sure you are doing communication-oriented excercises like writing a letter about a topic that has to do with your job, talking about it in different times/tenses. Whatever you do, don't start practicing conjugation forms or doing any grammar excercises, it's not worth it at this point. Your grammar probably won't improve much in a couple of days, you just have to work with what you have now.

For the purpose of smooth interpersonal communication you mostly don't need perfect grammar, as long as you can produce good, coherent sentences which are appropriate to the situation. So in your interview, whenever you feel like you need to pause and think for so long that it'd break your flow of speech, it's worth just picking the word that feels right at the moment, even if it means risking a mistake. Most native speakers will understand what you're saying anyway. That way, you can show that you can communicate with confidence despite your grammar problems.
posted by ipsative at 11:05 AM on April 25, 2013

I am multilingual and a language advocate. Based on the information you provide, I will assume that you are a weak B1, at least in terms of your passive abilities. I will also assume that you only have a few hours to devote to this task.

There is really not much you can do to change your level of proficiency in the next few days. If I were you, I would focus on re-activating your current Spanish. Sometime I have a language that I have allowed to go fallow and then I spend a week or so to reactivate if the whim strikes or the need arises. I will give some tips on how I do that.

I think you should focus on speaking. In addition to Pont's recommendation of italki, a community I have mentioned on the green before, I think that you can also work on your basic flow by shadowing. Essentially, you repeat back speech as fast as you hear it. If you can shadow speech that is reciting a written text, I think that is all the better. The advantage is that you can shadow without a partner so you can put more time into it. I think that fluid speech is more important than halted speech, and shadowing helps with fluidity.

I do not recommend grammar drills. I do not do grammar drills ever, even when learning a new language. I learn grammar mostly passively through oral and written input and then consult the grammar charts from time to time as needed to reinforce my recognition. For example, reading something to the effect of "tengo que ir..." and thinking, "oh yeah, I have to go..." and if I don't recall that structure, I can check the grammar table. Language ability is so much more about vocabulary than grammar. You say that you can understand what you read and hear. While you probably cannot understand as much as you think, to the extent you understand, that means you understand the underlying grammar.

And then during the interview, should I try to use subjunctive?

If the subjunctive is appropriate, then you should use the subjunctive. I am sorry if that is tautological, but I cannot think of any other way to say it. While the subjunctive voice has not fared very well in English, we still use it such as in "I wish he were here" or "I recommend that he shut up" (it is not "he shuts", you see). Whenever there is uncertainty, the subjunctive will generally be appropriate such as in statements that start with "unless", "I hope" et cetera. If you haven't got a firm grasp of it (or the preterite/imperfective etc) now, you are not going to improve very much in the next few days. I would not worry much about this. Try to mirror your interviewer, as pitrified recommends.

My grandmother was Spanish but loved Argentinian Spanish and I share that affection. I do not think that it would be a good use of your time to spend any particular attention to specifics of Argentinian Spanish. You and your interviewer will understand each other perfectly well. In fact, if you try to use any Argentina-specific vocabulary or expressions, I think it will come off as affected. I've seen too many language learners try to speak in X Dialect that they learned from a book and it never comes off well. It's like interviewing with for a job in the UK and talking about your car's bonnet or calling everything "brilliant".

Best of luck! Please let us know how it goes.
posted by Tanizaki at 11:13 AM on April 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I speak Spanish at an advanced level and live in Mexico. First, I'd agree with the posters above that you shouldn't spend any time learning how to produce Argentine Spanish. People in Argentina have no problem understanding my Mexican Spanish. If the accent is hard for you to understand, you might watch some Argentine movies.

I also agree with the posters above that say you should practice speaking, out loud, as much as possible. Getting intelligible but imperfect words out is more important than speaking with grammatical precision.

If as you talk to yourself you find that you're having trouble with a common type of sentence for grammatical reasons, look up how to produce it and memorize a model sentence. For example, my most frequently used model is "Si yo fuera tú, no haría eso." This helps me remember how the past subjunctive or whatever it's called pairs up with the conditional. In your case it would tell you that if they ask a question like, "If you get this position, how would you [whatever]," your answer would be in the conditional.

Finally, a native tutor is extremely helpful for the social details like how and when to say "Pleased to meet you," "Thanks for considering me for this position," and so on.

Good luck!
posted by ceiba at 11:57 AM on April 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I live in Argentina and learnt my Spanish mostly here, and speaking from experience I would say that it is better to be fluent and fluid using tu than it is to try and master vos and stumble. They may well call you vos (as a rule the Argentines are very informal) but there is absolutely no problem with you replying with tu.

Most of the vos congujations are not tricky, décis instead of dices for example, but watch out for ser, which is vos sos, not tu eres. Again, no need to use it, but you do need to recognise it.

Once you're here (meetup!) you can start getting into the local slang which is hugely fun, but for the purposes of the evaluation, concentrate on building on what you know, don't worry about trying to impress by learning new Argentine-specific stuff.
posted by jontyjago at 1:31 PM on April 25, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks so much for all the suggestions and advice so far!

Any tips for trying to relax and let the language flow during the interview, especially in-the-moment when I notice myself starting to freak out and freeze up?
posted by EmilyClimbs at 9:25 PM on April 25, 2013

Stay away from vos if you are not sufficiently familiar with it and do the same with the subjunctive, thats usually the achilles heel of non-native speakers. You can get by fine without it.

I don't know if you are in Argentina or in particular Buenos Aires but a few good social language groups are Spanglish or Mundo Lingo.

posted by Che boludo! at 8:11 AM on May 2, 2013

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