The bizarre nature of the oral exam

May 10, 2012 6:19 pm

The unnatural structure of oral exams can make them very taxing

In two hours time I will be sitting very nervously in front of two French university professors and a microphone, armed with an oral essay with a few nifty subjunctives shoved up my sleeve. It’s the first French oral exam that counts since I started at uni, and they really have taken no prisoners. I have spent the last few weeks preparing elaborate opinion phrases, tweaked to perfection my preceding direct objects and tried to remember which precise order I’m supposed to introduce my problematique just so that I won’t flunk in front of two rather intimidating native speakers.

The more I study the themes that I have been learning over the last 24 weeks (the environment, regional languages, cosmetics…) the more I become aware of the bizarre nature of the oral exam. It’s a very unnatural, nerve-wracking, vocabulary-testing 15 minutes in which I have to respond to a text I have been given. I have to introduce the text, pose a question and outline my plan before I can even get into the juicy pros and cons of, say, recycling (snore). Not only that, I then have to follow it up with a conclusion consisting of a recap of everything I’ve just said and a final splurge of what I think.

If I spend five minutes chatting this much structured rubbish to somebody I want to be my friend next year in Toulouse, they will undoubtedly walk away in the middle of my peculiar monologue. Never again in my life, and I say that with confidence, will I have to do such an exercise, which begs the question; why do I have to do it now? Surely there must be a more natural way of analysing the acquisition of someone’s language without creating a fake, organised, terrifyingly alien situation which sends students all a-fluster.

In order to overcome this particular exam condition, I propose a debate scenario might be more successful. A group of four or five are posed a question from a topic that has been studied. They then all take a side, and fight it out to the death. It’s still not ideal, but I believe it would produce much more spontaneous arguments and highlights the oral skills that you really do have, as opposed to the skill that you drag out to fit into an oral essay format. These more free-flowing, pulse-raising, exciting discussions where you can say what you really believe and really feel, are something that would produce much more fluent language than having to force opinions.

Alas, this is not so, and as this article draws to a close, so does the time I have to conjure up some pre-planned reaction gibberish to prove to the professors that the eight years (yes, eight) that I have been studying French haven’t been a complete waste of time. It’s also going to be proof to myself that I’m not going to flounder and assume the foetal position in the corner of a Toulousian café in September. Here’s to hoping. Wish me luck!

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