Wednesday, January 23, 2008

the examination mafia

I went up to Lichtenberg last week to register for the TestDAF, the Test für Deutsch als Fremdsprache, which most universities accept as proof of German proficiency. Our teacher has been discouraging members of the class from attempting it without further preparation (we are in Mittelstufe 1, he recommends completion of Mittelstufe 2, which would take another 3 months). Today we were told again about the difficulties presented by the exam - 3 reading comprehension passages in 60 minutes! 2 hearing comprehension passages in 60 minutes! 7 oral expression tests!

This simply shows yet again why it's more or less impossible for me to find a class at the right level. When we do reading comprehension in class I'm finished in 5 minutes. I understand the hearing comprehension passages first time round. Let's put it this way, if you can read Habermas in German you are not going to find yourself struggling with the TestDAF. If you have managed to read Wilamowitz' seminal (and by no means short) Asianismus und Attizismus in its native tongue you are unlikely to stare appalled at anything the TestDAF can throw at you. My problem is simply that I've can't speak or write grammatical German. There are plenty of people in this position in Berlin, but there are no classes for them. (Having said all that, if I'd gone to this school rather than Akkusativ 2 and a half years ago I would have kept slogging away and would certainly have ended up more proficient than I am now.)

Our teacher, anyway, talks about the Prüfungsmafia (the examination mafia). The school used to hold exams every other week, and they were always full, with 50 or 60 people; then the school dropped back to once a month, and the rooms were half empty. Where were all the people? They started hearing a name: Friedländer. This was a language school allegedly established by academics from East Germany who found themselves politically incriminated after the fall of the Wall. The school was closely linked with the Humboldt Universität (our teacher nods and winks), so students who passed its exams were always accepted. Students were allegedly studying at our school and taking exams at the Friedländer, where they could be sure of passing. The Friedländer was now allegedly making its exams harder because none of the other universities would accept its qualifications. Our teacher talks about a feud between our school and the Goethe Institut: the Goethe Institut holds exams which are open to external students, but students from the Goethe Institut always got excellent marks while those from our school did not do so well - despite the fact that our school's course is allegedly harder.

This is all very entertaining; the thing that remains baffling, however, is that it is so hard to find a course that is suitable for adults. Most of the students already have advanced degrees in their country of origin; they want to use German to study at university or pursue a career. It's peculiar to do exercises for page after page of Konjunktiv I about a man and wife squabbling over the housework. Our teacher frequently makes the point that the TestDAF requires one to read wissenschaftliche Texten, but that is certainly not the intellectual level of the sentences covered in class. (The last school I tried was even sillier; I'm not convinced that I would have done better at another school. And this course is in fact MUCH better than a course I took at the Goethe Institut in London years ago, which was completely disorganised.)

One thing that's good about this system, anyway - something that compares favourably with that prevailing in most school systems. I'm now in my third week in a class where I'm learning some things but am in other ways dramatically overqualified. But the fact is, the teacher can tell the class 'Leute, Leute, es gibt wissenschaftliche Texten' and warn them off and I can go up to Lichtenberg and sign up and take it anyway. I'm not stuck in this class for a year. How much better school would have been, how much less excruciatingly boring, if it had been possible to sit an external examination in a subject after a month and skip up to a more challenging class!

...Later... I have been having a look at sample oral expression tests in a book I bought a while ago. This may not be such a walkover, given that I'm not much given to talking even in English. Three weeks left to prepare, though. Perhaps all will be well.

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