Le Français – my new unrequited love

What is it with standardized tests for languages?

Why do we keep feeling the need to prove our ability to speak a certain language in form of numbers and grades, only to prove them again 2, 5 years later, as if that was sufficient time to suddenly forget speaking said language? Since when does ‘being fluent in a language’ translate into writing certain types of essays fit to certain types of format? Will knowing words such as ‘impinge’ or ‘tumid’ really determine how well we will perform in a set environment?

To the risk of sounding pretentious, I’ve never had particular issues (except for the exorbitant prices and the ridiculous ‘expiration date’) with tests ‘pretending’ to prove my fluency in English (TOEFL, TOEIC, TEPS and what not) because, well, I haven’t had any problem procuring the necessary satisfactory grades (maybe except for my very first TOEFL, but oh give me a break, it was my first). Sure, I hated the GRE and got a very low verbal score in my first try out, but GRE is more than a standardized test for language only, so let’s argue and complain about that some other time.


However, I have recently had the very nasty surprise of having to face a certain new harsh reality.

Apparently, according to a certain French standardized test, my French sucks. The thought of having to prove I can speak French has rarely crossed my mind. I spent 2 years of kindergarten and my whole 12 years of schooling in a French institute, for god’s sake. I know it’s been 10 years since I graduated high school and Korea is not exactly the most ideal place to practice French, but put me in a French speaking environment and give me a day or two and I’ll show you how it’s properly done. But somehow, my ‘Let’s always be prepared’ mom convinced me “it wouldn’t hurt” to have a DALF certificate. That’s the trick with parents and their ‘advice’, isn’t it? It wouldn’t hurt to get a good grade, it wouldn’t hurt to read books instead of watching TV, it wouldn’t hurt to have a few certificates stacked for ‘just in case’, and so on. Well, guess what, this time, it DID hurt. (I know it’s not fair blaming my mom for this, but I’m not really being rational, just right now).

I should have been humble and taken a lower level, but no, Miss I-can-speak-French-suckers decided to take the highest level, C2, which, by the way, is not needed ANYWHERE somehow (most French universities require B2 for foreign students, and a few, C1).

I should have studied more I guess, too, I admit. But I took a look at the preparation books and realized two things. One, studying for the DALF is nothing like studying for TOEFL or TOEIC. You can’t just memorize words for a few months and be ‘ready to prove you can speak English’. You can’t learn some grammar rules and how to use the right prepositions at a private institute and show up on the testing date. You really ‘need to speak French’ to take that test, which, funnily enough, is what I liked in the first place about this test. Yes, no matter how uptight the French can be, if there is one thing they can pull right, it’s education, which, personally, I find much more appealing and of higher quality than the Korean or American one. Two, they don’t have ‘example answers’ for the essays you are supposed to right. They give you guidelines, sure, but nowhere could I find the ‘model answer’, which once again, only reaffirmed my faith in the French, because, really, how can you have a ‘model answer’ for essays? But, on the downside, and I see it only now, I had little idea of the kind of writing they were expecting.

I want to believe that my grade doesn’t actually reflect my writing skills in French. I want to believe there was a certain argumentative format I had to follow but failed to perceive during the three days I actually opened a DALF preparation book. I want to believe that, hence, my writing was a reflection of my inability to stick to a certain set of rules, and not a reflection of how bad I actually am in French.

This is what I tell myself.

This is what I tell myself.

I know that this result should have made me more humble about my fluency in French, but I will take a risk and get rid of every ounce of humility I felt when I initially saw that critical score on my computer screen, and be obnoxious. I excelled in French during all the years I was at school. And I don’t just mean the French I spoke with friends outside of classrooms. The actual class and subject of study. Getting the right spelling in dictations, conjugating verbs into tenses that can only be seen in 17th century plays by Molière, finding the subtle insinuations and symbols in Maupassant’s and Flaubert’s works, and so on. I had good scores in French for my middle school examination (Brevet) and high school examination (Baccalauréat), especially considering the French almost never give you full score in literary subjects (I’m not saying I did get full score, but well, it was close). So, yeah, I think I have the right to be baffled and ashamed at my poor, poor writing score. (Fortunately, I scored much higher in Speaking, which I actually thought had gone awful. So apparently, my ‘speaking French’ is passable, but my ‘writing French’ hits rock bottom).

Sure, I passed, I will get the official ‘Mlle Lim, vous pouvez, en effet, parler français‘ (Miss Lim, you can speak French, indeed) approval in… 4 months (yeah, that’s how long it takes the French to issue my certificate… after it’s taken them one month to actually announce my score). But my Asian and French-speaking pride refuse to see that as a ‘pass’. A disgraceful ‘pass’ is not a pass in my dictionary. Ha! Especially when it comes to French. (I’m assuming it’s a French thing, because I was not this distraught when I had 155/170 in my first GRE verbal… or… 159/170 in my second GRE math…)

Standardized tests suck. No, I’m not saying this just because I scored low in one of mine (okay, fine, I am, but that is only 36% of the reason). They are simply not enough to prove one’s proficiency in a language. Proof? Many Korean students score high in English tests without having the slightest idea of how to actually speak the language. Sure, one needs certain standards and units of measurements to, for instance, distinguish those who have a higher probability of succeeding in studies in a foreign country. Maybe if people stopped being stupid and greedy and refrain from applying to schools if they can’t speak the language spoken in said establishment. Or if they could be more rational and honest and only put the skills they are actually capable of performing in their resumes. Maybe… maybe… maybe if unicorns could make our wishes come true and we could all slide down from rainbows…

Speaking 'standardized English'

Speaking ‘standardized English’

Anyways, there goes 12 years of, may I say, excellent, and hard work. There goes my pride down the drain, vanquished in the face of this need to put a grade to everything.

I, Mesdames et Messieurs, officially suck in French. (Okay, a huge part of me just died, writing that.)

What hurts more is that I love the French language. I truly do. Don’t mistake me, I will be among the first to mock, and with pleasure, the French for their incessant complaining, their snobby attitude, their horrible movies, and their constant ‘euh…‘ and ‘écoutez…‘ in nearly every sentence.

Cartoons are funny because they always provide an ounce of reality.

Cartoons are funny because they always provide an ounce of reality.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t have the most profound respect for the language, and for the right reasons. I’m not just saying this like the average Korean girl who goes ‘Oooooh I loooooove French, it’s such a romantic language. I know ‘Je t’aime’!’. Girrrl, please. I believe the ordinary French uses a much more varied and extensive range of vocabulary in his/her daily conversations, more than the ordinary American or Korean. And such usage of language only corresponds and equals to the depth and to the even wider range of topics of conversation and discussion your common French will easily and delightfully engage you any time. The right French lyrics will make any average English or Korean song sound like a nursery rhyme. There is a reason why the French are so proud of ‘la langue de Molière‘ or ‘la langue de Voltaire‘. It’s just that good. Plain and simple.

But well, apparently, I’m not good enough for it anymore. Et bien, tant pis. 



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