My mind went blank as I read and re-read the prompt in front of me as the timer counted down for my “thinking time”.
“If you could be a famous person, who would you choose to be and why?”
That was the prompt in front of me, in Italian, and all I could think of were two people (both of which, I should admit, I knew very little about):
— Audrey Hepburn
— Hugh Jackman
Instead of using my thinking time for more productive tasks, like thinking about what I wanted to say, for example, I kept wondering Why Hugh Jackman? Why Audrey Hepburn?
I looked at one of the administrators of the exam (called a somministratore in Italian), the one right in front of me, and she asked me:
I shook my head no and said, “Solo un minuto,” just a minute.
My breathing quickened as I searched my memory for facts about Audrey Hepburn. She was a humanitarian, an actress…a nice person, I think. She dressed well!
I told the two administrators that I was ready, and I began to speak, praying that my bits of memory were serving me while also hoping that the sentences coming my mouth were grammatically correct.
This was the last section of a four-hour exam called CILS (Certification of Italian as a Foreign Language) that I took at the Italian Cultural Institute in Los Angeles, California in December of 2015.
I was taking the B2 level of the exam (what could be thought of as upper intermediate or CILS 2), and the speaking section, in comparison to the others, was the shortest and lasted around 10 minutes.
The day, which had started not-so-promptly at 9 AM, had gone by quickly, and I could feel myself relax as I realized that it was over.
The five months of preparing for this exam, stressing about if I were prepared or not, and countless study dates with my friend who was also there that day, was over.
But how did I get here in the first place, and why did I decide to take this exam?
The CILS is one of the exams you can take if you want to receive an official certificate showing that you have achieved a certain level in the Italian language.
It follows the CEFR (Common European Framework) levels, which means there are tests to prove competency in levels A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2.
The test is administered twice a year all over the world on June 11 and December 3 and is hosted by the University of Siena, one of the few universities for foreigners in Italy.
I was taking it because six months prior to that exam date I had walked the streets of Orvieto and decided that three weeks just wasn’t enough.
I needed more time in Italy – more time to wake up every day and hear the language as I walked outside – to feel satisfied.
At least, I hoped that after living there for two years, in accordance with a two-year program for Teaching Italian to Foreigners that I had chosen, that two years would be enough.
In order to attend courses at the University of Perugia for a magistrale, the website claimed that you needed to be at a B2 level (update: for many programs like that, you actually need a C1 certificate and you can take an exam a month before semester begins to prove your competency), so even though I thought that was where I was, I needed to prove it with a certificate.
Hence preparation for the exam began.
I’m guessing that if you’re reading this, you’re thinking of taking the exam, too.
To be honest, if I hadn’t been forced to take this as a prerequisite to applying for university, I would have avoided it all my life.
That being said, I’m so glad that I’ve had the experience of taking this test.
Not only was it a great motivator for me to study intensely & consistently each day, but it was also quite humbling to see all of the Italian that I didn’t know.
If you’re curious about how I prepared for the exam, you can listen to this podcast episode.
How to Sign Up for the Exam
If you’re interested in taking an exam, here are the steps to take:
2.) Search their website to see if they hold the exam twice a year. You’ll typically find it under Certifications. Here’s the one for Los Angeles.
3.) Some of the websites you research may not talk specifically about when the exam happens or how to sign up, so you’ll have to email them, which is what I had to do for the institute in Los Angeles.
4.) I was sent an application (due October 15th for the December 3rd exam) to fill out plus information on the costs of the exam and how to send the payment. Here’s a link to the application.
Each level has a different cost. Beside the base cost of the exam, there is also a $20 administration fee to pay the day of the exam.
Livelli CILS A1 e A2 € 40
Livello CILS UNO-B1 € 90
Livello CILS B1 Adolescenti € 70
Livello CILS DUE-B2 € 105
Livello CILS TRE-C1 € 135
Livello CILS QUATTRO-C2 € 160
— The exam fee will need to be wired from your bank to theirs in order for them to know that it’s the correct currency exchange rate from dollars to euros.
Day of the Exam
Hannah and I flew in to Los Angeles the night before the exam in order to get a good night’s sleep (which naturally didn’t happen because we were nervous).
The morning after we walked to the Italian Cultural Institute to be on time, as the email had suggested, at 9 AM.
Since we were on time, we were the first ones there and we chatted with a few other exam-takers who arrived a few minutes after.
One was taking the C1 exam to go to school in Torino. It was his second time taking the exam, and he had failed the year before. He said he wasn’t nervous, but he seemed it as he read us prompts from his C1 prep book.
Another lady was there taking the B1 exam for fun.
The final person we met was taking the B2 exam, just like us, and he was doing it because he was applying for some fancy school in a linguistics program and thought it would look good on his resume. He wasn’t nervous at all. I was jealous.
That day there was only one person taking the C2 exam, but we didn’t get a chance to meet him because he was late.
At around 9:15 AM, we were led into a room by our four administrators and given name badges, scratch paper, a black pen, and our test packets.
Each level went with a different administrator, and we followed ours to a classroom where the levels and time schedule were written on the black board along with the names of the people who were taking the exam.
There were stickers to go along with our answer sheets, and I dutifully stuck them to each corresponding box.
The first section we were meant to take was the listening portion, which was played via CD.
There would be two breaks throughout our 4-hour day – one 15-minute break after the reading section and one 5-minute break after the writing portion.
After some tech complications (and a couple of room changes), we started the listening exam.
The Exam Components
Here is how the exam is structured.
1.) Listening comprehension
2.) Reading comprehension
3.) Syntax and grammar
Each section is worth twenty points.
The listening comprehension portion was 25 minutes, and we listened to two different audios. We were able to listen to each audio twice before bubbling in our answers on the answer sheet.
After the listening comprehension portion, we moved to a different room for the reading comprehension. We had an hour to complete it.
Syntax & Grammar
From there, we had forty-five minutes to complete a grammar and syntax section. I had a small moment of panic during this section because I knew about one of every ten words in one exercise.
After the grammar section, we took a 15-minute break and then returned to write two compositions within a time slot of one hour and 15 minutes.
The first composition needed to be between 140-180 words and the second between 80-100 words. The first is typically an essay and the second usually a letter. While my test prep book gave prompts for informal letters, the letter that I was asked to write was formal.
After writing, we had a 5-minute break before speaking, where we would each individually go into the room with two administrators to have a 3-minute dialogue and do a 1 1/2 minute monologue. Both were recorded in order to be sent to the graders at the University of Siena.
You have four topics to choose from for the dialogue, and two topics and two pictures to choose from for the monologue.
How I Might Have Prepared Differently
Overall, I’m really happy with the way that I prepared for the exam, although of course, I would have preferred to study more – particularly with building more specific vocabulary, but I think that’s what people always say at the end of exams like these.
Most of what I think held me back was mental. I felt a lot of pressure to pass this exam because, well, I run a website for teaching Italian, and I thought it would be really embarrassing if I failed.
That put me in my head a lot and took a lot of energy that I could have used for learning. I also made the mistake of playing the comparison game (which is one of my weaknesses), and I constantly wondered how I was matching up to Hannah, to who I was studying with, as well as how relaxed or not-relaxed the other exam takers looked.
The book that I had bought was a CELI test prep book, which may have been why I was surprised by the difference of format with the listening, reading, and syntax portions. If I take this exam again, I will buy a CILS test prep book.
Now, the moment of truth.
How soon before you know if you failed or passed?
If you recall, each section is worth 20 points, but if you score a minimum of 11 points in each section, you pass the exam.
If you fail the exam, I’m under the impression that you can re-take it in June and December following your exam date.
All answer sheets and recordings are sent to the University of Siena to be graded officially, and results are recorded online typically three months later. So since I took the exam in December, the earliest date for results is March.
(UPDATE: HANNAH & I BOTH PASSED! :])
If you pass, after some period of time, you will receive an official certificate.
Will I take the C1 Exam?
I hear from many people that the jump between B2 and C1 is a large chasm. It goes from a conversational tone to purely academic and formal language, and the difference in the amount of vocabulary you need to have is significant.
I couldn’t find exact numbers for how much vocabulary is estimated that you’ll need, but I have bought the CILS 3 book and will start studying it. I suppose I’ll see the larger differences there, and I can write a follow-up to this article once I’m in the midst of it. I have also hired a new test prep tutor on Italki and have began working on C1 test prep with her.
My plan was to attend the Teaching Italian to Foreigners master’s program in Perugia, but now I’m not 100% sure if that’s the path I want to take to becoming a certified teacher and may just take the CILS 4 exam instead. I’m even considering applying for a language school in Bologna and just taking an advanced course for a year while I figure out what I want to do.
I do not say it lightly when I say that this experience was humbling for me.
I think it is incredible that I’m able to have full conversations in Italian and still not know so much of the language.
It was my first time venturing into academic Italian territory, and it taught me so much.
I realized that I had been playing it safe with a lot of the same grammar structures, noticed where I had cemented mistakes, and saw how limited my vocabulary was when it came to describing things in detail.
Even if you don’t plan on applying for university or a job, I do recommend taking this exam – particularly for those who feel stuck at a certain level.
I find that people feel stuck going from A2 —> B1 and B2 —> C1, so if that’s you, take advantage of this test and you’ll be introduced to a vast expanse of Italian that you never even knew you needed but can’t imagine living without.
What about you? Have you taken the exam or are you preparing for it? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!