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Amy's guide to rocking a VCE language
« on: September 15, 2016, 08:28:25 pm »
Welcome to Amy's guide to rocking a VCE language that you began learning at school! (And actually learning it properly so you can use it!)

This is something I've been thinking about writing for a while and with a few long train rides through China ahead of me, I thought now would be as good a time as ever to put this down in writing, hopefully to the benefit of lots of students out there.

It's kind of ridiculously long so I've split it into sections and I'll probably come back to it and edit it in the future.  My English writing abilities also seem to have dropped a bit from spending so long overseas, so please bear with me!

A few things to preface

Obviously this isn't magically make learning a language happen overnight.  Learning a foreign language takes work.  Lots of work.  But it is definitely achievable.  This guide won't contain a single tip that will suddenly make VCE LOTE a breeze. 

While tutoring many students, as well as watching my classmates back in the day, one thing that struck me is that a lot of people really don't know how to work on their language skills outside of class time.  They would review items of vocabulary that their teachers had taught them, maybe do some grammar exercises they had been assigned.. and then what? 

To me, languages are living entities, each used constantly by millions of people around the globe and I truly believe that tapping into this makes language learning a lot more fun and a lot more effective.

But how can you make use of this with lower level language skills?

This guide is essentially a collection of tips and methods and ideas on how to get to the point where you can use the language, whenever you like, without needing any props.  Where you can pick up a book and enjoy it and pick up a new word here or there occasionally, where you can happily watch TV shows and where you can chat to your friends on Skype in the language.  I'm at this point in two foreign languages at the moment, and must say that it's definitely something worth aiming for as its a really wonderful skill to have.  It's also great for VCE LOTE.  No, it's not all the work done for you.  You still need to prepare well for the predictable parts of the oral exam, practise your text types for the writing section and practise your test taking skills for a VCE LOTE style exam.  It will however, put you miles ahead of those who rote learn and can't back their performance up with real deep language skills.

Back to the level I was talking about, if you're already there, great!  Keep doing what you've been doing, this guide is not aimed at you.  Otherwise, (or even if you are at that level but you're weirdly curious about whether you used the same methods as me, or even if you have no intention of learning a language any time soon and are just procrastinating a tad too much) please read on!

But before you start you might have one more tiny question:

Why on Earth should I listen to you?!

In short, I spoke pretty much only English at the age of 15.  I learnt French mostly through self study to the point where I went into year 12 with the ability to, more or less, happily read novels, watch TV and talk to people in French.  I finished the year with a 100% on the oral exam, lost only and single mark on the writing section and received a 44 (-> 51.something).  I moved to Austria, spent 5 months devoting myself to studying German (with a bit of traveling on the side and, you know, having a job), to pass the B2 German exam, the exam needed to study in German at an Austrian university, with the highest possible grade.  (As an aside, I'd personally estimate that the level of this exam is a tad higher than that of VCE, but it's obviously comparing apples to oranges and you'd want to have at least this level to be really acing VCE).  I then went on to study for six months in a majority German-taught translation and interpreting course at the University of Vienna, ending in two C1 level exams and some fun fun translations on commerce topics.  I even got a scholarship to a conference on multilingualism in Berlin.  During this time I've been tutoring a number of VCE students in French, and am now beginning to tutor VCE German as well.

And some things I need to admit, aka. why you should take everything a say with a grain of salt and do what works for you:

I do have German relatives who came to visit every now and then and who I could occasionally understand a couple of words of what they were saying, every now and then, under the most favourable circumstances, but effectively, my ability to say anything myself in a foreign language at 15 was limited to bonjour, guten Tag, and the preposition song that I had learnt in year 9 French.

I kick-started my French learning by going on a summer exchange to Bourgogne.  HOWEVER, before any one begins to think that this is a necessary step, let me say: I truly believe it is not.  My exchange gave me lots in terms motivation and desire to learn the language, and not much in terms of skills that I couldn't have got in Australia with some internet and the same amount of hard work.  I know many people who learnt less in their year-long exchange than I and others did in that same year in Australia.  I promise.

Everyone learns differently.  Seriously.  My favourite methods may not work for you.  Something I've never heard of may be your godsend.  I've tried to include a range of techniques and ideas here to get you started on your way to finding what works for you, and if you find something else that works, then great, stick with it until you need something new!  Oh, and let me know so I can suggest that too.

Okay so now onto the real stuff... (For reals this time!)

Just starting out
So I'm going to focus most of this guide on people who are already past a certain point - the point where they have a small base of vocabulary and at least have a small idea of how to use present and past tenses.  Generally this should be taught in year 9 and 10, but if you're starting out as a complete beginner, here's some things that can get you started:
- duolingo: they have the majority of European VCE languages, not so much in the way of other languages.  They teach a good base of vocabulary and do teach grammar, but at times grammar is taught more implicitly than explicitly so definitely consult elsewhere for explanations of you need.  Free.
- assimil: has very few languages from an English base, many from a French base.  But if you already understand French or you're learning French/German/Chinese/maybe a few others, definitely check this out because it's a great series.  It's in a one-lesson-day-format and you can find guides for how best to use it with a quick google search.  ~ $100 with audio, but can be "found" on the internet usually.
- Teach Yourself, Colloquial, most decent beginner language textbooks: all good for getting you an nice base in the language.

Getting to a high level in VCE
I'm going to start out by saying that I've found the best method for learning languages is a mixture of methods.  Different activities work at different stages and work on different skills, so definitely try to mix and match as suits you.

Working on reading skills
I personally like to work on reading skills the most in the beginning as I find it the most accessible of the 4 main skills at a low level. When natives speak too fast for you to be able to practise listening, you can always get out a book and a dictionary and even if you move through it slowly, you'll definitely be learning.  When you've got a text that you can't easily read, whether that be a novel, a news article, or anything else, there are two basic ways to attack it: intensive or extensive reading.

Extensive reading: with extensive reading, you're reading what you understand, without stopping to much to think about what you don't.  You're waiting for context and repetition to make unknown words and grammatical structures clearer and clearer to you over time, picking the low hanging fruit that you can get through this and leaving the rest for another day when you're more advanced.  You should be aiming to get an overall understanding of the text. With a novel of reasonable length and a bit of patience, this can be a great way to work on your reading fluency (you're going to be able to read quickly and easily for the exam) while also reviewing what you've learnt in the past and picking up some easier new words without a huge amount of mental effort.

Intensive reading: Intensive reading is the exact opposite of extensive reading - you want to look up every little thing that you don't understand.  This means getting out your dictionary (hopefully electronic if you aren't planning on spending 10 years on this step) and looking up words you don't know. Maybe even saving them or writing them down to review later or put into an SRS system.  Any grammatical structures or tense (or other grammatical) forms that you don't recognise or wouldn't expect are also good candidates for a google or grammar guide look-up.  You want to be aiming to understand everything about the text.  Of course this won't always be possible, but still - aim for it as much as possible.

Learning With Texts: this is a program that can help as a type of prop for intensive reading.  You can copy and paste texts in to the program, link it up to online dictionaries of your choice, then read through the text, highlighting words that you don't know while the English equivalent is brought up in front of you.  It also allows you to save new words and export them easily into flashcards for programs such as anki.  I find it most useful in two situations:

1. In the beginner stages when intensive reading is a ridiculously huge task.  The automation of the searching process can save you huge amounts of time in these cases.
2. When you really want to be able to save new vocabulary easily to review later.  This is particularly useful when you want to quickly increase your vocabulary on that particular topic, such as before a SAC on that topic, or when researching for your Detailed Study.  It's also useful when you're at a higher level and the new vocabulary that your learning is more specialised and less likely to come up ahead soon on its own.

I've generally found that a good mix of all of these techniques is a nice effective way to improve your reading to the point where you can read native content (novels, news articles, wikipedia) fairly easily.  I like to favour intensive reading in the beginning and tend more towards extensive reading as reading gets easier.

For languages that are further away from English to the point that starting straight off with intensive reading can be a huge struggle, graded readers can be a nice bridge to get you to the point where you can move onto native content.  You generally be wanting to get a graded reader with a 1000-3000 word vocabulary, depending on your level.

Preparing for SACs and exams

In my experience, a combination of intensive and extensive reading about various topics can make up a large part of your preparation for the reading section of language exams with great results.  In the last weeks leading up to a SAC or exam, I would just recommend adding in practise SACs and exams into your study routine.  If you've been reading lots of native content up until this point, the actual reading of a VCE level text shouldn't be too difficult, and you'll be mostly practising answering the types of questions that are asked in VCE or by your teacher. 

Going through the vocabulary introduced in class throughout the year can also be a good idea, although realistically, the presence of your dictionary in the exam will allow you to look up any of these words if you've forgotten them.

Obviously, if you have a reading SAC and you know the general topic, a lot of intensive reading on that topic can be very helpful.

Working on writing
I kind of think about writing as having two parts: being able to write, and being able to write accurately.  These labels aren't clear and perfect and there is a good amount of cross-over, but I'll go with them anyway.

Being able to write

Being able to write is all about having the resources, in terms of vocabulary and grammar to be able to communicate your ideas. 

The first hurdle to get through is knowing enough grammar to be able to write a sentence that's understandable.  At this stage you mostly want to be understanding the overall ideas of the different grammatical rules, rather than working on every single exception.  The first things you'll want to get down are how to use the most common tenses, how (or if) gender of nouns affects the language, whether you need to mark cases, where adverbs generally sit in a sentence.  Being at least vaguely aware of all these things will let you begin practising writing and producing output in your language, as well as giving you something to try to pick up on and take notice of in your listening and reading.

The second hurdle is vocabulary.  It's pretty difficult to write about going on a train journey if you don't know the words for platform, seat, train, station and late.  The easiest ways to learn these words are the reading/listening and through dedicated vocabulary study.  I feel like an even mix is a fairly good plan generally.

Being able to write accurately

Once you can write about a certain topic and get your point across, or use past tenses and have others able to understand what you mean, or are starting to get a bit of a clearer idea of adjective endings, it's time to work on perfecting your writing in that area. 

This may involve intensively studying pieces written by native speakers on the topic and analysing the phrasing, vocabulary and tenses used, or it might mean spending some time re-reading the grammatical rules relating to a topic and doing some targeted exercises.  Then you put it into practice, making sure that you're focussing on getting that aspect perfect on every piece of writing from that point on, and getting help from a teacher, tutor or friend to make sure that you're implementing it correctly and to correct anything you've misunderstood.

Why not just write it perfectly from the beginning?

Of course anything that you know how to do correctly should be done so, and you should be constantly trying to guess how an idea would be correctly expressed.  There are, however, a couple of reasons why I don't recommend focussing all your energy on getting everything perfect from the get-go. 

1. Getting everything perfect from the start simply isn't possible and only attempting structures that you're sure of may limit you from writing to your full potential.
2. Focussing your time working on easier, but not yet perfected, structures is a great way of prioritising your time.  If you're doing some of this step with the help of a teacher or tutor, it allows you to make the best use of your time with them.
3. Attempting to perfect structures that you've already come across many times in your reading and writing and listening is significantly easier than working on structures you've only seen in a grammar book once.  Context is king and will make your learning much easier and clearer.

Bringing in help

While I believe that learning to read in a foreign language can be done quite effectively on one's own, I've seen that getting a bit of assistance with your writing can go a long way to seeing improvement.  To give a bit of an idea, here's where I would personally bring in help in the writing process.

1. Write on your own, initially without focussing on any particular aspect.  For feedback about where you're making mistakes, I'd recommend uploading it to italki or lang-8 to get corrected by native speakers.
2. If you notice something that you'd like to work on specifically, let's say "German adjective endings" have a look at where you've recently made mistakes with those endings.  Then go to a grammar book or get out trusty old google, read (or re-read if you've already gone through the feature before when you first learnt about it) about usage and attempt some exercises.  If there's anything you're struggling at this point, get some help from a teacher of tutor to make sure you're really understanding correctly.
3. Try using the feature in writing, aiming for perfect accuracy.  At this point, I'd recommend going to a teacher or tutor for corrections, as a online correction on lang-8 or italki is unlikely to have the depth necessary to understand anything that is still tripping you up.
4. Try practising a bit more to fix up these mistakes you're still making.
5. If there's anything that's still causing you trouble, let those aspects go.  Remember that it's something you still need to work on and come back to it once you've had a bit more exposure and have developed some more context.  9 times out of 10 it will come a lot easier the next time.  If not, context and exposure and a get a good explanation.  At some point you'll get there.

Lang-8 & italki
These are sites that allow you to upload texts that you've written and have a native speaker correct it in exchange for you correcting the English of others.  It sits somewhere between teachers/tutors and self-correction in terms of accuracy and helpfulness, it helps you to know where you've made mistakes, however explanations about why what you've written is wrong are very rare.

Tutors & teachers
If you have a teacher who has the time to correct lots of writing pieces and is a good critical corrector and ready to push you, then congratulations, you've hit the jackpot for writing!
If not, a tutor can be a good option, whether a native speaker or a learner themselves.
With a native speaker, you want to be looking for two main things: strong linguistic awareness and understanding of grammar in their native language (and how to explain it to foreigners) and knowledge of VCE and how marking works.
For a non-native tutor, high-level abilities in the language and strong intuition are most important, as well as the ability to explain well. 

Preparing for SACs and exams

Similar to reading, if you have a SAC and you know the general topic, reading up on and practising writing about it is your best bet.

What I was saying about letting mistakes go and trying things you're not confident about doesn't exactly apply when you sitting in your SAC or exam.  In these cases, what you want to be working on is accuracy, and displaying a the widest range of vocabulary and grammar that you can confidently and accurately use.

When you know the writing topic in advance, preparing and memorising some 'complex sentences and vocabulary' can be a good idea if you don't know that you can reliably make up your own on the spot, but be careful that you work with a teacher or tutor (or maybe not teacher if they're the one assessing you) to make sure that you can confidently use these correctly.  An example of a 'complex sentence' may be a subjunctive sentence in French or a Conjunctive II sentence in German.  In any case, the sentence should be related to the topic and able to be used in several different contexts.

Of course, getting feedback on your writing in the lead up to your SAC/exam from a teacher or tutor and taking note of what your current weaknesses are and what to watch out for is always a good idea.

In a lot of ways, working on listening skills is a lot like working on reading skills.  Except that the words are coming at you rapidly.  And speakers blend the words together.  And you feel like your brain is on fire.

Just kidding.

With a bit of work, you can get your listening skills to the point where listening to VCE level listening exams is quite easy. 

Oh, and people generally use a significantly smaller vocabulary when speaking, so there's always that nice little bonus.

But as I was saying it's quite similar to working on reading, you want to focus on both extensive and intensive listening to build up your "listening fluency", aka. your ability to recognise words in speech that you otherwise know.  Both techniques can also be used to learn vocabulary and structures and to improve your also fluency, of course.  I personally prefer to do most of this initial learning through reading and explicit study and just listen enough to keep my listening up to speed most of the time, but I know many who have done the opposite with great results.

Making listening more accessible

I personally find using native materials right from the start to be a lot harder, or if you stop and start the audio constantly for intensive listening, a lot more boring.

There are, however, a lot of places to find easier recordings to practise listening with. 

Xpod101: this is a subscription service that puts out podcasts with dialogues at a variety of levels with commentary.  Great for intensive listening.  You generally pay around $20 per month, but there's nothing stopping you from signing up for a month and downloading a large amount of podcasts.

News in slow X: I'm not talking about any particular producer of these podcasts here as a lot of different groups produce them, but depending on what's available for your language, these can be a great resource for practising listening extensively or intensively. Especially if you know a lot about current affairs in English, they can be quite accessible listening.  Some are free, some are paid.

Listening-reading: this is a technique that has been quite well documented on the Internet by language learners, that aims to build listening (and also reading) skills quite quickly.  It does generally require quite I bit of time, so I'd suggest doing it during school holidays rather than in a week where you have a SAC.  Essentially, you want to get a book in two languages and an audiobook in your LOTE, then you want to do a combination of listening in the LOTE while reading in the LOTE and listening in the LOTE while reading in English.  As I said, much more precise information can be found with a Google search.

Watching shows/movies you know well in English: the familiar content can make it a lot easier to pick up what's going on, compared to listening to something completely unpredictable.

What to listen to next

Once you've got to a higher listening level, there are lots of great sources of audio for studying.  Podcasts and YouTube videos on interesting topics can be found in any language, in fact, you can even use them to study for other subjects.  TV shows and movies are always a good option, and generally get easier to understand as you watch more in the same series or on the same topic as you get used to the particular language used.  News programs can be very easy to access - most news channels offer their programs for free online or in podcast form.

Preparing for SACs and exams

Similar again to reading, a solid strategy for preparing for a listening test where you don't know the topic is a mix of intensive and extensive listening, along with test taking practice.

When you do know the topic, you're obviously going to want to focus this listening on the topic as well as reading about the topic and putting in some focused vocabulary study.

A lot of my other advice would be something you've probably been told many times by your teachers - don't let yourself get distracted when you miss a word or sentence (although this should come pretty naturally if you've done lots of extensive listening) and find a note taking technique that works for you.

Oh, the dreaded speaking.  Except that I think that the speaking exam may be the easiest to ace. 


Because the examiners are so forgiving.  The reality is that in general, VCAA don't want to create a system where only native speakers can get the top marks.  So if it's obvious that your just a non-native speaker who speaks the language well, they're going to let quite a few mistakes slide.

To give an example, I made quite a few small mistakes in my oral exam including
1. Having no idea what the key word of one of the examiner's questions meant
2. Asking for an explanation and then only barely understanding that as well (I looked it up later and the word was spoilt)
3. Making a couple of small grammatical mistakes but self-correcting most of them.

And of course I still had an understandable but clearly foreign accent.

And yet I received full marks on my exam.  Of course I'm not my examiner and I can't know exactly what they were thinking, but I think it's fair to assume that in these cases, it had a lot to do with the fact that the conversation just flowed well.  You want to be using the language the way a native would, using the many expressions you've read and heard over the past years naturally in conversation, talking as if you were talking to a friend and not reciting a speech in a complicated code.  When making mistakes you wanted to be correcting yourself the same way you would if you said something wrong while speaking any other time, whether that be in English or your LOTE.  And most of all, you want the conversation to flow without it feeling strained for either person, you want it to be effortless, so that you both feel like you could keep the conversation going for another 20 minutes and still find it interesting.

That's how you get top marks in the oral exam.  But how do you get to this point?

How do you get to this point?

Being able to speak fluidly and easily in a foreign language is all about 2 things - loads of input and speaking practice.

Loads of input

I have personally found that the one thing that really boosts my speaking skills is having a huge amount of exposure to the language.  Eventually, after reading many books and listening to huge amounts of audio, it just starts to roll of the tongue.  Turns of phrases and idioms pop into your head when you need them, because you've already run into them many times.  Verb conjugations come naturally because you've begun to internalise the patterns, and you're not consciously thinking about them. 

I've already mentioned many great sources of input, but here are a few of my favourites: TV shows, novels, podcasts, music, YouTube videos, Wikipedia articles, newspaper articles, films... and many more that I can't think of at the moment.

Speaking practice
You can have all the input you want, but you're not going to be able to put all that knowledge to use if you've only spoken your LOTE on a few isolated occasions.  You want to be speaking your LOTE every opportunity you have, and you want a nice mixture of practice focused on correction, and practice focused on fluid speaking. 

In practice focused on correction you want to be speaking with someone who is both willing and able to correct you.  Generally this will be a tutor or teacher, as even if you have a friend who speaks the language natively, it generally isn't particularly enjoyable to constantly correct someone else's speech.  The only other option I've seen work is using a tandem partner website such as italki to find someone who also wants their speech strictly corrected, but even then, I've often found that it doesn't really end up working out, and you're spending double the amount of time for the same amount of correction since you need to be correcting them as well.  Tandem partners also often don't have the linguistic awareness to be able to properly explain your mistakes. 

On the other hand, tandem partners and friends are great for practising fluid speaking.  This is when you just want to be practising putting your thoughts into words, pushing yourself to talk about new topics and taking notice of how your partner is phrasing things.  Another great way to practise this is to talk to yourself in the mirror, in the shower or really wherever.  I personally haven't done this a lot but I've seen people really improve their speaking doing it. 

Preparing for SACs

I recommend preparing for SACs in the same way I recommend preparing for exams - generally practising speaking, practising specifically for the task, and if you know the topic, preparing topic-specific complex phrases and vocabulary that you can use confidently.

Preparing for the oral exam

As you well know, the oral exam consists of two parts - the general conversation and the extended study.  The one most important thing, in my opinion, that they share is the fact that you already know in advance the general topics of conversation.  This is something that you should use to your advantage when preparing. 

Remembering that the five topics the general conversation focusses on are family, school, future, jobs and hobbies, I suggest starting by writing out all the questions that you could imagine being asked on these topics.  (Alternatively, many teachers and tutors have great lists of questions that you can use for this.)  After this, you want to think about how you would answer these questions, noting down your main points and looking up vocabulary and structures you'll need to know.

At this point you want to begin practising answering the questions out loud.  I honestly don't suggest writing out in full all your 'answers' to these questions as:
1. It would take a LOT of time.  If you're doing this properly, you should be writing several pages on each topic.  Think of how much speaking practise you could fit into that time!
3. These 'scripts' aren't particularly useful.  Those who memorise them completely are fairly easy to spot, as written language simply doesn't have the same flow as spoken language. 

Instead I suggest jumping right in and starting to practise.  This can be done alone (perhaps recording your voice) or with a partner or teacher/tutor, and I suggest doing a mixture of both.  Simply pick a question and answer as much as you can about that questions.  Your sentences will likely be quite simple as you start out and have to think about content and language at the same time, but it's a great starting point and you'll be building up fluidity in your speech.  Eventually, through practise and repetition, you'll start to get into a kind of 'groove' where you get used to how you answer certain questions and can do it without focussing too hard on content, instead shifting to working on language.

At this point you want to start working on two things: cleaning up mistakes you're making and making the language you're using more sophisticated.

For cleaning up mistakes, I strongly suggest working with your tutor or teacher, as they're going to be able to pick out mistakes you would have never even noticed before and help you prioritise what to work on first.

To make your language more sophisticated, you want more advanced (uncommon) vocabulary and to be using the full range of grammar that you've learnt in class.  For French this would include a mixture of past tenses, conditional phrases, subjunctive phrases and passive phrases.  In this step I suggest coming up with a few more advanced words and turns of phrases and a few complex sentences for each of the five topics, memorise them, then aim to find a way to use several of them each time you do a practise oral exam.  Now because the line between sophisticated speech and sounding very strange is quite thin (and advanced vocabulary and grammar are very easy to use incorrectly) I would definitely suggest going over any sentences that you're memorising with a teacher or tutor.

Correction and sophisticated language are like a seesaw and you want to make sure you are keeping a good balance as you start out - you want to keep pushing yourself but also not create a mess that you're never going to be able to properly clean up.  As you get closer to your oral exam date your speech should be getting cleaner and cleaner, and your aim should be to be able to answer the prepared-for questions confidently using appropriate complex language, while also being able to answer unexpected questions with correct, although possibly slightly simpler language.


Although absolutely perfecting your accent to sound exactly like a native speaker should be a much less important goal in the scheme of the VCE LOTE oral exam compared to perfecting your grammar and usage, making your accent clear, easily understandable and natural sounding is necessary to be able to receive top marks.

The particular areas that you need to work on to reach this point will differ between languages.  In French, the vowels and a correct r are generally the most important, as well as correctly implementing liaisons.  Intonation can also cause a lot of troubles.  In German, certain consonants (especially ch & r) and vowels (u vs. ü for example) can cause trouble.  Generally a quick search online can tell you the sounds English speakers generally need to work on the most in your LOTE.  Overall though, the areas to work on can be split into three categories: individual sounds, pronunciation of words and intonation.

Individual sounds

As I mentioned above, the sounds you want to be working on really depend on the language you are learning.  What I can say here though, is that I can really recommend going through the individual sounds present in the language one by one, at the start of or at some point in your year 12 year. Resources to help you with this are generally relatively easy to find if you search something like "French phonemes", however if you struggle to find a resource dealing exclusively with these individual phonemes, you could always use 'forvo', which I will discuss more in detail below, to look up a range of about 50 common words to check how you would pronounce them compared to a native speaker.

Pronunciation of words

Unlike the other two topics, pronunciation of words is not something you can realistically sit down and work on in isolation.  Instead, you generally want to work on once you realise there's a problem, whether this be coming across a word that you're not sure how to pronounce, or being told that you're saying something incorrectly. 

In either case, my first go-to tool is forvo.  This is essentially collection of audio samples of native speakers saying individual words that can be searched quite easily.  I suggest listening and repeating a few times to see if you can catch on easily.  If you're struggling to produce the right sound, it's generally best to identify the individual sound within the word that you're having trouble with and search for more information on how to produce that exact sound and other words that you can practise it in.


Something that a lot of VCE students don't really work on, but at the same time can make a huge difference to how your language level is perceived by your examiner, is intonation.  Intonation can be improved both by studying it in isolation and integrated into other practise, and I suggest doing both for the best results.  As many language learning resources don't include activities for learning intonation, a lot of the isolated study is going to need to be simply reading about intonation.  It is not enough, however, to only research the intonation of your LOTE, you're also going to want to have a quick read about Australian English intonation, so that you can more easily learn to recognise the differences and switch when you speak. 

I then suggest focusing on intonation when doing any other speaking exercise, especially those which involve repeating after a speaker.

PS. One of my biggest problems with intonation is that I personally use a high-rising intonation at the end of statements A LOT.  Definitely check if you do this, a lot of Australian's do, and it sounds a tad strange to speakers of other languages.

General speaking/pronunciation exercises

Shadowing - one technique that I've picked up from other language learners that I've met  (that I believe may have started out as a simultaneous interpreting exercise) is shadowing.  In essence, shadowing is listening to a piece of audio and repeating what is being said with a delay of around a second.  The audio will be continuing while you are speaking, so you need to still be listening while you are speaking.   For this to be possible, you need to select audio easier than that which you normally listen to, or know the audio very well beforehand.  You want to be using this to move your pronunciation and intonation closer to that of the speaker whom you are imitating, and at the same time you are going to be generally improving your language skills.

Reading aloud with audiobooks (or similar)

Another similar way to work on your pronunciation and intonation is to read a book aloud while also listening to the audiobook.  You should be aiming to speak at the same time as the voice and making your speech as close to theirs as possibly.  Hopefully, you'll immediately be able to see where the differences are and you'll be able to adjust your speech to get closer and closer to theirs as time goes on.  You can achieve something similar using any other audio with a transcript, but it becomes a lot more complicated with audio with multiple speakers.

Grammar study
Up until now, most of my advice has focussed on using native material, however I'm also going to also suggest doing a bit of your own grammar study outside of class.  I've found that rereading through grammar rules and redoing (or doing new) related exercises at different point in your learning allows you to learn most efficiently, as I mentioned in the 'writing' section. 

Essentially, you want to start off with a preliminary read through.  At this point you may have come across the grammar point in your reading and listening, but you want to be getting a clearer idea of how it works.  Have a go at applying the rules but don't worry to much about memorising them all completely.  Have a look at exceptions to start to get a feel for when to expect them.  Then leave it for a while until you've come across it or needed to use it a few times and you've started to develop some context.

The next time you come back, you want to try to learn the structure properly, make sure you can confidently use it, and really start to look into the exceptions.  You may not be able to get on top of all the exceptions at this point, that's okay.  Just get as much as you can.  Then get back to your reading and writing and listening and speaking.

On the third go through you just want to be perfecting and making sure their aren't any exceptions that you missed.  For something like verb forms, where there may be a huge list of irregular verbs, you want to be memorising as many as you are likely to need.  Make sure at this point that you're got feedback through your writing and speaking, ensuring that you're using the structure correctly and appropriately.

Hopefully at least one of these three stages will be done in class. In fact ideally, you'll do the first stage on your own and the rest will be done in class, although you may need to do some perfecting and memorising on your own.

Where to find grammar explanations

For large languages, my go-to is about.com for explanations.  You can generally find others with just a quick online search, and your teacher or tutor may also know some great resources specific to your language.

I also like to have a grammar book with exercises that I slowly work through.  For European languages, the CEFR scale is usually used to mark the level of these books, and for VCE I recommend books labelled at the B1, B2 or B level.  If you're far ahead of your class, possibly try a C1 level book, if you're really struggling maybe try A2.   As specific publishers change between languages, I can mostly only suggest specific books for French and German.

For German I can recommend:
- B Grammatik (Anne Buscha)
- em Übungsgrammatik (Axel Hering)

For French I can recommend the "Grammaire progressive du français" series. For VCE you are looking at either the 'intermédiaire' or 'avancé' levels.

Putting it all together
So so far I've named a lot of strategies and given lots of ideas, but they're all pretty disconnected. 

I'm actually going to leave it like that.

There is no magical path that's going to take you from not knowing a language to knowing it.

What you need to do is honestly look at your own level for the moment and identify areas that you need to work on, possibly starting out with the aim of being able to read and listen to real content.  Then pick some techniques that you think will help you to get where you want to go and give them a try. Stick with them for a while.  Once you start to feel the returns diminishing or you are just getting a tad too bored, reassess and try something new.

Make sure you're checking with a teacher or tutor to see what they think your biggest problem areas are.  Just keep working at it.  Get a novel to read and read the whole thing.  If you can read a couple throughout the year you're in a good place to go into your exam. Same thing with TV series. 

Over and out
Remember that language learning isn't in itself a VCE subject.  You can never be perfect at a language, you can never know the whole syllabus and be done.  But VCE LOTE is a VCE subject.  The examiners have a level that you need to reach to be able to get perfect marks on the speaking and writing sections and guess what: this isn't native level.  It's perfectly achievable with hard work across a year or three.  For the listening and reading sections, you just need to be able to understand well enough to get the information you need, the rest is just test taking technique.

Overall, my best advice is to just find what works best for you.  I've talked about some techniques here to get you started, but I'm sure there are hundreds more out there that I've never heard of. 

Remember that the language you're learning is something that you can keep up into the future if you want to, and it can bring you great things.  If I'd never properly learnt French or German I would never have had many of the opportunities I've had.

For further reading I can suggest:


I tutor French and German in the Central Victorian region and over Skype with students from across the state.  I tutor both regular weekly students throughout the year, and specific exam preparation and practise oral exams in the lead-up to the exam period.
I will be running a year 12 preparation day focussing on oral skills in Melbourne in January.  I may also run this in Bendigo depending on demand.
Please message me here, or send me an e-mail at [email protected] for more information or to organise a first session.
2013: Biology
2014: Chemistry | French | Methods | Further | Lang | ATAR: 99.50
2016: Bachelorstudium Transkulturelle Kommunikation @ Universität Wien
2017: PhB (Science) @ ANU

Amy's guide to rocking a VCE language

I offer French and German tutoring in Central Victoria & over Skype, more information here:
VCE French & German Tutoring