Just to recap, the oral test is divided into four parts. The first two are more or less transactional French, with voice mails and meetings to listen to and then respond to a few questions. They are designed to test your ability for Level A (Beginner) and B (Intermediate), but you really don’t get into the real C level questions until Part 3.
The first part of Part 3 is an opportunity to do a short exposition on a subject of your own choosing, amongst a predefined list. You are given three possible topics, always related to work, and you are supposed to choose one. If you don’t like any of the three, you can go for a fourth, but then there is no choice — you have to take the fourth one, an obvious risk.
Once you have chosen a topic, you have 90 seconds to make notes for yourself. And then it’s GO time — you talk about the subject for 2-3 minutes. Two minutes is too short, and they’ll cut you off at 3, so you want to land somewhere in between.
Now that you know how the process works, let’s talk about the topics. There are two general forms:
- Recounting a story of a specific event; or,
- Describing something that is either more general or happens more frequently.
What does that mean? Well, for the recounting option, you will likely have to describe:
- some event you experienced (training, crisis, first day, social activity, or the competition for your current job);
- some work you did that you liked or hated (project, acting for your boss, or a business trip);
- a challenge you faced (small or large, specific or general, controversial file, or an HR problem);
- interactions with a colleague (difficult colleague, a mentor, or someone you helped); or,
- something that has changed (work environment, or physical changes to the office).
For those who did their B test, the structure is basically “What was the project, what did you do, what was the result”. For the C, it is similar, but you also have to add “why”, and nuance to what extent it went well or what impact it had on you or your division in general. Basically adding some colour commentary to your story. While in almost all cases it is in the past, it can be a hypothetical or in the future (such as a project you would like to do and, again for the C, why you want to do it).
The second type is a bit more difficult for the Level B, but more suited to Level C commentary. These ones, describing something that is more general or a frequent event, include questions such as:
- types of social activities for your division;
- the qualities of a leader (compared, for example, with a manager);
- type of preferred tasks, and why;
- whether meetings are important to your ministry;
- what’s an appropriate relationship between supervisor and subordinates;
- the elements required to create teamwork;
- how you go about meeting deadlines; or,
- the (general) steps in doing a performance evaluation.
In all of these (except maybe the last one), you are still identifying several factors and providing the commentary about each, but they are less about “steps” and more about key variables.
My preparations for this section have identified four main ways to respond, and I’ll use the first type (specific events) to show the possible structure:
- Level B or C (bad): Introduction; Details — Yep, lots of people start this way. They just talk. But you’re supposed to respond DIRECTLY to the questions asked, and having no structure is a good way to just seem like you’re wandering around with no understanding of what the actual question was or how to respond.
- Level B (good): Introduction; Step 1 + small detail; Step 2 + small detail; Step 3 + small detail; Conclusion — This is the normal structure everyone learns, practices, etc, as it allows the person to use passé composé and imparfait in the same story, series of relatively short and medium-length sentences, and then wrap it up.
- Level C (option 1): Introduction; Aspect 1, colour commentary; Link to Aspect 2, colour commentary; Segue to Aspect 3, colour commentary; Conclusion — This is the one that all the learning schools seem to generally recommend, with opinions and general facts added to the various colour commentaries, using complex (but not complicated) phrases that are a bit longer, use subordinate clauses, etc, or “les mots liens” that aren’t “and”.
I mentioned there are four options, but I only gave 3, because that is what the schools generally teach (well, #2 and #3 I guess, they don’t teach #1, although in a way they do as early in your language training they get you to talk and talk to improve your comfort with the language, before trying to get you to focus in later parts of your training).
For me, I struggle with #3 above. Why? Because I talk too much. (Not just in French, as my wife would chime in!). So when I go to do the colour commentary, there is a REALLY good chance that I will “tourne autour du pot” which is a french idiom that means “beat around the bush”, or more pointedly, to say things in general terms rather than being specific. I lose my train of thought, I get lost in the sentence, and it REALLY sucks as an answer. Sure, I give the description and the colour commentary, but then I sound like I’m just repeating myself, which I am. When I did my last exam, it was under the old format, and I managed to hold myself to three sentences for every “higher-level” question exactly to avoid that problem.
That’s not a strategy that will work for this new format, so I came up with a slightly different structure that works for me:
- Introduction — repeat the question back to them to basically show you understood and to make sure you’re responding directly too;
- Discussion, introduced by there are several factors (* unspecified number, you’ll see why in a second)
- Aspect 1 + (small colour commentary);
- Mot lien
- Aspect 2 + (small colour commentary);
- Mot lien
- Aspect 3 + (small colour commentary);
- Mot lien
- Aspect 4 + (small colour commentary);
- Mot lien
- Aspect 5 + (small colour commentary);
- Aspect 1 + (small colour commentary);
- Conclusion — repeating the key part of the original question and adding summary of my position of the situation
What’s the difference? More items to say in the same period of time, which means that I *can’t* go into detail on any of them or I risk getting lost in my own head. I stay on track, plus in the 90 seconds, I can think of four or five things to say, but I don’t have time to think about what to say. Because my problem isn’t exactly HOW to say stuff, it’s WHAT to say. I just don’t have time to add sub-points as I’m deciding on what to say, and then when I go to add my colour commentary, I fill my time trying to figure out what to add (content). If I skip that trap that may only affect me, and stick to the higher level description with enough detail to sustain a colour commentary, I’ll stay on track to the end of the summary. And I say something about several factors, because if I am running long, I can drop the last one or two; if I have said “there are five”, then it will look ridiculous if I stop at 3 for time management.
Of course, the colour commentary has to have some of the key “opinion” phrases:
- à mon avis, …
- selon moi, …
- je trouve que…
- il me semble que…
I try to avoid “je pense que” as it slips in even when I don’t want it to, so I already use that. I would love to use “d’apres moi”, “quant à moi”, or “je crois que” but those never come to me. They just don’t seem as “natural” to me. Similarly for “pour ma part”. I would try to use “en ce qui me concerne”, but I bet I would forget the “me” and just use “en ce qui concerne” which is a totally different sense.
For the links between sections, and even for the more complex of the little colour commentary, I can segue with the most common “mots liens” that I am capable of using at least some of the time:
- parce que / c’est pour quoi / c’est pour cette raison que (because)
- à cause de / grace à (thanks to)
- puisque (since – time)
- etant donné que (given)
- alors que / lors de (while)
- quand (when)
- En meme temps que (at the same time)
- depuis que (since – time)
- tant que (as long as)
- apres que / avant que (subjunctive)
- d’abord / au debut (at the start)
- ensuite, puis (then)
- finalement / en fin (finally)
- en générale (in general)
- en effet (in effect, indeed)
- alors / donc / en consequence, par consequent, apres tout
- For / goal
- afin de … (in order to)
- afin que / pour que (subjunctive)
- mais (but)
- cependant / pourtant (though, yet, however)
- par contre (by contrast)
- tandis que (whereas)
- au lieu de
- plutot que
- autrement (otherwise)
- sinon (middle of phrase)
- Except for
- sauf pour
- à moins que
- malgré / malgré que / bien que
- de plus / d’ailleurs
- Nevertheless / anyway
- neanmoins / quand meme
- mois que (less than)
- loin de (far from)
- plus que (more than)
- tel que (such that)
- Simple link
- aussi / comme / et / ainsi que
- meme si
While Part 4 seems at first to be quite different in the opening, it basically requires a summary of what happens in a long conversation, and while I accept there are quite significant differences, you can pull some of the same elements. First and foremost, you don’t want to fall into the trap of listing everything that is said; it’s a summary, not a transcript. Second, there are still some good “mots liens” to use to show how it develops.