top of page

Being Tested/Sotto Test

Can an exam gauge whether or not someone speaks a language "well"?

My original objective when I decided to move to Florence for 10 months was simple: I wanted to quantify how "well" I spoke Italian.

For years, the ability to speak a foreign language was always just a special skill. Living in Italy and speaking Italian was my "fun fact" at a cocktail party or networking event. Not many people have the chance to live abroad, so it was a talking point upon which I could rely to feel "interesting" to others who hadn't had that experience. (There is a solidarity among those who have gone through it, on the other hand. Sort of like, if you know, you know.) That period in Milan from 1996-1999 was (and is) full of precious memories and one I consider a formative period in my teenage years.

I remember hearing people say that I spoke the language "well" as a kid. It's something that stuck with me as a point of pride, simply because I loved it--and isn't the ultimate goal to do the thing we are good at AND the thing we happen to love?! Apparently, I loved it so much that my mom told me that I often asked to be the one to order everyone's dinner at a restaurant, a detail I had forgotten 20+ years after we had moved back to the States.

But, saying that someone speaks a foreign language "well" was a bit too generic of a descriptor. It never sat well with me. After all, it's entirely subjective. Someone can say that they speak a language "well" because their pronunciation is good. Someone can say they speak "well," and their level could be either beginner, intermediate, or advanced. Someone might say they speak a foreign language "well" because they know a lot of vocabulary words, phrases, or verb conjugations.

Or, you could be like me and reject the compliment altogether. I appreciated what people said but never really felt it for myself. Why hello, impostor syndrome!

For whatever reason, I was never 100% sure that I could say grazie (thank you) on the receiving end. It wasn't until I visited Milan in 2019 that I mustered the courage to revisit my language adventure. It had been 20 years since I had been back and my first solo trip. I figured doing a nostalgia tour and getting back into the language would be fun. I was still proficient because of a piece of advice someone gave me before we moved back to the U.S.

"Whatever you do, remember that speaking another language is a gift. Don't ever lose it."

(I truly wish I could remember who said that to me, because looking back, it was a critical insight that changed the course of my life.) When we returned to the States in 1999, I did continue--in college, on my own, in Nashville with a group called Italian for Fun, and by listening to countless podcast episodes in the car, while cleaning, while cooking, etc.

It was on the trip to Milan that I figured out where my desire to speak "well" comes from. It comes from so many parts of my personality--a desire to prove myself, a desire to be better, a desire to be different, a desire to connect, and a desire to devote myself to something that matters.

In summary, those are really the reasons why I decided to return to Italy. It was so much more than loving the Italian, which didn't hurt. I was seeking something bigger.

When I worked at a private school for kids who have learning differences like dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADHD and autism, that job pushed me toward the idea of what that could mean. As the school's director of marketing & communications, I knew I was at a crossroads career-wise. I wasn't thrilled with what I was doing but had a deep respect for the teachers, students, families, and the mission of the school. I started to dive into the teachers' bios on the school website--Ms. Smith has a certification in this, Mr. Adams has a certification in that.

Maybe my career ennui would be solved with a certification, I thought. But, certified in what, exactly? I didn't want to do something like SEO, Google Analytics, or social media strategy. I wanted something with soul.

Maybe there was a certification for languages, I thought. Lo and behold, it turns out there are many. In Italian, CILS, CELI, AIL, and PLIDA were just some of them.

Fast-forward a bit and I set my sights on CILS, the Italian Certificate as a Foreign Language. It's one that I heard carries some prestige and is the most internationally-recognized certificate. I found a school in Florence that would prepare me and administer the test.

In June of 2023, I took the B2 exam. I had entered the school at the upper B1 level because of my pre-existing foundation, so B2 felt like a good level (after all, people who apply for citizenship only need to have B1 proficiency).

The exam itself did not feel "good." Just shy of my 40th birthday when I took it, it sunk in that it had been approximately 18 years since I last took an exam--any exam. My study methods were rusty and the exam was a whopper. The day I took it, it required five hours to complete because there are five parts to evaluate your skills: listening, writing, speaking, literature analysis, and structure of communication. It requires you to remember every grammar rule, every verb conjugation (even passato remoto, or the remote past, which isn't even spoken in the majority of the country), and every language capacity you have.

And then you wait three months for the results. In August, I found out that I passed.

Since the University of Siena (the entity that manages and evaluates the exam) only administers the exam twice per year (in June and December) and my visa went through the end of 2023, I decided to go after C1 next. I had been through every grammar course the school offered, which of course stops at C2, so why not try and go after C1?

In December, the C1 exam was harder. I spent seven hours taking that test, carefully dissecting pages of information and choosing my answers carefully. After the exam, I texted my parents to say that it was over, and I think I went on a mental vacation for a couple of days where I didn't speak at all. It was official: I had utilized every word of Italian I had ever learned. From writing sample emails, to fill-in-the-blank texts when there was no word bank, to the spoken portion, where I had to pretend I was asking my boss for office supplies as a new hire, I had wrung every drop of Italian grammar goodness from that proverbial washcloth. It was so intense that I was pretty generic when people asked how I did.

"Per quanto ne so, è andato molto bene. Ce l'ho messa tutta!" (As far as I know, it went really well. I gave it my all!)

Earlier this month, I found out that I passed...again. I was happy with the result, but soon discovered that the fear of not speaking "well" enough crept back in when I analyzed the scores. Were some too low? Should I take it again to get a higher grade?

Next to each category, the test taker has to achieve 11 out of 20 to pass. And next to each section, it said the same thing: sufficente (sufficient). There were no other evaluators--the exams didn't tell me that I was good enough, that I spoke well, that I needed to take it again if I didn't get 20/20 in each section. It was pass or fail -- sufficient or insufficient.

I was sufficient...and that was enough.

Sharing the victory with my teachers at school was a high. They were all thrilled--one teacher even said that maybe five students have passed the C1 exam over the past five years.

It was then that I realized that I accomplished my goal--not only obtaining the language certification but pursuing something with soul. By passing those exams, I did prove myself, I fulfilled my desire to be better, I set myself apart as a bit "different," I recalled how many times I've used the language to connect, and I devoted myself to something bigger.

At the end of the day, I've found that exams aren't my end-all, be-all when it comes to quantifying or describing how I speak. Getting a certification doesn't mean I don't make any mistakes (I make a ton); it doesn't mean that I speak perfectly (I don't); and it doesn't mean I don't have a long way to go (I sure do). That C1 was an illustration of my unwavering desire to try, to stumble, to be open to correction over the past year--that's what I consider speaking "well."

Certainly, the exams were an evaluation of my grasp of the language during the hours I took them, but I also am fully immersed in my day-to-day life here in Florence. The fun part is that there won't ever be a finish line at the end of this journey. It's a pursuit that will continue throughout my life. And in that sense, I'll be tested every day.


bottom of page