Can you actually speak German?
Would you say you’re conversational, a beginner, advanced, or…?
If you don’t have a good answer, you might consider signing up for a real test of your German level.
Once you’ve made that decision, there are two major players in the field, with key differences between how you prepare for them and what you get out of them.
Let’s explore the two main German level tests and their unique features.
Why Should You Take a German Level Test?
If you’re learning German for yourself—to impress an exchange student or enjoy German literature, for example—go ahead and stop reading. Level tests for hobbyist learners are pretty much a fool’s errand, amping up your anxiety, emptying your wallet and forcing you to learn to a test instead of how people actually use the language.
Outside of that, though, a real test of your German level is going to come with a certificate that proves where you stand among learners of German around the world.
The obvious application of these German level tests is for jobs. Having a measurable and definable level of German on your resume or CV is a wonderful boost. Who’s going to sound like the better candidate, someone who says “I minored in German in college” or someone who says “I have a C1 level of German”?
Another reason to take the level tests is if you’re interested in a German education. Germany is famous for having high-quality university education at a very low cost, but one huge barrier for most people is that the courses are taught in German. Without a definitive level test of German to show them you know your stuff, the admissions team is going to reject you outright.
And this may not be on your radar, but a high level of German lets you apply for citizenship (once you’ve taken care of other things like residency and employment) as well as making you eligible to teach German in universities and private schools.
There are two main tests that you can take in German to satisfy these requirements, so let’s have a look at their main characteristics.
The 2 Biggest German Level Tests You Need to Know About in 2020
Tackling the TestDaF
The TestDaF (Test Deutsch als Fremdsprache) is oriented toward people who want to study at a German university.
For that reason, the questions and problems on the test lean heavily toward topics you might find in a lecture or have to write an essay on in class. For example, one of the speaking components is always to summarize a graph and give your own thoughts on why the trend displayed might be the way it is.
The TestDaF is offered six times a year around the world. Most countries have at least one test center, but you may be surprised at where they are. As of 2019, for instance, there were zero test centers in the western half of North America, so a candidate living in San Francisco would have to fly four hours to Chicago to take the exam.
The test is broken up into four parts as you’d expect, with reading and listening tasks quite similar to other standardized tests where you answer questions about a text or audio passage. The writing section is a little bit different: It requires you to summarize a chart or diagram and then explain how things are different in your country compared to in Germany.
The speaking section is perhaps the most nerve-wracking, as you have to record yourself speaking into a microphone, in the same room as the other candidates! The prompts range from giving advice to a friend to calling and asking about something at your university office, to giving a short report in class.
It’s definitely quite rigorous, but the advantage of the focus on academic German means that you don’t need to spend a lot of time on, for instance, literature.
One of the best ways to prepare is to read carefully through German university websites for the vocabulary relating to admissions, courses and modules.
You can also look for texts and videos oriented toward German high schoolers who need extra help with their studies. In general, the TestDaF is meant to show that you’re able to function at the level of a German first-year college student.
The grading scale is on a slightly esoteric three to five scale. If you score under three, then you don’t get a score and if you score a five, it means that you’re “more than qualified” to study in Germany.
Surprisingly, there aren’t many English-language materials for TestDaF preparation. The gold standard is the German-language textbook “Fit für den TestDaF,” which can be purchased from booksellers online.
Going Toe-to-toe with the Goethe Zertifikat
If the TestDaF is the academic German level test, then the Goethe Zertifikat is the all-around one. It’s by far the most famous test of the German language and is accepted by everybody who needs any kind of proof of German ability.
You have to sign up for a specific level test, ranging from A1 (beginner) to C2 (advanced fluency). If you fail the test, you don’t get automatically placed into a lower score bracket—you just fail the test.
One benefit of the Goethe exam is that your speaking test will be conducted live, with at least one native speaker and often one other learner. The presence of multiple actual people will definitely help to calm your nerves, as they’re all seasoned professionals with years of experience helping people get over test anxiety.
At lower levels, you’ll be asked to talk about yourself and your life but at higher levels, they’ll start challenging your opinions and drawing you into debates.
Test centers are much more numerous than those of the TestDaF, but not every level is offered at every center. Only the biggest cities and exam centers in each country are likely to offer the full range of exams, simply because the market for German exams isn’t quite big enough to support it.
Reading newspapers and watching factual videos is the number one best way to prepare for the Goethe Zertifikat. You’ll be asked to understand and produce relatively formal German, so it’s good to have wide general knowledge about the issues facing the world today.
Developing, understanding and expanding on an argument are probably the core skills that you’ll need, in addition, of course, to good technical grammar knowledge.
For that reason, supplement your factual newspaper reading with readings of opinion pieces and debates. German Bundestag speeches and debates are all published online in video form with clear picture and sound, and opinion pages are freely available on all German newspaper websites.
Ask yourself: How is their argument being developed? How would I do this in my native language and what do I have to pay attention to in order to master the differences in German?
You can also find authentic German videos on FluentU. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. You can find videos on all types of topics, including factual and debate pieces that will sharpen your German wit.
Plus, every video comes with interactive subtitles and instantly-available flashcards. In other words, FluentU offers a way to use authentic German material to study, no matter what level you are.
These two exams are, of course, not the only existing German level tests. There are free ones all over the web, like this one from Expath, where five to 30 minutes will give you a vague idea of where you stand in a few artificial categories.
But if you want an official skill level that you can back up with a certificate and put on your CV, the two German level tests in this post are the way to go.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn German with real-world videos.