So you’ve been learning German for a little while. Maybe even a long while.
But when people ask you how good your German is, you hesitate.
Are you really “fluent” if you haven’t yet finished your first novel?
Do you still need to call yourself a “beginner” if it’s been a few years since your last class?
And what do you put on your resume? “Intermediate” could mean practically anything!
You want something tangible.
And for German, the very best thing for that is the Goethe-Zertifikat offered by the Goethe-Institut.
They don’t just hand those out, though. The Goethe-Zertifikat is a German language exam with six levels from beginner to advanced. Passing the Goethe-Zertifikat at your level (and maybe even advancing to the next one and passing that one too!) can have real, concrete rewards for your life and your career.
Here’s everything you need to know to start planning for the Goethe-Zertifikat.
What’s on the Goethe-Zertifikat and How to Know If You’re Ready
What’s on the Test?
The Goethe-Institut offers eight exams in total. Two of them, the TestDAF and the Goethe-Test PRO aren’t as commonly taken and they’re a little bit more niche in their application.
The other six—the Goethe-Zertifikat tests—are broken down into six levels of language ability.
I’ll go into the levels in a little bit more detail later on. The test format itself is just about the same for all levels (though the advanced tests take longer), so let’s take a look at how the test is organized.
Luckily, the Goethe-Institut offers lots of helpful practice materials right on their website. To bulk up your vocabulary and fine-tune your communication skills, make sure to mix FluentU into your study regimen.
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The videos are organized by genre and level, so it’s easy to find the best ones for you. As you watch, you can click any word in the interactive subtitles for a definition, grammatical information and a native pronunciation. FluentU will also show you other videos that have the word so you can hear how it’s used in any context.
There are also flashcards and fun quizzes to make sure you remember what you’ve learned when you’re done watching. You’ll get to absorb real-world German while ensuring that you’re actively learning from it. Plus, you can squeeze in some language study anytime, anywhere with the iOS and Android apps. Start learning from authentic German videos today with your free trial!
The Goethe-Zertifikat will have texts for you to read along with comprehension questions that may come in different formats.
For example, you might read an article from a newspaper. Then you’ll read a short summary and have to fill in missing words in the summary. Or you might be given a few more sentences and asked which of them fits best in certain places.
This fill-in-missing-words type of question is relatively common in advanced levels. It tests not only your comprehension of the article but also your ability to predict what other words might be.
For the lower-level tests, you’ll generally be asked to write short messages related to everyday topics, such as text messages, forum posts or emails. The fill-in-the-blank exercises will make a comeback here too.
The writing section for advanced tests will definitely involve a short essay of around 200 words, usually describing a graph or diagram.
You’ll have the ability to choose between a few prompts to select the one you feel most comfortable with. And here you may be in for a shock—it has to be written freehand!
The listening section at lower levels is again geared more toward everyday communication. You’ll hear short phone messages or announcements about plans, scheduling and transit and answer some questions about their contents.
At the higher levels, you’ll hear people lecturing or debating and then have to answer questions about their viewpoints.
You may also hear descriptions of sequences of events and then be required to pick out and write down certain details. Some of the recordings will be repeated, others won’t. The length of this section and the audio clips will vary depending on what level you’re at.
The speaking section comes last, which makes for a real test of endurance. Fortunately, the speaking part is only about 10 to 15 minutes long at the longest.
You’ll be given a prompt and a short time to prepare a quick speech on your topic.
You’ll deliver the speech and then the examiners will ask you a couple of follow-up questions spontaneously. Or you may be given a list of common everyday questions and time to prepare, then the examiner will choose one at random and initiate a conversation.
In a more advanced exam, you may be asked to suggest an activity or an opinion to your speaking partner (your examiner) and be prepared to defend it against their objections.
You won’t be graded on whether you actually convince them or not. They’re just looking for how well you can use persuasive language skills.
What Does Each Goethe-Zertifikat Level Cover?
The Goethe-Zertifikat levels correspond to the proficiency levels outlined in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, so you’ve got A1 and A2 (beginner), B1 and B2 (intermediate) and C1 and C2 (advanced). These increase in difficulty quite rapidly as you go on.
Are You Ready for It?
The A levels are designed for people with between 100 and 300 hours of German study time, though of course that figure is different for everyone.
An A1 speaker is pretty limited by most people’s definition. They stick to a lot of pre-rehearsed language and memorized phrases. They might be able to read and write simple personal information on a form and understand someone speaking very slowly and clearly, but they really just know enough to get by.
A2 speakers are beginning to communicate more independently. They’ll likely be able to recognize most of the spoken and written language related to their daily activities.
When speaking, they can go slightly beyond memorized phrases to describe themselves, the people they know and what they do or don’t like to do.
Where It Gets You:
Since these levels are pretty limited in scope, there aren’t a lot of doors opened by an A1 or A2 certificate. However, one important exception to this is that an A1 certificate qualifies you to work as an au pair in Germany and also to get an immigration visa if you’re married to a German.
Are You Ready for It?
People are usually able to get to the B1 level with 300 to 600 hours of study. At B2, the difficulty starts ramping up and the Goethe-Institut recommends closer to 800 hours before taking the B2 test.
B1 speakers are excellent tourists. They can comfortably handle pretty much any travel situation as it arises spontaneously.
They can read and write straightforward texts about familiar topics. It may still be too hard to comprehend native German movies or TV, but when speaking with others they can usually get by in conversation with some pauses and fumbling.
B2 is where it starts getting good. A strong B2 speaker would be regarded as “fluent” by most people. They have few comprehension problems in general, though on unfamiliar topics they might need the other person to slow down or repeat a few things.
They can speak accurately and at length on topics they’re knowledgeable about and have little trouble preparing and delivering presentations or brief written reports.
Where It Gets You:
Since B-level speakers can usually do all right living in Germany, the minimum language requirement for German universities and jobs is often B1 or B2.
Some B1 candidates are eligible for admission to university with the stipulation that they take a short preparatory course first.
Are You Ready for It?
The C levels are designated “Advanced” by the Goethe-Institut for good reason.
While levels A1 to B2 are focused on grasping the structure of the language and understanding its standard usage, the C levels are about understanding the finer nuances of the language, and speaking with style.
The difference between C1 and C2 speakers is mainly in how comfortable they are with nuances of meaning and dealing with what they don’t know.
C1 speakers speak fluently, but they may have to use circumlocution more often, like saying “the type of vegetable that grows underground” instead of “root vegetable.”
C2 speakers have extremely large vocabularies numbering in the tens of thousands, covering well-known cultural references, and if they don’t know the precise word for what they mean they can usually get pretty close with a related synonym.
Note that this doesn’t mean that they have to always speak at the same level as a native. That type of overall mastery is rare and actually requires decades of work.
Where It Gets You:
A C1 certificate is enough for application to the strictest university programs taught entirely in German, as well as for those intending to work in the medical field.
A C2 certificate enables you to teach in the German school system, teach German abroad and begin a journey as a professional interpreter or translator.
Where and How to Take the Test
How do you go from reading about the test to actually taking it?
The tests are offered in Goethe-Institut exam centers worldwide. You can find a full list of test centers on the official Goethe-Institut website. Each test center sets its own dates and prices in local currency, and if you’re sitting the test in Europe you’d better reserve well in advance.
If those times and places aren’t right for you, have a look at the other organizations that offer German exams, such as telc or ÖSD.
Some of the partner organizations only offer some of the levels. You may be able to find one that has only the C1 on some days and only the B2 on others.
Preparing for a German exam is different than just knowing German well.
But now that you know what the Goethe-Zertifikat is like and what to aim for, you can target your studying to meet your goals.
Whether you want to quickly prove that you know the basics for immigration, or you want to show that you have a deep knowledge of German language and culture, there’s no better one-stop-shop than an official certificate.
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