The following is a chapter from an upcoming memoir on moving to and living in Germany. Read more here.
Do not enter. Do not take a seat. Follow instructions or go directly to jail!
Okay, the jail bit is hyperbole, but it’s not as far off as you’d think. There were plenty of warnings throughout my recent language exam insisting that we’d be fully prosecuted if we broke the rules.
There are few things that German society loves more than rules. You know those videos of military members of coming home and surprising their spouse or kids? Think of the expression of whoever is being surprised––the unbridled joy, the euphoria. That’s how much German society loves rules.
I tried to memorize the rules of the language exam for posterity, but our phones were confiscated at the beginning of the exam and we had to return all instructions given to us prior to leaving the testing facility. In other words, you must follow the rules but you must not share the rules.
The whole endeavor took about four hours on a sunny Saturday afternoon in June. You’re probably wondering why I decided to throw away a perfectly good afternoon on taking a strictly monitored language exam. My reason was exclusively to qualify for the Niederlassungserlaubnis––permanent residency. I’m currently on the Blue Card with three more years before having to renew, so I’m in no rush. But permanent residency means you never have to renew your visa again (unless, of course, you break certain rules, like leaving the country for more than a year).
In other words, it gives us more flexibility. The language requirement for the Niederlassungserlaubnis is the B1 level. B1 basically means you can talk about yourself, others, and understand basic conversation. I’ve been in Germany nearly five years at this point, which is when one qualifies for permanent residency, so I felt good about it even though I generally loathe test taking. Show me a basic True or False question that says “Grass is usually green” and my brain will run in circles, wondering how this is a trick question, and then ultimately deciding that there is no right answer to anything.
I leave my Prenzlauer Berg apartment with plenty of time to spare for the cross-city jaunt to the testing facility in Schöneberg. I even make sure to stop by a shop to pick up three wooden pencils with erasers and a sharpener after reading a Facebook warning that you’ll automatically fail if you don’t come prepared with a pencil. Besides, I’ve long since learned that it’s best to come comically over-prepared in Germany.
Me at a restaurant: Hi, I reserved a table for two. It’s under “Joe” and here’s my birth certificate with an apostille.
It’s raining by the time I come out of the U-Bahn at Wittenbergplatz. Fortunately, it’s not a long walk to the testing center where I could keep dry inside.
As I walk into the inner courtyard where the entrance is, I notice a group of people huddled underneath something like a bus shelter outside of the building. I head into the building and am promptly turned around.
“You have to wait outside until 11:50 and we’ll call you in,” an official in an untucked red polo tells me. I turn on my heels and join the island of misfit toys underneath the shelter. Now I’m regretting showing up so early. But I did enjoy getting to hear the light cacophony of different languages from my fellow immigrants waiting to take the exam with me.
When they’re ready, they call us up and ask us to form two lines. I happen to end up in front and am the first one in where I have to show my proof of vaccination before being sent to another table where a young man tells me what room I’ll be in for the exam and how to get there. I follow his instructions and head up to the fourth floor. There’s an empty desk outside of my room. I walk around it to head in but am stopped by the proctor.
“You need to wait outside to register,” she says, slightly muffled behind her mask.
Another woman with a pom-pom of curly dark hair comes shortly thereafter, asking for my identification and vaccination card. She notices that my first name on my ID is listed as “Joseph Eugene.” But I registered myself as simply “Joseph.”
“Your registration needs to match your identification card exactly,” she says. To which I shrug and explain that it’s just my middle name, something German IDs don’t typically allow space for. She simply reiterates that it needs to match, but then changes my registration to “Joseph Eugene Baur” so it matches my ID. This is pretty standard German bureaucratic behavior. If you accidentally break a tiny rule, they’ll let you know that you broke a rule before fixing it instead of just fixing an honest mistake without shaming you for it.
She then advises me that I need to leave my ID out on top of my desk for the duration of the exam.
“An official will come through to verify identifies during the exam,” she explains.
Last but not least, she asks me to remove my mask and take a step back so she can confirm I’m the same person as pictured on the ID. I had just shaved my relatively bushy beard down to a rookie lumberjack. She acknowledges that I look slightly different but believes it’s me and I’m permitted to enter the classroom where the second instructor greets me and informs me that I can have a bottle of water, but need to leave everything else in the back of the room in my backpack (with the exception of my pencils and sharpener, of course).
I follow her instructions and settle into my seat. There were only six desks with three on opposite sides of the classroom. Cheating, if one were so inclined, would’ve been impossible without being wildly obvious.
Other students start to come in. One is instructed to put their pen away and instead use a pencil.
“I don’t have a pencil,” he says in German, his eyes clearly asking if he can just borrow one. The instructor doesn’t look like she’s at all ready to help an unprepared student. Lucky for him I went overboard and have three pencils with me and give him one.
The exam is broken up into three blocks:
- Leseverstehen (reading comprehension) + Sprachbausteine (sentence structure)
- Hörverstehen (listening comprehension) + Schriftlicher Ausdruck (writing)
- Mündlicher Ausdruck (speaking)
The format is exactly as presented in the freely available Prüfungsvorbereitung or test prep PDF. We’re given 90 minutes to complete the first block. I takes me about 45 minutes to complete, which means I have to stare at the wall for another 45 minutes until we’re allowed to move on to the next block. I’m not allowed to flip ahead to see what’s coming, even if just to distract me while I wait.
“It’s actually better if you don’t look,” one of the proctors gently whispers to another test taker.
The Hörverstehen requires listening to a CD, so we all move at the same pace. It lasts 30 minutes. Then, the Schiftlicher Ausdruck consists of responding to an E-Mail you’ve received. That lasts another 30 minutes.
The proctors then collect our tests and hand us a “ticket” to take the Mündlicher Ausdruck after a short break. We’re permitted to go as far as the inner courtyard for a snack. Others smoke. But we have to regroup in a large hall on the second floor and wait for the proctors to escort us back up to the fourth floor with a partner. Kindly, they asked earlier if anyone needed to get home as soon as possible because of kids or anything. I raised my hand along with another gentleman. I didn’t have a kid (this would be an oddly casual way to make that kind of announcement), but I did have a doggo sitting in his crate longer than I expected.
That meant I was the first to get paired up and sent to another room on the fourth floor (but not the same one as earlier) to study 3 topics of conversation for 20 minutes before returning to the original fourth floor room for my Mündlicher Prüfung.
“You cannot speak to each other,” the proctor warned my partner and me before leaving us for our 20-minute prep. It left me imagining a world in which this was the norm of meeting new people. You enter a room with a stranger, are sat down at separate tables, and are given three conversational prompts to study before being escorted to another room to get to know each other in front of two proctors.
Finally our 20 minutes were up and we were taken back to where the whole session started. Two desks were moved across from each other at 45-degree angles. Someone clearly figured out that this setup made for optimal comfort in switching attention from your partner to the proctor with ease. My desk, furthest from the entrance, was practically wedged against another stray desk, forcing me to awkwardly straddle the corner while trying to squeeze through. I didn’t dare move the desk for fear this would be in violation of some unspoken rule.
The Mündliche Prüfung was… fine. It was fine. It was as fine as any forced conversation with a stranger for the purposes of prolonging your visa can be. My partner was from Ghana with a wife and kid at home. That’s the gist of what I got from the first portion. Then we had to take opposite stances on hosting guests at home and argue our side. He was pro, I was against. Then, the proctor asked my actual opinion and I confessed that I actually do like hosting and cooking for people. My Ghanaian partner in language proficiency agreed.
Then we were left with the final, strangest portion of possibly the entire exam. We were given a task and had to come up with a solution together. I forget what the specific task was. Something like, “You want to subscribe to a service but you’re not sure which is best one. What will you do?”
The problem was that the prompt came with a list of examples that were the most obvious and logical solutions. So we were left grasping for convoluted solutions nobody would ever consider. But the proctors weren’t dummies. They knew just as much as we did that this isn’t how people communicate. So the final task was quickly dropped and they just asked us some basic questions, like “What do you do for a living?” and “Do you like your job?” After a brisk 20 minutes, we were sent on our way, instructed to leave the building immediately without any detours.
Before leaving, I tried to throw in a quick question to one of the proctors solely to demonstrate that I understood the complexities of German grammar.
“Wann finden wir heraus, ob wir bestanden haben?” or “When do we find out whether we’ve passed?”
Seems simple enough. But my fellow German language learners will notice that I used a trennbar Verb (separable verb) followed by a Nebensatz that demands “haben” moves to the end of the sentence. In English, this would be “whether we passed have.” Yiddish, a far more logical Germanic language, would follow the same construction as English because that’s how brains work. But not the Deutsch.
The proctor informed me that we’d find out in about three to four weeks. I smiled, thanked them, wished them a nice day, and headed out of the building––without any detours, as instructed.
If you’ve stumbled across this page because you, too, are looking to score your B1 Deutsch Zertifikat, then head on over to this page where you can download a practice test.