Being a slave to Netflix does not help when you have an exam the next day.
Having stayed up late the night before my Test de Connaissance du Français in Bordeaux, an hour by train from my home near Bergerac, I was somewhat dazed as I travelled through the Saint-Emilion vineyards the next morning and wondered why I was submitting myself to yet another exam.
It was due to my decision to apply for French nationality.
Regaining right to vote
One reason for this is that the right to vote is important to me. Since August, I have been in France more than 15 years and so, due to Brexit, have lost the right to vote in any elections at all.
In theory, I will get back my right to vote in UK parliamentary elections at some point, but secondary legislation to allow me to re-register seems to be on the back-burner.
Due to recent changes – I’m not sure if influenced by Brexit or not – over-60s, previously exempt, must now prove their competence in French along with everyone else.
The TCF is the first major hurdle to overcome when organising the copious documentation you must gather for a nationality application.
It cost me €150 and you can apply online to one of many approved exam centres in major towns and cities.
My nearest was the New Deal Institute in Bordeaux and I applied and paid online.
They offer two dates per month and so I only had to wait three weeks before taking the test.
Being casual about most things, it only dawned on me the day before that it might be a good idea to find out what it actually involved.
Practice tests online first
I found an online practice test at here, sat down with my headphones and went through 80 questions: 40 verbal and 40 responding to pictures.
There were descriptions or depictions of scenarios, then questions about them through multiple choice options.
It took 90 minutes.
The TCF is scored at six levels, with B1 the level required for nationality. To my relief, I scored B2 on the practice website.
Once arrived at The New Deal, I had the chance to see my fellow examinees. There were 11 of us and, apart from a European lady of around my age, all were in their 20s and from former French colonies in the Maghreb or other parts of Africa.
When they talked, it was clear French was their mother tongue.
The supervisor herded us into the exam room and explained the format, which I realised was different from the practice I had done.
The latest one, called the TCF IRN (Intégration, Résidence, Nationalité) was introduced in January and is divided into four parts: 20 oral comprehension multiple-choice questions, 20 on written comprehension, three short written exercises, and three oral tests with an examiner.
Formal atmosphere in test room
The atmosphere in the room was formal and one was under no illusion the exam was to be taken in strict conditions.
After some severe warnings about conduct and that no question papers could be taken out of the room, it started with a series of beeps over loudspeakers and the ‘oral comprehension’ began.
Descriptions of scenarios in family life and business interactions played out, delivered at pace and in different accents.
If you missed a word setting the context at the beginning because you misheard or someone coughed, as happened at least once, there was no going back and you just had to guess as plausibly as possible.
After this came written questions, which were easier because you could re-read them until you got the sense.
They focused on everyday situations, such as dealing with local bureaucracy or in the shops. Anyone who can get by in day-to-day situations would have little difficulty in passing. I wasn’t expecting the written answers we were next asked to do.
Unreadable handwriting would score zero
The invigilator warned us that if our handwriting couldn’t be read, we would be scored zero.
As I can barely read my own after years of switching between short and longhand, this left me decidedly queasy.
We had three questions: the first involved 40-60 words to describe our home town to a stranger and what was worth visiting, the next two, 60-90.
One was to say why we preferred working for a large or small organisation or company, and the third I can no longer remember.
I finished with time in hand, which I spent worrying about accents and making corrections, making my paper even more unreadable...
This over, I waited while the examiner interviewed every other candidate before calling me in.
She was a friendly lady in her fifties who I took care to greet in formal French.
She asked me to describe myself and family, to say where I liked to go on holiday and what I do, then to look at pictures of boats, canoes and paddleboards and role-play asking questions with a view to hiring them.
Felt like test of personality
I felt that it was as much a test of personality and experience as of language because someone with the gift of the gab and broad experience will find it easier to chat away.
But I burst with pride when she told me afterwards: “Vous parlez très bien, Monsieur.”
You must gain at least an overall average score of B1 to pass the language element for nationality.
I was worried about the written section, but need not have been as I was later relieved to learn that I reached the required level in all areas.