How I passed the DELE A2 exam by using Duolingo and watching Narcos


I would like to preface this blog post with two statements.

Firstly, I receive a referral fee for purchases made through Amazon as a result of following my links to their products.  That said, the items that I suggest as study resources here are ones that I used personally and would recommend regardless of whether I receive a referral fee, and indeed, some of the items mentioned in here (such as Duolingo) do not have any referral arrangement with me whatsoever.

Secondly, this blog post is merely about my personal experience in studying for the DELE A2 exam.  While I may have a negative opinion of some study resources mentioned here, like the Rosetta Stone software and the Destinos series, that does not mean that other people may not benefit from it or that it does not fulfill a useful purpose.  Likewise, my method of studying may be different from yours, so what I write could be completely useless.  I encourage you to develop your own strategy for studying based on what works for you and, if some of the resources I mention here help you, that's great!  If you find other resources are better for you, that's great, too, and I encourage you to post about which resources worked for you in the comments section of this page.

The DELE A2 is Required for Citizenship Applicants

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's talk about the DELE A2 exam!

I applied for Spanish citizenship based on the simplified procedure made available for descendants of the Sephardic Jews as permitted by Ley 12/2015, de 24 de junio, en materia de concesión de la nacionalidad española a los sefardíes originarios de España (Law 12/2015, of June 24th, concerning the acquisition of Spanish nationality by Sephardis with Spanish origins).

According to Part IV, Article I, section 5, of the official state bulletin concerning the law, applicants for citizenship must show proof of passing two tests, one of which is the DELE A2.  "DELE" stands for "Diploma de Español como Lengua Extranjera."  "A2" is simply the level of diploma that is expected to be achieved, and it is the second easiest level of Spanish proficiency to attain (the test levels are A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, and C2, with C2 being the most proficient level that one can have).

Regardless of whether a person applies via the Sephardic route or otherwise, the general rule for Spanish citizenship applicants is that they must have obtained the DELE A2 diploma or higher as one of the prerequisites to lodging an application for citizenship (for non-Sephardic citizenship applications, authority for this can be found in Ley 19/2015, de 13 de julio, de medidas de reforma administrativa en el ámbito de la Administración de Justicia y del Registro Civil).  Because of this, I hope that native English speakers of all backgrounds who read this article will find it useful if they are pursuing Spanish nationality.

Possible to pass with less than two months of study and no Spanish background

At the time that I decided to apply for Spanish citizenship, it was already the summer of 2018.  An extension by the Spanish government had been granted extending the original deadline to apply by one year from October 2018 to October 2019.  I would have to meet all of my requirements, including obtaining a DELE A2 diploma, before that date.  I intended to go to Spain in the summer of 2019 to lodge my application with a notario and so I would have to write my exams early enough to get the results in before leaving for Spain.

Most of the Sephardic Spanish citizenship applicants who speak English as a first language are from the United States.  As I understand it, Spanish is the most widely spoken second language in the United States, even if it is not an official language, and it is the second language course most widely taught in the public school system.  Unfortunately for me, I live in Canada, where French is one of two official languages and is thus the most widely taught second language.  I learnt French from the fourth through ninth grade of the public schooling system but was never exposed to Spanish, so it was necessary to learn from scratch.

I should add one caveat at this point to the "learning from scratch" comment.  The other exam that Spain required for applying for citizenship was the CCSE exam (in Spanish, it is La prueba de conocimientos constitucionales y socioculturales de España).  I scheduled my CCSE exam for September 2018, before I would actually learn Spanish, on the basis that it was multiple choice, the possible questions and answers were given out ahead of time, and so I could memorize the answers and write it even if I didn't completely understand all of the words.  I passed the CCSE exam and then it was time to study for the DELE A2.  So, when I started studying for the DELE A2 exam, I had looked up some words and their meanings for the CCSE exam.

However, aside from what I studied for the relatively simple CCSE exam, I had no knowledge whatsoever of Spanish.  I had never spoken Spanish, traveled to a Spanish-speaking country, or taken any Spanish courses.  By the time I decided to start learning Spanish to take the DELE exam, it was December 2018.  I decided to make a vacation out of the DELE test and scheduled it for February 2019 in Costa Rica.

Using a mix of Duolingo, workbooks, and a Spanish-language TV series

I started studying with Rosetta Stone.  Within a few days, I was very disappointed.  A large part of the Rosetta Stone system seems to be based on repeatedly showing people pictures and having students identify the correct word as a method of rote learning.  I found that it was woefully inadequate for the purpose of quickly learning grammar, sentence structure, etc.

I ended up signing up for Duolingo instead on December 20, 2018, instead.  My DELE A2 exam was scheduled for February 8, 2019.  I would have less than two months for Duolingo to help me study for the exam.

Duolingo was really useful to me for a few reasons.  One of those reasons was that it starts off assuming that you have absolutely no knowledge of Spanish whatsoever.  Another was that it mixed between audio comprehension, reading, writing, and speaking (if you have a microphone).  I could use it on both my computer and on my phone as a downloaded app.

Another interesting feature of Duolingo is its "XP" tracking.  Each exercise gives you a certain number of "XP."  You can set which level of XP you want to complete each day (50XP is supposedly the "insane" level).  By tracking how much XP you earn, you have a good idea as to whether you're on track.  There's no requirement to be limited to the 50XP "insane" level.  Once you meet that level, you can keep completing more lessons the same day and your XP will still continue to climb.  I found that spending an hour to an hour and a half per day was a good level to study at for the less than two months I had to prepare for the DELE A2, regardless of how many XP that resulted in.

If you run a Google search for "DELE A2" + "Duolingo" you will find that many people have used almost nothing but Duolingo to pass the DELE A2 test, and in some cases, the DELE B1 test.  Most agree that its utility tapes off at the B2 level and above, but that exceeds the level required for acquiring Spanish citizenship so it's not much of a worry.

One of the drawbacks of Duolingo is that it was limited to basically a male voice and a female voice, both of which sounded very computerized or robotic, and which spoke unnaturally rather than one would expect in a normal conversation by native speakers of Spanish.  In order to improve my listening skills, I started to watch Destinos, which is a free Spanish immersion video series produced by Annenberg Media.  I only got through the first few episodes before I became exhausted from watching it, as it was entirely in Spanish and despite being an "immersion" exercise, it was still intended for foreigners, so it wasn't exactly Oscar-winning material.  Destinos is still used by a number of universities and is great if you want to learn Spanish at an academic level and have two or more semesters to dedicate to doing so (you buy the accompanying workbook here), but it was not very useful in learning at a fast rate.

What I did find more useful was the News in Slow Spanish podcast.  These are free podcasts and, as the name suggests, consist of news being read slowly in Spanish.  It has various levels including "beginner" and was useful because I could listen to it every day and it is more formal so it has less slang to worry about (the DELE A2 does not have much, if any, slang, so trying to learn slang terms can be a waste of valuable study time).

Additionally, I decided to watch Narcos on Netflix.  I hadn't seen it before, and someone told me it was pretty much half-and-half between English and Spanish with subtitles.  If you haven't heard of it, it's a dramatization of the conflict between the warring cocaine cartels of Colombia, the Colombian government, and the United States government, and it's won a number of awards.  It's also free if you have Netflix, or if you don't, you can buy it here.  When I had done enough Duolingo for the day, my "reward" was to watch an episode of Narcos.

Two things were important when it came to watching Narcos. One was the fact that a number of the actors and actresses have a Bogotá accent.  I find this to be the easiest Spanish accent to understand, as do many other people I have talked to.  If the series is too violent for you or you're not interested in the subject matter, I would suggest still seeking material where there are Colombian accents, as they are very clear compared to a number of other materials I have tried to understand.

The second thing I liked about it was that because its dialogue was mixed between Spanish and English, I didn't find myself getting tired from trying to understand what people on the show were saying as quickly as if I had watched Destinos or something else completely in Spanish.

I would add that you should be at least a few levels into Duolingo or some other type of Spanish lessons before watching Spanish-language television, as it improves the likelihood that you'll understand at least some of what the actors are saying.  It doesn't help to listen if you're not yet at a level where you can understand some of the dialogue and the context around it.

In addition to the above, I bought two workbooks, Las claves del nuevo DELE A1 and A2, which I have mentioned at the end of this post.  I didn't use them for the workbook aspect, but rather the mock tests inside, which give a glimpse of what you will face on the actual exam, and are good exercises since you can only use the model exam offered by the official Cervantes Institute website once before you know the questions and answers and it loses its utility as a simulation.

Taking the test in Costa Rica

You'll note that I have yet to mention actually speaking to anyone in Spanish or taking any lessons with a tutor.  That's because I didn't until I got to Costa Rica, at which point I took one-on-one tutoring sessions from 08:00 - 12:00 for the two days immediately prior to writing the DELE A2 exam.  There, my tutors simulated all four parts of the DELE A2 exam so I would be used to it.  They were very helpful and I would recommend taking the exam at a school where lessons are also offered by people familiar with the exam structure so that you can do a couple mock exams first.

So, how did I score?  In order to pass the DELE A2 exam, there are four categories, grouped in sets of two, in which one must get a score of at least 60%.  The categories are reading, writing, listening, and speaking, with 25 points awarded in each section.  Reading and writing are one group, and listening and speaking are the other group.  My scores were:

Reading: 19.17/25
Writing: 20.84/25
Reading + writing: 40.01/50
Listening: 10.83/25
Speaking: 21.88/25
Listening + speaking: 32.71/50

As you can see, I failed the listening section of the exam by 4.17 points.  However, overall, I obtained a 40.01/50 in the first combined section and 32.71/50 in the second combined section, so I passed and was awarded the DELE A2.  The listening was by far the hardest part of the exam for me, as there were many different accents, many of which spoke quickly, so I am glad that my studies prepared me to speak one-on-one with my examiner in a manner that brought the overall score up to a pass level.

I think it would be very hard to improve the listening score without having a significantly greater amount of time to prepare for the exam than two months.  What I will say is that I credit the 80%+ average score on reading and writing entirely to Duolingo, and my ability to understand Spanish spoken by humans rather than computers, both in listening and in the live conversation section, on watching Narcos.

A summary

Summary for people applying for Spanish citizenship:

1) This post simply describes my personal experience in studying for the DELE exam.  It may describe too little or too much studying for you to pass the DELE A2, depending on your circumstances.  I suspect that most Americans have been exposed to more Spanish than most Canadians, so if you are an anglophone from the United States who is studying for the DELE A2, you could probably pass it with less studying than I needed.

2) Take the CCSE exam before you take the DELE exam.  The CCSE exam is multiple choice, provides you with all of the potential questions and answers up front, and studying for it will help to build your Spanish vocabulary, which is important for the DELE exam.

3) Consider using a software program like Duolingo to drill Spanish into your head on a daily basis.  The beauty of the software is that it tests your listening, reading, writing, speaking, and grammar skills all in one lesson, and repeats the process before it goes to the next level.

4) If you do decide to use software, don't use Rosetta Stone.  It's not as effective at quickly learning the language as Duolingo.

5) Watch lots of Spanish-language television.  Many people suggest that the Bogotá dialect/accent is the easiest to understand for foreigners, and I found this to be the case, but if you have found a different accent that you find more comprehensible, go with that.

6) Try doing a simulated DELE test with a tutor shortly before the real exam so that you are comfortable with the format.

I hope this was helpful.  The two books that I bought, as well as the TV show I used, are linked to below, but if you have a Netflix account you can just watch Narcos there for free.

Study Resources

Las claves del nuevo DELE A1

Las claves del nuevo DELE A2

Narcos: Season One


  1. hey, thanks for the info! i was just wondering, do you still remember what level/unit on Duolingo were you at when you took the test?


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