An Autopsy of the Written FCICE, Part 2: The Language Learning Legwork

(Or Why Federally Certified Interpreters Always Tell You to Read, Read, Read)

Previously, we discussed and determined that Written FCICE Candidates will need roughly one year to prepare for the exam. If you haven’t read that post, start there and then come back to this discussion. Now, we’ll start diving into the substantive work candidates will need to do.

In order to understand my recommendations, it’s important to know what the FCICE Written Exam is testing. The FCICE wants to evaluate candidates’ bilingualism and language comprehension to ensure that only those with the highest proficiency and true bilingualism make it through to the oral exam. This differs from most state written exams, whose language components only evaluate high school graduate level English. We have to have true bilingualism under our belts in order to learn the material and skills being tested on the oral exam.

As interpreters, even as interpreters who have achieved state court certification, we need to come to terms with the fact that having the ability speak Spanish and English fluently is not the marker of true bilingualism. Language is not solely an oral tradition and spoken communication is not the only component. We must be proficient in our ability to write, read, and truly comprehend our second language. Think of all of the factors that inform and shape language.

This is why Federally Certified Interpreters are always telling you to read, read, READ. Of course, I don’t think it’s as simple as devouring a bunch of the most influential novels in both languages. But the point that they’re making is that we as interpreters need to have as much exposure as possible to what shapes language. Unless you’re someone going into this with a PhD in your second language, each candidate will have shortcomings they will need to work on, including in their mother tongue, to get to the level of bilingualism that the AOC demands of its interpreters.

As I go into a deeper discussion of how to tackle your shortcomings, it’s only fair to reveal my own, as my own language background affects the tips and strategies that I will be offering.

Quickly, here’s my background:

  • I was born in Lima, Peru into a highly educated family. My parents immigrated to the US when I was a toddler, and I grew up and received my entire education in the US. I am what we in the US call a “native speaker”.
  • My parents kept Spanish in the home and I was taught to read and write in Spanish before starting kindergarten and I was sent to Peru each summer to spend time with my extended family and be exposed to Spanish. However, once I was in school I did not resume formal Spanish education until high school, where I completed Spanish III and AP Spanish.
  • In college, one of my majors was Spanish. As a part of my major, I took advanced grammar, literature, phonetics and history classes and studied abroad in Spain. My college education was heavy on peninsular literature and cultural content.
  • I have a law degree from the United States and had internship opportunities abroad and with the US Latino community.
  • I completed a Graduate Certificate in Translation at Georgia State University in both Spanish > English and English > Spanish translation.

From my background and the scores I shared in my last post, my tips will be from the perspective of someone whose A language is English, but who has had the opportunity to strengthen her Spanish B language. If your situation is flipped, you will still be able to benefit from what I share. But you may want to talk to federally certified colleagues whose A language is Spanish for more insight.

Now, let’s break down what you’ll need to work in these coming months.

“I spoke Spanish at home, but never took classes beyond high school.”

This happens to the best of us here in the US. Speaking Spanish at home is a great resource, but like I said before, it’s not enough to give you the tools you need to be truly bilingual. Grammar, literature, history, and culture all have an impact on language and you’ll need to beef up on those in a short amount of time to have the proficiency demanded by the federal courts.


Grammar is an easy place to start and is a section on the test where you can score easy points, especially in Error Detection and Usage. Grammatical mistakes pepper our every day speak. We also don’t always speak in the most complex grammatical structures and can find ways to circumvent the more difficult grammatical concept. (Shout out to those who like to try and avoid the subjunctive. Impossible, right?)

The good news is that there are great resources for beefing up your Spanish grammar and eliminating errors that even the most highly educated folks in Latin America make.

The Budget-Friendly Option: New Reference of Modern Spanish + Practising Spanish Grammar.

From the way I spelled “practicing”, you can tell that these resources come from the UK. Believe me when I say that they are the best Spanish grammar resources I have found. The UK and Europe use the A1-C2 level system, with C1/C2 students being the most advanced who have the proficiency to gain admissions to Spanish speaking universities. The target students for these books are C1/C2 students, which is exactly the level of grammar being tested on the FCICE.

New Reference covers lessons hitting the topics we’ll be tested on: conditional sentences, using “haber” properly, “le”-ismos, etc. Take a look at the table of contents to get a sneak peek of what is covered. The companion workbook has great exercises and tells you which chapters of New Reference cover those exercises, so it’s easy to refer back between the two.

Bonus: If you’re having trouble learning your verb conjugations, especially those pesky irregular verbs, invest in 501 Spanish Verbs. Yes, I get that we have the internet now, but sometimes the internet isn’t the most reliable resource. This reference has been around forever and is still something I pull out whenever I’m unsure about a conjugation.

The Splurge Option: Audit an advanced college grammar class

If you have a great state school near you and the in-state tuition is reasonable, you may want to consider auditing an Advanced Spanish grammar class geared towards third year college students. You’ll learn in a structured environment and have a professor as a resource to answer all of your grammar questions and go over your assignments. It’s not necessary, but it may be a great option if grammar is truly one of your weak points.

We need to talk about English grammar…

Those of us educated in the US have to come to terms with the fact that the way English grammar is taught to us sucks. I can’t speak for everyone, but I attended one of the best public school systems in the country and my last English grammar class was in the 7th grade. I haven’t had a formal English grammar class since 2000. If you majored or got a post-graduate degree in English, you’re in good shape. For the rest of us…it’s important to revisit grammatical concepts so that we don’t miss easy points on the English section.

There are two resources I want to recommend.

First, if terms like independent/dependent clause, prepositional phrase, and conjunctions sound foreign to you, you could probably benefit from relearning these grammatical concepts. Not only will it help bolster your understanding of English grammar, but it will help you better relate to the Spanish grammar concepts you’re revisiting (or learning for the first time). The best resource for this is English Grammar for Students of Spanish. This book will give you the refresher you need on the language of grammatical concepts and a guide on how they translate and correspond to Spanish grammar.

Second, we all need to revisit those grammar concepts that will help polish our English. The Blue Book of Grammar does a fabulous job of going over concepts that trip up even the most educated English speakers, like lay vs. lie; who vs. whom; and subject-adjective/verb agreement in complex sentence constructions. This is also a great resources for our Spanish A language colleagues who want to make sure they perform well on the English section.

Okay, so we’ve covered grammar. But what about reading comprehension, vocabulary, idioms, and maxims?


Think back to where you learned idiomatic expressions, vocabulary, and sayings. That’s right, most of these came from our literature classes in school. Reading is simply inescapable. You have to do it for the exam or else you won’t be prepared for what they throw at you. Looking back, even with my exposure (yes, they did make me read medieval literature, the works that constructed the “Don Juan” trope, and even El Quijote in college) I wish I would have read more texts. I know that reading more would have bolstered my score on the Spanish portion.

Exposure to texts is the only thing that’s going to help boost your abilities on all of the exam. Reading will:

  • Increase your reading analysis and comprehension skills.
  • Expose you to a variety vocabulary and language usage that you won’t otherwise encounter every day.
  • Expose you to different grammatical structures not used in the spoken word, but profuse in the written language.
  • Teach you important historical and cultural concepts that influence language.

“But there are so many books!”

Yes, I know. The idea that reading El Quijote is one of the keys to success is daunting, but inescapable. For my North American colleagues, just think about Shakespeare. The man died in 1616 and he still continues to have one of the largest impacts on modern English language. The word “bedroom” exists because of him! Reading him in high school informs our knowledge of what “star-crossed lovers” and the “Ides of March” are. If you haven’t read Julius Caesar, then it’s difficult to explain what “Et tu Brute” means.

You don’t have to read every single Spanish literary work in order to better your bilingualism. Here’s how I recommend tackling Spanish reading comprehension:

  • Many of you are probably in a study group. Turn your study group into a Spanish book club.
  • Agree to read one book a month for 9 months. Those are 9 new literary works that you’ll have under your belt before the exam!
  • There are many lists out there of the most important Spanish works. Pick one or two classic literary works and the rest can be modern/contemporary authors.
  • For our Spanish A language colleagues, you can form the same book clubs focusing on literary works in English.
  • In your book clubs, discuss the works in Spanish and treat the group like a college literature class. Don’t just read for pleasure; read actively. Make notes in the margins, write down quotes that you like, look into the historical context in which the story is written, and pull unfamiliar vocabulary and add it to your glossary sets.

These are just a small sample of works that you could potentially use for your book clubs:

  • Cien años de soledad – Gabriela Garcia Marquez: A classic for a reason. Garcia Marquez is quite possibly the most influential author in contemporary Latin American literature. If you’ve already read this one, then read El amor en los tiempos de cólera.
  • Tradiciones peruanas – Ricardo Palma: As a Peruvian, this is a personal favorite. Tradiciones are short stories of historical fiction where Palma tries to construct stories to explain Peruvian history and the society of Lima after the revolution. There are many collections of these, but my personal favorites are “Generalidades de la Perricholi”; “Santiago el volador”; “Los ratones de Fray Martín”; “Las brujas de Ica”; and “El Demonio de los Andes”. These works are in the public domain and can be found here.
  • El Quijote – Miguel de Cervantes: I know how daunting this text can be, but because of the way Cervantes wrote, you do NOT have to read the entire work to benefit from his writing. You can select certain chapters to read and discuss. At the very least, read Volume 1, Chapter 1, which introduces you to the main character and Chapter 8, the famous windmill battle.
  • La casa de los espíritus – Isabel Allende: Allende’s first work is a literary staple. She’s a beautiful writer and is still publishing novels. If you’ve already read this one, pick another one of her works. (I personally recommend Eva Luna.)
  • La vida es sueño – Pedro Calderón de la Barca: This is the example of a Siglo de Oro play, and this allegory for the human condition is a really great story.
  • La fiesta del chivo – Mario Vargas Llosa: I love my Peruvian authors and Vargas Llosa is still an influential figure in Peruvian politics and literature. This is a great novel of his that explores the impact of dictatorships in Latin America. If you want a lighter work, I also recommend La tía Julia y el escribidor.
  • Como agua para chocolate – Laura Esquivel. I love the magical realism in this work from Mexico. You may have seen the movie, but don’t let that keep you from reading the book!
  • Other works you could read include: La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes y de sus fortunas y adversidades by Anonymous; Bodas de sangre by Federico García Lorca; and Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges.

“Alright, I’ve got my books and my book club. Is there anything else I should read?”

We can’t forget about our friends, the periodicals. Newspapers of comparable caliber to The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Economist, and The Wall Street Journal are great sources for language exposure. My tip: go beyond the headlines and read the Op-Ed (“opinion”) columns. You’ll be exposed to writing styles that differ from the stiffer formats of the headlines and main pieces. Here’s a list of periodicals to pull from:

  • El País – Spain
  • Clarín – Argentina
  • La Nación – Argentina
  • El Deber – Bolivia
  • Los Tiempos – Bolivia
  • Las Últimas Noticias – Chile
  • La Tercera – Chile
  • El Tiempo – Colombia
  • El País – Colombia
  • Nación – Costa Rica
  • Diario Extra – Costa Rica
  • Diario El Universo – Ecuador
  • Diario El Comercio – Ecuador
  • La Prensa Gráfica – El Salvador
  • El Diario de Hoy – El Salvador
  • Prensa Libre – Guatemala
  • Siglo XXI – Guatemala
  • La Prensa de Honduras – Honduras
  • Tiempo Digital – Honduras
  • Reforma – Mexico
  • El Norte – Mexico
  • La Prensa – Nicaragua
  • El Nuevo Diario – Nicaragua
  • La Prensa de Panamá – Panama
  • El Siglo Digital – Panama
  • Diario ABC – Paraguay
  • Última Hora – Paraguay
  • El Comercio – Peru
  • La República Digital – Peru
  • El Nuevo Día – Puerto Rico
  • Primera Hora – Puerto Rico
  • Listin Digital – Dominican Republic
  • Periódico Hoy – Dominican Republic
  • Diario El País – Uruguay
  • El Universal – Venezuela
  • El Nacional – Venezuela

Approach newspaper articles the same way you do your novels. Read actively, analyze what the writer is saying, and note any new vocabulary or expressions that come up.

What else can I do beyond reading and grammar lessons?

While this is a written exam, immersion is key. If you want to dedicate more time to Spanish exposure, audio books and podcasts are great ways to fill in those long commutes.

For those who want more Spanish exposure, here are two lists of podcasts you can check out. The first lists podcasts that are advanced and some that are specifically aimed at improving native language. The second is a list of 12 “native” language podcasts that cover a variety of topics. One of my personal favorites, Radio Ambulante, is listed in the former.

For my Spanish A people, I love Podcasts and have a giant list that I could recommend. However, I’ll pair it down to the following:

  • This American Life: Long-form journalism that tells different stories from all across the country. This American Life’s derivative podcasts (Serial and S-Town) are also great. Season 3 of Serial just aired this past spring and will be of particular interest to court interpreters.
  • NPR Podcasts: From Planet Money to the Politics Podcast, there are a variety of topics that NPR offers. Just search NPR in your Podcast app and pick a few episodes to find the one you like.
  • For something with a little more legal/police work focus, check out In the Dark, especially Season 2 where they cover the Curtis Flowers case that the Supreme Court just heard in March. There should be a ruling this summer.
  • Says You! – This is NPR’s vocabulary quiz show, which is hilarious and informative. New episodes should be starting back up in the fall, but listen to the old episodes in their archives.

Your bookclub can also double as a movie club. Movies have a tremendous impact on language and culture. While by no means a substitute for the reading you’ll need to do, this can be another great medium to shake up your language learning routine. Check out the works of Almodóvar, Cuarón, and del Toro and challenge yourself to keep the captions turned off!

Bottom line: I know it sounds so simple, but at the end of the day, the Written FCICE is a challenging, but doable language exam. There is no magical solution to passing it. 80% of what you need to do is improve your language skills to achieve true bilingualism. Focus on your grammar and reading, and you’ll be in great shape to prepare for the next phase: Getting into Exam Mode.

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