Post by guest blogger Jamie McGhee: Jamie McGhee is a novelist, playwright and aspiring polyglot currently making her way through East Africa with a backpack.
“How many languages do you speak?”
It’s easy to freeze when someone asks you this question. Maybe you’ve been learning German or Japanese for ages, but you’re not quite sure how good you are. Or maybe you grew up speaking Polish as a second language, but you’ve never been professionally taught or tested. Does it count?
You might run into the same problem when trying to describe your language skills to a prospective employer, or a prospective university, or even a prospective life partner. It’s hard to judge how objectively “good” you are.
So to that end, what does it mean to actually speak a language? What is fluency, and how do you know if you’ve achieved it?
What is language proficiency?
Fluency is hard to categorize. But fluency does not mean speaking perfectly without any errors or knowing everything there is to know about a language. After all, everyone makes grammar and spelling mistakes--even in their native tongue.
Language “proficiency,” on the other hand is a broader term that describes how comfortably and easily you can listen, speak, read and write in a particular language. Your proficiency can be high in one area but lower in another. For example, if you read a lot of German literature but never actually speak it, you might be advanced in reading but hover at a lower speaking proficiency. Generally, however, proficiency describes an average of all four skills across the board.
What are the levels of proficiency?
The Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) is not a perfect standard for measuring language mastery, but it is a solid beginning because it is near-universally recognized.
This scale is a simplified way to rank your own proficiency in a language. And because it is generally accepted as a standard, you can refer to this scale on a job application, on a university application or often in casual conversation, and be understood.
Moreover, many learning materials adhere to this framework, so if you’re searching for the right textbook, workbook or lecture series, it’s a helpful scale to know.
There are six levels, divided into three stages.
If you are an absolute beginner, you are A1. You may be able to introduce yourself, use everyday expressions and string together basic phrases. Your vocabulary is fairly limited, but you are able to discuss personal details and everyday activities.
Your vocabulary is slightly broader at this point, and you can talk about your family, the area where you live and where you are employed. You may be able to interact with native speakers in simple, routine tasks, and if you need something immediately, you can often ask for it.
You can understand basic vocabulary and interactions related to familiar activities, such as situations you encounter every day at work or in school. If you travel to an area of native speakers, you will be able to handle most interactions, even if that’s with a bit of difficulty. You’ll also be able to discuss some abstract topics, such as hopes, dreams and plans.
Here you have reached the level of complex ideas and texts. You may even begin to specialize, focusing on the technicalities of topics that particularly interest you. Your speech has started to become fluid and spontaneous, and talking to native speakers doesn’t require great strain from either of you. In writing, you will be able to write clear essays on a topic.
C1: Effective Operational Proficiency
Here you really begin to pick up the subtleties of a language. You can understand intense, longer texts, reading into nuances and wordplay. You can use the language in many different situations, from academic settings to social outings, and you spend more time talking spontaneously than you do searching for specific expressions. You can write professional texts and deliver clear presentations on various subjects.
Here, you are nearly as fluent as a native speaker, and can easily understand nearly everything you encounter. Even in complex situations, you can express yourself fluidly and spontaneously, and you have a command of many of the same nuances that native speakers do.
How can you measure your own proficiency?
If you’re curious about your proficiency level, don’t worry--it’s easy to measure informally.
You can simply read the rubric above and get a feel of which category applies more directly to you. You can read more about each level here.
You can also look at online resources or purchase books across a variety of levels and use the Goldilocks approach. Which ones are too hard? Which ones are too easy? Which fit just right? That’s your level.
How can you prove your proficiency?
Some official channels, such as universities or employers, may require an actual certificate in order to verify your language skills and make sure that you are suited for the task at hand. Even if you’re not good at tests, don’t worry! Plenty of online resources can help you prepare for the specific test at your level.
Here are the most common exams for some popular languages:
Although “modern European languages” each have their own proficiency tests, a wide range of them can be tested with TELC, a standardized test that can be taken for English, German, Turkish, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Polish and Arabic. Because the format is the same across various languages, if you’ve taken it in one, you already know what to expect. The TELC, which tests reading, listening, writing and speaking, is often valid for universities and job placements.
This is the most widely accepted Mandarin test in mainland China. Like the TELC, it consists of reading, writing, listening and speaking. You can also take a specialized exam for business.
This language assessment covers common languages, like Arabic and German, as well as less common languages, such as Hebrew. In fact, its sister exam, the Avant WorldSpeak, is specifically designed to accommodate rarer languages, such as Hmong-Mong and Amharic.
Whether you prefer to measure your skills with a rigorous exam or estimate your abilities based on your interactions with native speakers, there’s no single “right” way to test proficiency. The important thing is that you keep broadening your knowledge.
How do you judge proficiency for yourself? Leave your answer in the comments below!