Defining Language Proficiency Levels when Learning a Language

When it comes to learning a language, and defining language proficiency levels, the topic is quite complex as there are many factors. Below we will go through the following:

  • What is language proficiency?
  • What does it mean to be fluent in a language?
  • What is the difference between language fluency and proficiency?
  • How to define language proficiency levels
  • How to determine your language proficiency
  • Why you need to define your language proficiency level

The Question of Language Proficiency

“Do you speak Italian?” It seems like a simple, innocent question. However, anyone in the midst of learning another language knows that this simple question generally leads to a complex, long-winded answer.

There are stages of language acquisition that one must go through, and thankfully, clarity has just populated your computer screen.

By the end of this article, you will have all the tools you need to easily define, explain and understand your language proficiency level.

What is language proficiency?

In short, language proficiency is how well you spontaneously use language in a real-world context.

Language proficiency reveals a language learner’s ability to use their target language in a spontaneous, real world interaction.

Proficiency is defined within these four target areas: reading, writing, speaking and listening.

What does it mean to be fluent in a language?

It depends on who you ask.

Most of us define fluency as the highest level of language learning achievement. In fact, this university document lists fluent just below native speaker and describes a fluent speaker as one who has fluid speech and mastery in reading, writing and comprehension.  

According to the dictionary, fluency means being able to quickly read, write, and speak a language. 

Some on the other hand argue that fluency is being able to use the target language to learn more of the target language.

In reality, all of these definitions are accurate and true.

What is the difference between language fluency and proficiency?

In reality, the two terms are practically interchangeable. Both describe where you are at on your language-learning journey. You could ask “How fluent are you in Spanish?” or “How proficient are you in Spanish?” and be asking the exact same question.

If you are using the words fluency and proficiency as an adjective to define your level of language proficiency, fluency is generally described as the moment when you can navigate almost all conversations in your target language.

Proficiency means you are very skilled in the language but feel less comfortable producing speech and generally stick to less complex words and structures.

However, the easiest way to avoid the confusion between these two words is to follow the experts’ lead and skip them altogether.

How to define language proficiency levels

The most commonly used language proficiency scales for business and educational purposes are the ILR, Interagency Language Roundtable, and ACTFL, the American Council on Teaching of Foreign Languages.

ACTFL breaks down language proficiency into five levels: distinguished, superior, advanced, intermediate and novice. Each level is then broken down even further into high, medium and low.

The ILR also has five levels but uses numbers to define proficiency.

Since a prospective employer could understand the term “superior speaker”, even without familiarity with the ACTFL scale, but might look at you as if you had seven heads if you said you were a level 3, we will review the ACTFL scale on a very basic level. To read the detailed qualifications for each level in all four of the proficiency areas, check their proficiency guidelines.

ACTFL Language Proficiency Guidelines

Below you can find the language proficiency levels as defined by ACTFL

Distinguished

At this level, speakers can express language skillfully, accurately and effectively almost all the time. They may still have a non-native accent and a few occasional errors but can speak persuasively and hypothetically and adapt their speech to be culturally authentic with any audience.

Superior

Superior language speakers can express themselves with fluency and accuracy about a variety of topics in both formal and informal settings. They have no errors when using basic, frequent language structures but sometimes slip into patterns from their native language when the conversation becomes more complex. However, their errors do not distract from the understandability of their speech.

Advanced

Advanced speakers have an abundant vocabulary and are able to express their thoughts in an understandable way, even to those who are not used to hearing non-native speakers. They can describe past, present and future events.

Intermediate

The intermediate language speakers can express themselves about familiar topics or those related to their daily lives. They generally use only the present tense and are able to ask simple questions. Those accustomed to conversing with non-native speakers can understand intermediate language speakers.

Novice

Novice speakers rely on short, memorized words and phrases. They are not easily understood and can only communicate briefly about common, everyday topics.

How can you determine your language proficiency?

If you are interested in defining your level of language proficiency and find that reading the proficiency descriptions listed above is not enough to help you find your place, consider taking a language proficiency test.

If you are looking for a free, unofficial evaluation, here are a few options:

  • National Council of State Supervisors for Language’s Can Do Statements– This offers a checklist for the various levels. Each list has a series of tasks the language learner should be able to do at that level.
  • The ILR self-assessment is similar to the NCSSL’s Can Do Statements but based on the ILR scale.
  • Cactus Language offers a free evaluation based on the Common European and American Council Network Reference framework. However, the test shows the ACTFL reference points as well.

If you need an evaluation that you could send off to potential employers or schools, your best bet is the ACTFL evaluation. However, before purchasing a test, check with your school or employer first, if possible, to see what they require.

ACTFL administers over 700,000 tests per year in 60 different countries so the chances are good that there is a location near you. You can find complete details on their website.

Why do you need to define your language proficiency level?

Other than being able to answer that daunting question, “Do you speak (insert your target language here)?” it is important to be able to define your language proficiency level for several reasons:

  • To achieve your goals. Having a clear view of where you stand will help you know what to work on in order to achieve the goals and dreams you have for the language you are studying.
  • To properly represent yourself when applying for a job.
  • To find the best learning resources. If you are a self-taught language learner, nothing can be more frustrating than jumping into a course too far above your level. Knowing your level will help you make the most of your time by locating study materials you are prepared to digest.

The next time someone asks, “Do you speak French?” you can now confidently reply, “Yes, I am a low intermediate French speaker.” If they do not seem satisfied with that answer, just direct them to the ACTFL guidelines and get back to studying. Your brain is too busy learning another language to worry about eloquently defining your language proficiency level.

Understanding Language Proficiency Levels

Author: Vanessa Ruiz is a language lover with a BA in Spanish and English as a Second Language. When she isn’t working to support immigrant families raising bilingual children, you will find Vanessa blogging at Families Embracing Diversity or playing with her own bilingual child.