What Are The Different Levels Of Language Proficiency?

Often if people hear me talking about which languages I have played with, they want to know how well I know them. It got me thinking… what ARE the different levels of language proficiency used around the world?

One of the most awkward things I can be asked is how fluent I am in a language. It is a complex question to answer. So I did a little research. Language proficiency is most commonly measured using one of two different systems, depending on where you live. In Europe, Australia and Canada, it is common to use the Common European Reference Framework for Languages (CERF) which grades from ‘A1-Beginner’ to ‘C2-Mastery’. In the U.S.A. and the Americas, the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR), including representation by the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) developed the ILR Scale. This is also frequently referred to as the FSI scale, and grades from ‘No Proficiency’ to ‘Native or Bilingual Proficiency’. There is also the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) scale, used in U.S. schools. Lets look into what that all means, and how you can work out your proficiency in a language.

When and Why is it Useful to Measure Language Proficiency?

There are several reasons why it can be useful to measure your language proficiency.

First of all, knowing another language is a skill that educational institutions may value, or even require for certain courses. If you know that you have a ‘B2’ or ‘Professional Working Proficiency’ in a language, and can put that on a university application, you immediately increase your changes of getting into your course of choice.

The same goes for employers. There are some occupations that require knowledge of another language – for example Interpreter or Translator. And then there are the Marketing and Sales staff, and even Supply Chain positions. Obviously for these positions, being able to demonstrate your language proficiency is necessary.

But many employers value staff who know more than one language. It is often seen as a sign of a broad-minded and tolerant person who is more likely to accept different people as they are. Being able to measure your language proficiency may just land you an interview for that job you’ve dreamed of.

It is also valuable just personally to be able to measure and identify what level of proficiency you have in a particular language. It helps to show you just how much you have learned. This can be particularly useful in the ‘Intermediate Motivation Slump’ many of us experience, when it’s difficult to see the results of the hours of practise you are putting in.

And if you mix with other language learners, you will find it a useful tool when chatting about levels of fluency, and time spent learning your languages. Also, some conversation groups will specify a level of language proficiency they require if you wish to join.

There are even associations of people who speak multiple languages (often called ‘polyglots’) at a fairly high level (eg. HYPIA – an association of ‘HyperPolyglots’, like a sort of ‘Mensa’ for language learners) , and you will need to be able to establish your language proficiency to join.

What are the Different Levels of Language Proficiency Under the CERF?

Under the CERF there are 6 levels of language proficiency:

  • A1 – Beginner
  • A2 – Elementary
  • B1 – Intermediate
  • B2 – Upper Intermediate
  • C1 – Advanced
  • C2 – Mastery

There are different scales of measurement, but among language learners in Europe and Australia you will frequently hear them refer to being a “B1” level or an “A2” level, from the CERF guidelines.

One of the great things about the CERF guidelines is that it very clearly sets out what should be expected at each level of language learning, as you can see in the table below.

Level groupLevelDescription
A
Basic user
A1
Breakthrough or beginner
Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type.

Can introduce themselves and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where they live, people they know and things they have.

Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.
A2
Waystage or elementary
Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment).

Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters.

Can describe in simple terms aspects of their background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.
B
Independent user
B1
Threshold or intermediate
Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.

Can deal with most situations likely to arise while travelling in an area where the language is spoken.

Can produce simple connected text on topics that are familiar or of personal interest.

Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes and ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.
B2
Vantage or upper intermediate
Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in their field of specialization.

Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.

Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.
C
Proficient user
C1
Effective operational proficiency or advanced
Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer clauses, and recognize implicit meaning.

Can express ideas fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions.

Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes.

Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organizational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.
C2
Mastery or proficiency
Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read.

Can summarize information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation.

Can express themselves spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.
 European language levels – Self Assessment Grid

These descriptors can apply to any language. However, the CEFR was specifically designed to assess the languages spoken in Europe. There are translations of the CEFR in many languages.

What are the Different Levels of Language Proficiency Under the FSI/ILR Scale?

ILR LEVEL 0+ – MEMORIZED PROFICIENCY

Memorized proficiency, which means you can speak out scripts that you have learned, is rated 0+ on the scale. Someone with an ILR Level 0+ can:

  • use rehearsed utterances to meet basic needs
  • can understand memorized phrases in areas of basic needs
  • not yet read full sentences and paragraphs, but may be able to read numbers, isolated words and phrases, personal and place names, street signs, office and shop designations

ILR LEVEL 1 – ELEMENTARY PROFICIENCY

Elementary proficiency is rated 1 on the scale. A person with ILR1 can:

  • say basic greetings according to custome, and engage in very simple face-to-face conversations on familiar topics
  • understand simple speech about basic survival needs and basic courtesy and travel requirements on topics of immediate need or very familiar subject areas, and can understand simple questions and answers, simple statements and very simple face-to-face conversations in a standard dialect
  • understand enough to read very simple written material in standard fonts/print writing

ILR LEVEL 2 – LIMITED WORKING PROFICIENCY

Limited working proficiency is rated 2 on the scale. A person at this level can:

  • complete routine social interactions and limited work requirements
  • understand conversations of routine social conversation and limited job requirements
  • read simple, authentic written material in standard fonts/print writing on familar subjects

ILR LEVEL 3 – PROFESSIONAL WORKING PROFICIENCY

Professional working proficiency is rated 3 on the scale. Someone with this level of language skill can:

  • speak the language with enough grammatical understanding and vocabulary to participate effectively in most conversations on practical, social, and professional topics
  • understand the essentials of all speech in a standard dialect including technical discussions within a specific field
  • read at a normal speed and with almost complete comprehension a variety of native material on unfamiliar subjects

ILR LEVEL 4 – FULL PROFESSIONAL WORKING PROFICIENCY

Full professional proficiency is rated 4 on the scale. A person at this level is able to:

  • use the language fluently and accurately on all levels and as normally used within a professional setting
  • understand all forms and styles of speech within a professional settings
  • read fluently and accurately all styles and forms of the language relevant to professional needs

ILR LEVEL 5 – NATIVE OR BILINGUAL PROFICIENCY

Native or bilingual proficiency is rated 5 on the scale. A person at this level can:

  • speak as proficiently as that of an educated native speaker
  • understand fully all forms and styles of speech that a well-educated native listener would understand, including a number of regional and illiterate dialects, highly colloquial speech and conversations that are distorted by background noise
  • read fluently and accurately all styles and forms of the language relevant to professional needs

What are the Proficiency Levels under the ACTFL scale?

The ACTFL scale was developed as part of a U.S. government approach to supporting students from non-English speaking backgrounds. It is divided into levels of Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, Superior and Distinguished. Novice, Intermediate and Advanced are further divided into ‘low’, ‘mid’ and ‘high’ levels.

The ACTFL scale is rarely used outside of the U.S.A. Full details of the proficiency levels are available as a pdf file from their website.

Comparison of CEFR and FSI/ILR

Of course one of the difficulties when there are different scales is, how do I get an idea of what one level means in another scale? This table below gives some idea. You will notice that the ILR Level 5 has no equivalent within the CEFR scale. That is because the CEFR scale is designed with the purpose of informing educators, and a native level proficiency (ILR Level 5) is rarely achieved (or required) by second language learners.

CEFRILRACTFL
A10/1Novice Low, Mid, High
A21+Intermediate Low, Mid
B12/2+Intermediate High
B23/3+Advanced Low, Mid High
C14Superior
C24+Distinguished
Comparison of CEFR, ILR and ACTFL, Wikipedia

Other Proficiency Scales

Many countries and languages have their own scales of proficiency. The Chinese proficiency scale is called the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK). Korean has the Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK). Spanish has the Diplomas de Español como Lengua Extranjera (DELE), and French the Diplôme d’études en langue française (DELF) for Levels A1-B2 and Diplôme approfondi de langue française (DALF) for C levels.

For information about other language scales, Wikipedia goes into considerable detail.

Where can I get my Language Proficiency Tested?

Many language institutes and associations have regular profiency testing times. Some are annual, some several times per year. Some of the more well known associations are the Alliance française (French) and Goethe-Institute (German).

Other countries and languages have numerous places where you can sit proficiency tests. For an exhaustive list of language proficiency testing opportunities, see the Wikipedia List of Language Proficiency Tests.

How can I Prepare for a Language Proficency Test?

If you have been attending classes, you will possibly be able to sit proficiency exams through your educational institution. If that is the case, speak with your teacher. You will probably find that your classes are being taught with the intention of readying you for proficiency tests. In this case you should have a well rounded education, and your language proficiency should be balanced across the skills. The way to improve your proficiency is to follow the class curriculum, do the homework exercises, and do extra homework addressing the same skills.

If you are an auto-didactic learner (self-taught), sometimes it can be difficult to know if you have well balanced skill sets. It helps to measure your skills against a practice test. Many language schools (such as FluentCityand proficiency testing organisations produce practice tests, which will help identify any ‘holes’ in your learning. Then it is simply a case of working on exercises in those areas until the practice tests are easy for you.

If you want to test your proficiency in French, English, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese or Japanese, iTalki now has speaking and reading, grammar and vocab tests using an AI technology. They produce results that align with CEFR, ACTFL and TOEFL (English Accreditation used by many universities).

In either case, iTalki tutors can tutor you specifically to pass proficiency tests. It is always worth searching to see what you can find. It is often possible to find face-to-face tutors in larger cities who can help too. Particularly because proficiency testing is quite important, especially for those wanting to study overseas, or to become a citizen of a new country.

Conclusion

Knowing where your skills lie among the different levels of language proficiency can be a handy reference. it is important for use in official documents such as university applications, or when applying for work. It helps in conversation with fellow language learners. It is also useful simply as a means of testing your progress in a language.

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