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Language Proficiency

Language proficiency is the ability to use a language spontaneously for real-world purposes.

There are many different ways to understand and to measure proficiency in a language. One widely recognized framework is the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) Proficiency Guidelines, which describe characteristics of proficiency in four different skill areas: speaking, writing, reading, and listening.

There are five major levels of proficiency on the ACTFL scale:

  • Novice:  The ability to ”…communicate short messages on highly predictable, everyday topics that affect you directly…”
  • Intermediate: “…create with the language when talking about familiar topics related to daily life…”
  • Advanced: “…engage in conversation in a clearly participatory manner in order to communicate information on autobiographical topics, as well as topics of community, national, or international interest...”
  • Superior: “…communicate with accuracy and fluency in order to participate fully and effectively in conversations on a variety of topics in formal and informal settings from both concrete and abstract perspectives.”
  • Distinguished: “…use language skillfully, and with accuracy, efficiency, and effectiveness... Distingiushed speakers are educated and articulate users of the language…”

If you are interested in a career in the government, the scale that’s used to assess proficiency is the one developed by the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR). The ILR scale is similar to the ACTFL scale.

How long will it take me to become as proficient as I would like?

The time that it will take to reach a given level of proficiency depends on a lot of factors, including:

  • the language that you are studying: if your first or native language is English, for example, it will most likely take longer for you to reach a given level of proficiency in Arabic than in French
  • the amount of time and effort that you devote to learning and using the language, in and out of class and on study abroad
  • your current level of proficiency: it takes longer to move from Intermediate to Advanced than it does to move Novice to Intermediate

How do I find out my proficiency level in the language I am studying?

For most of the languages taught at UW-Madison, your proficiency in speaking can be assessed through an Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI), a short interview in which a certified OPI tester elicits a sample of your speaking performance in the language. Options for proficiency-based assessments in other skill areas are limited and vary widely by language. Check with the advisor for your language to learn more. Official assessments can be purchased through Language Testing International (LTI), a partner of ACTFL. Online testing in certain languages is available through LTI's Profluent+.

You could also consider an internship, volunteer, research, or other outside experience as a way to use your language and demonstrate your abilities to a future employer, who may not know what it means to complete a language major or to be rated as an Advanced speaker. Using your language outside of the classroom can be an opportunity for you to show exactly what you can do with the language in terms that are easy to understand outside of the university.

Just interested in getting a sense of what your proficiency level might be? Try a self-assessment like the NCSSFL-ACTFL “Can-Do” checklist (which is pretty long and detailed) or this shorter Self-Assessment Practice.

Is language learning all about proficiency?

No! Developing functional abilities in the language you are studying is definitely important. But learning a language means you are also learning about other cultures and societies (and about your own in the process); developing intercultural communication skills; broadening your perspectives by better understanding worldviews, cultural histories and lived experiences that may be very different from your own; and developing abilities to critically analyze and appreciate ideas, artistic works, and other cultural productions in and through the language, cultures, and societies you are studying.

Interested in learning more?

Meet with the advisor for your language, or with the International Directions Advisor in the Language Institute.