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:

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:

  1. What your specific proficiency goals are 
  2. Your language background.
  3. Your current level of proficiency
  4. The amount of time and effort you devote to learning and using the language

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). The OPI is a short interview in which a certified OPI tester elicits a sample of your speaking performance in the language.

Official assessments can be purchased through Language Testing International (LTI), a partner of ACTFL. If you’re not looking for a formal assessment of your proficiency level, try a self-reflection activity like the NCSSFL-ACTFL “Can-Do” statements.

How can I communicate my language proficiency level to employers without a formal assessment?

If you aren’t able to participate in a formal assessment of your language proficiency, can engage in a process of self-assessment to learn how to describe your language skills on your resume, in cover letters, and in conversations with employers. Check out our guide to putting language proficiency on your resume to start the process.