At what point do you “know” a language?
It’s a loaded question, but maybe a necessary one. After two years of high school Spanish, for example, you probably wouldn’t advertise on your resume that you speak Spanish, since you likely can’t handle any basic communication tasks.
But what about my Cuban tour guide in France? She spoke confidently to a bus full of people in broken English. As a native Spanish speaker, she made a lot of grammatical and pronunciation mistakes in English. A lot of mistakes. Is she then not “allowed” to claim English as a language, even though she’s able to communicate her main ideas and literally work in the language?
We simply have a hard time figuring out when someone can claim a foreign language as one they speak. Linguists and language educators have known about this problem for years, which is why they have come up with the idea of language proficiency.
The term “proficiency” implies that we’re dealing with skills, because language ability is just that–a skill. In many ways, it’s like dancing, playing the guitar, riding a bike, or driving a car.
When it comes to skills, there’s a spectrum of abilities. My five-year-old son can ride a bicycle, but he’s a little wobbly, he goes slow, he has difficulty turning, and he doesn’t brake very well. And he needs a push to get going. But the other night he pedaled his bike three times around the pond in our neighborhood and didn’t fall once. He’s not going to win the Tour de France, but he’s proven that he can ride a bike. I’d have a hard time telling him that he can’t, just because he’s not great at it yet.
It’s like that with language ability too. Different language organizations around the world have developed scales to help identify a person’s foreign language ability. The scales might vary in the details, but they all basically want to identify whether a person is a beginner in the language, an expert, or somewhere in between.
In the US, an influential proficiency measure is the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale, developed by the US State Department. It identifies five levels of language proficiency:
- Level 1 – Elementary – Can fulfill the basic needs in a language, such as ordering meals, asking time, and asking for directions.
- Level 2 – Limited Working Proficiency – Can fulfill routine social demands, such as small talk about one’s self, one’s family, and current events.
- Level 3 – Professional Working Proficiency – Can discuss a variety of topics with ease and almost completely understand what others are saying.
- Level 4 – Full Professional Proficiency – Can participate in all manners of conversations with ease and only rarely makes grammatical mistakes.
- Level 5 – Native or Bilingual Proficiency – Can use the language the way an educated native speaker of the language would.
Additionally, a person in between levels might be at a 1+, 2+, 3+, or 4+ level.
European countries use something called the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. It’s the same idea, but the levels are broken down as:
- A1 – Breakthrough or Beginner
- A2 – Waystage or Elementary
- B1 – Threshold or Intermediate
- B2 – Vantage or Upper Intermediate
- C1 – Effective Operational Proficiency or Advanced
- C2 – Mastery or Proficiency
A few things to notice.
First, proficiency levels are about what you can do in the language, not what you can’t. This is a minor, but important, distinction.
Second, C2 is the equivalent of Level 4. Those are considered “mastery” of a foreign language, and frankly, it is very rare to see someone achieve that level. But even at both those levels, you’re still expected to make a few grammatical or pronunciation mistakes. So think of how many mistakes you’re expected to make at the lower levels of proficiency. As I’ve said before, no one is expecting you to be perfect.
Third, the ILR breaks down levels further into different skills: reading, listening, speaking, and writing. You can be a Level 3 in reading and listening and a Level 2 in speaking (which I have tested as in Arabic). The European scale scores you by your weakest skill level, so if you’re a B1 in speaking and a C1 in reading, then your global language skills are rated as B1. I see merits to both approaches.
Fourth, it becomes increasingly difficult to go from one level to the next. It is somewhat straightforward to learn enough language to order a meal at a restaurant and ask for directions. It is exponentially more difficult to be able to make small talk about anything. When I was in language school, my instructors taught me that proficiency levels were like an inverse pyramid:
The pyramid illustrates that the amount of knowledge you need to go from one level to the next grows as you go along.
What about fluency?
So what does it mean to be fluent in a language?
“Fluent” is an imprecise term. I’ve heard people claim that you don’t reach fluency until you’re an absolute expert. The IIR scale even uses the terms “fluent” to describe levels 4 and 5–i.e., absolute mastery.
I think we can probably drop that down a notch, though. In my professional opinion, you are fluent at Level 3 (or C1). And I’d even go so far as to say that someone at Level 2+ (B2) could claim fluency.
Here’s why. Think about what the word “fluent” implies: You are able to participate in a conversation without struggling. You understand what the other person is saying, and you’re able to formulate an appropriate, understandable response back.
Here’s what it doesn’t mean:
- Being flawless
- Talking like a native
- Talking without an accent; (I’d say that Henry Kissinger was fluent in English, despite his thick accent.)
Why does any of this matter?
Why are we even talking about this? Well, for me, I find the concept of levels encouraging.
Because the fact is, when you’re dealing with native speakers and actually trying to communicate in their language, they’re not always going to be patient and understanding. So it’s very easy to become discouraged. When I lived in Germany, I would spend several hours a week studying and practicing German, only to go to the grocery store and get completely demoralized when the cashier couldn’t understand me. Then I’d drive home and become irritated that I couldn’t get the gist of some news broadcasts or television shows.
When we’re out in the world speaking, we tend to think of our foreign language skills as pass/fail. But the levels let us know more precisely where our skill level is at. Just like my son riding wobbly on his bicycle around the pond, we can take pride in what we’ve accomplished while still acknowledging how far we have yet to go.