How good are you at your target language? Are you fluent? Can you hold basic conversations but understand better than you speak or are you so fluent that a native speaker could hardly tell?
When we hear the word “fluent,” we tend to picture complete mastery in the given language; someone who can hold their own in any given scenario. The reality is much different. Language fluency comes in many forms and it’s not always easy to gauge proficiency.
For example, a language learner could be conversationally fluent, meaning they’re able to speak and understand when traveling around in a foreign country but only to a limited degree. Or someone could have business-level proficiency, meaning they can have professional conversations covering a variety of topics. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’d be able to have an in-depth discussion about politics or economics.
Language proficiency is much more than just, “are you fluent or not?” Understanding the varying levels of proficiency – and how to properly describe them – is an important part of language learning. In the sections below we’ll go over the CEFR test and scale (the most common measurement of language proficiency) and give you some tips for getting an accurate rating for your target language.
Language proficiency testing
As language learners, it’s important for us to be able to clearly define our proficiency in our target language. We want to be able to give a clear description of our proficiency, rather than a vague statement like, “I studied Spanish for a few years in school. I know a bit.”
Language proficiency tests are the best way to accurately define your proficiency level in a foreign language. A language proficiency test will give you a rating you can use to answer questions regarding your fluency: “My Spanish is intermediate; I tested into B1 for spoken fluency and B2 for written. That means I’m pretty good but I read/write better than I speak.”
Proficiency ratings are particularly useful when applying for universities or for jobs. It’s incredibly common for people to overstate their language skills on their resumes or LinkedIn profiles. A proficiency certificate will help you stand out from the competition.
Grading proficiency – what is the CEFR scale?
The CEFR scale (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) is Europe’s guideline for measuring foreign language proficiency.
It was originally introduced in the 1990s by the Council of Europe as a way to standardize language proficiency assessment. Today, the six levels of the CEFR test (A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2) are becoming ever more commonly used among language learners around the world as a way to gauge fluency.
CEFR language proficiency categories
The six levels of the CEFR test are divided into three categories: Basic User (A), Independent User (B) and Proficient User (C).
Basic User essentially means “elementary” and is officially defined as:
A1 – “Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type. Can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has. Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.”
A2 – “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 his/her background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.”
Independent User refers to intermediate learners, defined as:
B1 – “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 whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. Can produce simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest. Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes & ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.”
B2 – “Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialisation. 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.”
A Proficient User is someone who has achieved a very advanced level of mastery in the language:
C1 – “Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialisation. 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.”
C2 – “Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read. Can summarise information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation. Can express him/herself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in more complex situations.”
Who uses the CEFR scale?
The CEFR scale is used officially in European countries, though it is increasingly being used elsewhere as an international standard. Among language learning communities, the CEFR test scale is the standard way to describe one’s proficiency in a foreign language.
Of course, many countries also have their own language tests and ratings. In the United States, you might see references to the ILR (Interagency Language Roundtable) and the ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) scales. These rating scales are mostly used for government purposes, however, and it’s unlikely you’ll encounter a private-sector employer who knows what they mean or how to interpret them.
Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to convert between the different scales, meaning you don’t necessarily have to take a CEFR test if you’re studying a European language. In many cases it’s perfectly acceptable to convert, for example, an ACTFL score to a CEFR score in order to describe your proficiency level.
How do I determine my language proficiency?
The majority of language learners will simply estimate their proficiency based on the descriptions of the various CEFR levels (listed above) but it’s hard to get an accurate proficiency rating without taking a test.
There are a number of options available online for learners seeking a CEFR rating. Free tests will give you a CEFR test rating estimate, however the accuracy depends largely on the website. The best way to get an accurate rating is to take an exam from an official organization.
For European languages like German or French, it’s easy to find organizations that specifically test on the CEFR scale (such as the Goethe-Institut for German and the Alliance Française for French). For non-European languages it can be difficult to find a CEFR test, though you might be able to find something comparable. Wikipedia has an expansive list of language tests and testing organizations available on their List of language proficiency tests page.
For many non-European languages it’s easier to take an ACTFL certification test. Language Testing International is the official provider of ACTFL proficiency tests and they offer over 120 different languages. ACTFL ratings can be roughly converted to CEFR ratings, so if you receive an ACTFL “Advanced-Mid” rating you can roughly convert that to CEFR “B2.2”
What can I do with a proficiency rating?
Language proficiency ratings have a variety of uses both personal and professional, and having a certificate can come in handy at times. If you have reasonable fluency above conversational (B1-ish) proficiency, you should definitely take a placement test – especially if you’ve been actively studying the language and you’re feeling “sharp” in it. Language knowledge gets rusty over time so it’s always best to take a placement test while the knowledge is still fresh.
More and more employers are seeking multilingual employees. Certified language proficiency will significantly boost your hireability. In the United States it’s considerably more common for people to take a few years of a language and list it on their resumes even though they have a very low level of actual proficiency. Some employers therefore assume languages listed on a resume are overstated or inaccurate, so a candidate with certifications is much more likely to be taken seriously than one without.
Universities or language courses
Many universities in non-English-speaking countries require a certain level of language proficiency in order to apply. In the EU, students are generally required to have B2-level proficiency. Similarly, learners planning to join a language course may be asked to provide test results in order to be accepted into the higher levels and placed in the correct class.
Personal study & goal setting
Aside from professional or educational purposes, it’s nice to have a language proficiency certification for personal study purposes. If you’re currently somewhere around A2 or B1 in your target language, you could book a placement test for a few months in the future and work towards a goal of B2, for example.
What is the best certification for a resume or LinkedIn profile?
There are a variety of organizations that offer proficiency testing, so it can sometimes be hard to figure out which one is the best fit.
You’ll likely need to take an official exam if you’re applying for a job at a government agency or interested in attending a university overseas. For other cases, such as applying for a (non-government) internship or job, it probably doesn’t matter which organization you choose – the majority of people aren’t incredibly familiar with language testing and won’t be picky about the type of certification you have.
When applying for jobs in the past we booked Oral Proficiency Exams through Language Testing International. LTI’s Oral Proficiency Exams are a good way to prove how well you speak a language with minimal effort on your part. The exams are 30 minutes long and take place via phone call, meaning you can take the test wherever and whenever is most convenient for you. At $150 per exam these certifications are a bit pricey, but they might be worth the cost for professionals on the job hunt. Once you complete the exam, your certificate is emailed to you and can be uploaded to your LinkedIn profile or attached to job applications.
A few years back, we spent several months working on our Swedish with the goal of taking a placement exam. We ended up taking a LTI Oral Proficiency Interview and received an ACTFL rating of “Superior,” which is the highest oral proficiency rating offered by the organization and equivalent to C2 on the CEFR scale (#flex). Working toward a goal helped us maintain motivation over time and receiving a certificate reward felt incredibly rewarding.
How to prepare for a language certification exam using these resources
Ready to begin preparing for your language certification exam? We have a handful of resources and recommendations to help you achieve your language learning goals.
In terms of exam preparation, we’d recommend reading our article on how to build a language study routine. A well-developed study routine is the best way to stay organized and avoid getting overwhelmed as you prepare.
If you’d like to prepare using language learning apps, we have guides on some of the more popular ones including Rosetta Stone, Duolingo and Babbel.
We’d also recommend working with a tutor, especially if you plan on taking a speaking exam. We recommend Wyzant or Preply for the best experience working with a language tutor online.
In terms of study time, we recommend booking your exam at least a month in advance so you have enough time to prepare. Especially if you haven’t studied your target language in a while.
A language certification can significantly boost your credibility both in personal and professional settings – and the best time to begin working towards is right now! Set up a study planner, find some helpful online resources and you’ll be well on your way to getting professionally certified in your target language.
– written by Drew Grubba for Smarter Language. Drew has ACTFL-certified proficiency in Swedish, German, Portuguese, French and Spanish. He’s also studied Mandarin Chinese, Norwegian and Dutch, and is currently learning Russian.
Disclaimer: Rosetta Stone and Wyzant are properties of IXL Learning Inc.