Proficiency Scales: A Language Learning Roadmap

28 Oct 2020

Have you ever arrived at a destination and had to get to your hotel without any maps? Imagine not being able to read any of the signs. And not being able to communicate with the people around you. How do you do it? Is your natural reaction to figure it out by any means necessary? Or are you more inclined to let the hot tears run, praying that someone will come to your aid?

Language learning on the field can often feel like this. You’ve arrived. Bags in hand, eyes bright with hope in your heart.  You know the destination: Hotel Proficiency! But how do you get there? There are many different avenues. You could take the Language School train, or hitch a ride on the private tutor tuk-tuk. You could car-share and take Immersion Highway the whole way. You can see signs with all kinds of acronyms: GPA, LAMP, CALL and TPR. What do they all mean? How do you know which way is best?

There are several paths to Hotel Proficiency and they depend on many things: geography, motivation, learner type, what’s available around you, personality, ways you engage the people and culture around you, risk-taking ability, study habits, family-life and roles and the language itself. There is no prescribed ‘best way’ to learn a language because there are so many variables. Flexibility is the only guarantee.

Do not be dismayed! One tool that can be useful independent of the aforementioned variables are proficiency scales. There are several different proficiency scales that exist, the most common being the ACTFL (the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages), the CEFR (the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) and the CLB (Canadian Language Benchmarks). Each scale is divided into levels ranging from absolute beginner to master of the language. Each level can be viewed through different aspects of a language: reading, writing, listening and speaking OR modes of communication. Depending on the proficiency scale, each level is described by abilities or ‘can do’ statements that help you gauge where you are, and where you need to be. They sound and look intimating and complicated, but with some patient scrutiny, they provide a really well-laid-out roadmap for language learners to get from airport to Hotel Proficiency. They are not perfect and will not fit each language exactly, but they provide a helpful structure for the journey ahead!

Depending on where you are in the world, there may be a predominant proficiency scale. In Europe it is the CEFR, but along with the CEFR, the ACTFL and the CLB are used worldwide – it can depend on preference and readability, but also which scale ‘fits’ your target language best. Take a look at each of them and pick one to use according to preference or contextual predominance. There are detailed and shortened versions of each. Print out the relevant scale and familiarize yourself with the level surrounding yours. Take a look at the statements in each of the categories. Understand that language learning is not as linear as we would like it to be and you may move through some aspects at different speeds. For example, your ability to listen and comprehend your target language may be a lot more advanced than your ability to speak it. (Which is completely normal!) But most importantly, use the scales for the two following reasons:

  1. To gauge your language ability at different milestones. One of my most frequent recommendations is, “the only person you are allowed to compare yourself to is yourself…..a month ago, six months ago, a year ago”. And the best way to do that is to take a look at what you have achieved through these proficiency scales at progressive milestones.
  2. To look ahead at what you can work on to achieve the next level regarding each aspect of the language. The language abilities listed ahead can help you focus your study and give you suggestions on what parts of language to focus on when you are learning and planning. Use them as suggestions with a language helper, or seek them out in listening exercises and textbooks.

Here are some links to each proficiency scale’s self-assessment grids: ACTFL, CEFR (+ an introductory guide) & CLB.  Have a peruse and see how they could implemented in your language learning journey ahead!

Note: Though this article is written with new-to-the-field workers in mind, if you are thinking of going now, know that there is a map for the road ahead! Secondly, the metaphor of ‘Hotel Proficiency’ is not completely analogous to the language learning experience because it implies a fixed destination. Each new level on a proficiency scale can be regarded as a road marker, but real-life language learning is a life-long pursuit!

-Kimberley Chan Forney, Language Coach and Consultant (North Central Europe)

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