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Language fluency online vs formal language training
Learning a new language. Even better, becoming fluent in another language. Sounds like the dream, right? It is a dream, a dream that a vast majority of aspiring language learners fail. They try to achieve language fluency online, try to get in some sort of official, in-person language training, get frustrated, and fail.
And I’m not trying to make you feel like you can’t do it, because you can! Anybody can, but there are so many roadblocks that most of us end up hitting the one that really throws us off. There’s the complicated grammar, different accents, and then there’s the whole thing where you’re supposed to think of what you want to say, put it together in your head, get it out of your mouth in a way that makes sense, and do it all in a reasonable amount of time. Yeah, it’s hard.
So where do we even start? The language learning world is such a big, huge, giant universe of information and emotions…what’s step one? Figuring out why you want to learn the language that you’re looking to learn. That’s step one.
What does fluent mean?
1. What is fluent?
2. What is proficient?
3. What is native/bilingual?
The four language skills
Formal classes vs. self study
1. Formal classes
2. Self study
Online language learning resources
Language proficiency scales
1. For American purposes
2. For European purposes
3. Other language families
What does fluent mean?
I might be wrong, but I’m pretty sure most people who want to learn a new foreign language decide they want to be fluent in it. But what does fluent mean? The main problem here is that there is no “definition”, per say. Language is such a fluid thing – it’s not like when you’re traveling, and when you finally get to your hotel you breathe a sigh of relief because you made it. That being said, what is the meaning of fluent?
Disclaimer: whatever conversational level you decide you want to embark on, you’re no better or worse than anybody else. Don’t go and set yourself up to speak with conversational fluency if it’s not in the cards for you. You do you, boo!
A fluent speaker
So what makes a fluent speaker? Well, that’s complicated. Officially, “fluent” means that you are very comfortable with the language; you don’t use any awkward formalities or stumble across any sentences that put a giant sign on your forehead that says “I don’t speak fluently!”. This can be a very vague definition, if you’ve ever tried to learn. There’s no sign along the road that says “fluent” – you can take official evaluations, but more on that later.
Spoiler alert: fluency is also not something you can achieve by maintaining your tree on Duolingo. It takes much more experience in a lot more different areas, and while Duolingo definitely has its place in the language learning world, more tools are necessary. But I’m getting ahead of myself again.
Proficient vs fluent
First things first: proficient is not another word for fluent. It’s an entirely different thing with its own home in the dictionary. This is important because it can help you narrow down what exactly your goal is; maybe fluency is just a bit too much for you, which is fine. You can just shoot for proficient.
What does proficiency mean? The meaning of language proficiency is basically one little step down from fluency: you’re pretty confident in the language, but it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. You’re not quite as familiar with it, and you speak more formally and “correctly” than a fluent speaker (if you didn’t know, no native speaker follows 100% of a language’s rules 100% of the time).
So, while you don’t sound like you’ve lived in whichever country for a decade, you are completely capable of handling yourself in most any conversation you might find yourself in, and can communicate pretty well. Which, obviously, is awesome!
Native or bilingual proficiency
Somebody who has native or bilingual proficiency is the top of the top. A native speaker spoke the language as their first language (or second or even third, if they were fortunate enough to be raised multilingual). Someone who is learning a foreign language is generally unable to achieve native proficiency in that target language.
Bilingual, trilingual, or even multilingual speakers can speak their languages pretty comfortably. They might only speak one language natively, but they might speak their second language fluently and the third proficiently. This is someone who is comfortable communicating in these languages in most any scenario.
These levels of proficiency include all four language skills, and all four language skills need to be practiced independently so they can all be strengthened to create a solid base.
Language skills definitions
What are language skills? Language skills are the four parts of language that come together to cover every instance of language one could ever come across. Like I said before, all 4 of these skills are necessary to be considered proficient in your foreign language (unless you’re learning Latin or something, in which case you don’t need to learn how to speak or listen – lucky you!
They’re all important in their own right, and they also work to help the other skills. Now that you know what kind of proficiency you’re aiming for, you need to look at all the skills you’ll need to master in order to reach your goal.
Well this one’s obvious – in order to learn how to speak a foreign language fluently, you need to master the skill of speaking. It’s the active skill of producing the language verbally, and it’s arguably the most useful of all the skills.
Personally, this is the scariest part. Not surprising, since I don’t like to speak to people in my own language if I have to, but if you’re afraid to speak in your target language, you’re not alone. You have to do it, but you’re not alone in your fear. Cue Kelly Clarkson’s “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!”.
What a lot of new language learners don’t realize is that if you can’t listen in your target language, there’s next to no point in speaking, at least not in a conversation. Listening is a passive skill, meaning we don’t actually have to do anything by means of producing the language ourselves.
Training your ear and your brain to listen for the words that you already know is definitely a task, and practicing it ad
Again, another passive, but still incredibly important, language skill. If you want to do anything in your target language, from walking around in its home country to interacting with natives online to reading a newspaper article, you need to learn to read the language. And what new language learners find out is how different language is when it’s written.
Grammar is different. Sentence structure is more rigid, and there are much more little words that you didn’t even know about. Honestly, written language is a whole new world from speaking and listening, so it’s highly suggested that you practice it and practice well.
Reading’s active brother that’s also surprisingly and infuriatingly difficult. It uses a whole other part of the brain, so it also needs to be trained just as much as speaking. Fortunately, this language skill is much easier for a lot of people, since it doesn’t require the confrontation or the pressure of a spoken conversation.
It’ll also help with reading – not only is it like inverted reading, but constantly reading and rereading what you’re writing in an effort to proofread and correct what you’re doing wrong…it’s good practice!
Now that we know what skills we need to develop to get to whatever level of proficiency/fluency we’re going for, how do we go about it?
Language fluency online vs formal language training
The way that you decide to go about your language learning depends on a whole plethora of things. It depends on the way you learn, your lifestyle and what’s doable, what’s available to you, your goals, your geographical location, and more. There is no one answer for any person, and this is another reason why many language learners fail.
For most languages, there are many many options for us all out there. If your goal is to learn one of the world’s most common languages, like Spanish or Chinese, the world is your oyster! The good ol’ internet has an overwhelming number of tools, some of which will work for you, some won’t.
Let’s talk about some of these options, and help you figure out how to go about your language learning journey.
In-person foreign language classes
Let’s start here. An in-person, formal, regular, paid class in some sort of foreign language school. The great things about attending a foreign language class (or at least a decent one):
- Personalized attention
- Regular feedback
- Access to someone who can answer your questions
- Community of fellow language learners
- Ability to network
- Consistent, scheduled study time
- The security of not getting bad information
- You’re usually given a goal or final exam
…which are all awesome and will definitely help promote your motivation to get as far in your target language as you’ve decided you want to go. But nothing’s perfect, including in-person classes. A few things to consider:
- They’re expensive
- Often don’t have flexible scheduling
- Not to be taken at an individual pace
- A degree of pressure to get assignments done
- Your target language may not be available locally
- May require more time than is available to you
These things are great for some, not so great for others, and it depends mostly on your lifestyle and responsibilities. For those of us with busy, inflexible lives, going about it this way could be fatal; there’s nothing worse for your motivation than flunking your class, even if it’s not your fault.
Even if you’re only going to be in class for a couple hours a week, I would suggest looking at it as a college course (which there’s a good chance that the foreign language classes in your area are college courses, anyways), so you can get a decent idea about the financial and time commitments you’re planning to make. If you don’t have the space in your life to go back to school part time, you don’t have the space for formal language training.
Getting fluency online
If you found yourself anywhere in the above list of cons (or even if you’re looking for more help), there are a million and a half options for you on the internet. Literally, with all the languages combined, there are countless options, which is a good thing and a bad thing. Let’s start with the good:
- Flexibility of learning at your own pace
- Complete control of your journey
- Little to no financial commitment (depending on your choices)
- Convenience of learning almost wherever, whenever your want
- Resources you might not be able to find locally
Thankfully, the internet solves a lot of problems for us. When life doesn’t give us the flexibility we need, the internet provides. However, everything comes with negatives, and flexible online learning isn’t right for everyone which, again, is why so many of us fail. Cons:
- Little to no extrinsic motivation (daily Duolingo reminders don’t do it all)
- No structure
- Difficult to find a community
- No major pressure to continue when it gets tough
- Most resources only cover 1-2 language skills, so you have to supplement yourself
Online language tools
Now that you’ve decided the strategy that’s most compatible with your own life, it’s time to look at your options. With in-person classes, a Google search is your best friend. Check out online reviews, ask if you can sit in on a class before you make a financial commitment, do whatever you need to do. It depends completely on you and your language school.
Now, online language tools. I can give you a hand with that.
Online language learning resources
Now, depending on your target language, you may want to try different resources. These tools are built to help with almost any language that you could think of, but are not meant to be used as your only resource. Remember, we have 4 language skills to improve, and you can generally only practice two at a time.
Keeping that in mind, I’ve separated them by language skill, so that you can put together a well-rounded independent language learning strategy.
Let’s start here. The following programs are all free (though with some completely optional paid features) and easy to download and navigate. I would suggest only using these apps for learning vocabulary, if you use them at all. Your call! While vocab isn’t officially a language skill, it’ll be pretty difficult to try to communicate in a language if you don’t know the words. Suffice to say, this stuff is important!
Duolingo is without a doubt the most popular language learning app there is. It’s completely free on both desktop and mobile, easy to use, and consistently rewarding with daily reminders and little feel-good sound effects when you get a question right. The app also offers almost any language you could ever want to learn.
Duolingo is basically a game, which makes it great for solving the problem of extrinsic motivation that comes with self-study. It’s fun, satisfying, and the bar of expectations is low, which takes away the stress of your own expectations.
These are all great things that the app does well, however be warned that if you’re working towards any level of fluency whatsoever, it’s not going to do much for you; Duolingo is the most useful for learning a bit of the language just before going on vacation.
While there is a hint of speaking and grammar practice, I wouldn’t necessarily qualify it as high quality, productive material. I would only suggest using Duolingo to pick up some key useful vocabulary; if anything, use it at the very beginning for a very basic intro to the language. Other than that, language learners who expect any degree of proficiency at all should go somewhere else.
Memrise is another free option for getting vocabulary, though it operates as online flashcards. Memrise and Duolingo are very similar, but the biggest difference is the content: while Duolingo’s content is set by Duolingo themselves, Memrise’s content library is constantly expanding, as users are able to create whatever content they need for their own study purposes.
This is both a good and a bad thing. It can mean almost unlimited potential when it comes to vocabulary, both using the vocab already created by other users, and the ability to add your own content to your own lists. Unfortunately, this also means there’s a risk that the content you’re studying isn’t even right. There’s no quality-control when users are creating their own personal study guides.
That being said, Memrise can be great to take in vocabulary, and definitely more vocab than Duolingo has to offer, but take it with a grain of salt, and double-check any content you’re using from other members.
It’s not as gamified as Duolingo, so it might not be as motivating, but there is more to it. But, like Duolingo, Memrise can’t help you with all 4 language skills, so don’t make a Memrise account and then consider yourself set!
Okay, one last flashcard app, and I saved the best for the last. Of the three, Anki is the only flashcard app that I personally use. It’s not pretty, but it is the only app (available on both mobile and desktop) that does what it does.
Anki uses Spaced Repetition, which basically means instead of you going through the same collection of vocab every day, and just studying the more difficult ones til they stick, Anki predicts when you’re just about to forget a word and shows it to you again.
This is significantly better for your memory, and a much more productive use of your time. When we use normal flashcards, we’ll see the easy words and the hard words the same amount, which means seeing the words we already know more often than is necessary, and not seeing the harder words enough to actually learn them.
Instead, you not only tell Anki if you know the word, but you also tell it how difficult it was for you to recall it. The app uses that information to create an algorithm that only shows you the easy words every once in a while and the hard words much more consistently, meaning you don’t waste time and you also learn your words.
As for content, you can find public Anki decks, and you can also create your own. Like Memrise, there’s no quality control for user-generated decks, so use that same grain of salt for any decks that you don’t create yourself.
Like vocab, grammar isn’t an official language skill, but it’s just as important as all the rest. Grammar can definitely be difficult – it’s a difficult skills for a lot of people to master just because it does take practice and understanding. However, once you get it, you’re golden, and it’ll help your language skills by leaps and bounds.
That being said, there aren’t a whole lot of grammar-focused products. Many language learners just Google this stuff, and if that works for you, grammar gets that much easier. But for those of us who like our easy-to-swallow apps that make us feel good, we’re not left completely in the dark.
Babbel boasts being the best language learning website there is (don’t they all?). It’s kind of similar to Duolingo, in that Babbel has quick 5 minute lessons that are easy to swallow. The difference is, though, that Babbel holds your hand through grammatical concepts, explains them to you, and then drills you on them.
Babbel has content from beginner to advanced levels, which is awesome. It can be really hard to find advanced language lessons – it can be harder to find good advanced language lessons. That being said, Babbel is a paid subscription service, priced at around $10 per month per language.
Where Babbel is concerned, you get what you pay for. I see why they have the pay wall – the lessons are in-depth and incredibly useful, definitely worth the money, in my opinion.
You’ve probably heard of Rosetta Stone before…and turned your cheek at the price tag. Rosetta Stone is very similar to Babbel in that it holds your hand through lessons and teaches you step-by-step.
The big difference is that Rosetta Stone is better for language learners with little to no experience. If you’re new, you need to drill and drill and drill even the most basic concepts, and that’s exactly what you’ll get.
Rosetta Stone is also great about showing you how to learn a language; you’ll never see or hear any English, like true immersion, and you’ll practice all of your language skills. That in itself is more than any resource out there!
But, of course, there’s the price tag. The very least you’ll pay for Rosetta Stone is $79, which is for 3 months’ access to the online/mobile subscription. I do have to say, though, that if you’ve never learned a language before, the price tag is worth it. Compared to free Duolingo, Rosetta Stone’s content goes above and beyond.
There aren’t a whole lot of options for writing practice available online, I’ll be honest. The examples below do offer you the chance to write directly to natives for free, and if they work for you, fantastic! But
Even if it’s not correct, even if it’s completely awful, the simple act of practicing writing will help you write more fluently and be more comfortable expressing yourself in your target language.
Let me preface this section with the disclaimer that at the time of this writing, Lang-8 isn’t accepting any new accounts. If you already made an account, you’re free to use the site as intended. If not, the company has suspended new accounts indefinitely in favor of their new app, HiNative, which they advertise as offering the same idea, but better.
Using Lang-8, you can type literally whatever you want in your target language and have natives correct you. If you think the site would be full off all these people just using the platform for their own good, they’ve covered that; you can’t keep posting if you’re not helping people learning your own native language! They do this by using a kind of currency – you earn currency when you correct others, and use it when you submit your own text.
If you want to take it a step further you can invest actual money, and your submissions will not only be worth more to correct, but they’ll be put on top of the list. It’s essentially advertising your text for you, so you can make sure that your writing is corrected.
Personally, I’ve never used this feature because I haven’t needed it. I’ve always gotten at least 1 response to my submissions, and usually 2 or 3. If you already have an account, it’s a great, very active tool to use to build up your writing skill.
HelloTalk is a texting app that works like any other texting app, but with one major difference: the ability to correct. You tell the app the languages you know and how well you know them, what language you’re learning, and the app offers you a list of users who speak your target language. It also shows you the country its users are from, so you can keep track of different accents or regional terms.
You can also send most any kind of media to your language partners: text, audio, and images – they even have forums for each language that you can use to ask questions or just share your day. You can reach out to anybody you want, and make sure that you have your expectations set; I always make sure it’s clear that I want to be corrected when I make a mistake, and I only talk to people who help me with that.
HelloTalk is also great in the way that it provides these corrections. When text has been corrected, it shows you two lines: the original text with the errors in red, strikethrough font, and the corrected text with a green font. This makes it incredibly easy to see the corrections and make mental notes.
I highly recommend this app. I don’t personally use it as much as I’d like (I don’t even answer texts from my actual friends, oops!), but if you’re always on your phone, you should take a look. You even get push notifications every time you receive a text, so it’s just like adding another contact to your phone. Plus, like I said, even if you don’t get corrected, the act of texting in your target language is great practice.
There are a huge variety of options when it comes to reading practice for specific languages, but when it comes to learning to read foreign languages in general, I am not aware of any particular website or app to help you. I do have a few suggestions for you, though, since this is still a super important language skill to master.
I’m a firm believer of mastering reading through immersion. You can check out your library if your target language is spoken where you are, or you can always just order books online. Start out with books for the itty bitties, and go up from there as you get more comfortable with the vocabulary, grammar, and sentence structure.
This is my favorite method of getting new vocab to plug into my flashcard apps, since I’m learning the new words from the context of a story. It’s much easier to learn new words from context than it is just memorizing random words that were given to you. Seeing the words used correctly in sentences also helps you learn the grammar of your target language.
Before you go about trying to read a newspaper in your target language, make sure you’re at more of an intermediate-advanced skill level, since newspapers use more formal, professional language than you’ll ever read in a book or in any other casual setting.
That being said, reading newspapers is a great way to expand your understanding of your language, from day-to-day conversational vocabulary to more formal language. Once you get the language down, reading the content itself is also a great way to learn the country and the issues they’re currently facing in the world. You’ll learn a lot about the culture and how they respond to these issues this way.
Since we’re in the twenty-first century, going online is a great way to find newspapers. You may or may not have to pay a subscription fee, but it should be a pretty reasonable price.
Just like reading, there isn’t a great resource on the market for listening practice in a whole bunch of languages. So, just like reading, there are a ton of options for you to find practice using actual media meant for actual natives who live in your target language.
Netflix does a decent job at translating their media. It’s perfect if you’re learning more of the commonly-spoken languages of the world, and they also produce a lot of foreign language content, but if you’re studying a language with a smaller population, you might not find what you’re looking for here.
If you can go this route, I highly recommend you find a show that matches your level (children’s show for beginner listeners, adult shows for advanced) and use both the dubbing and the subtitles in your target language. If you don’t understand the subtitles in your target language, what you’re watching is probably too difficult for you.
And, while listening in your target language and reading in your native language is better that nothing at all, you’ll probably end up tuning out your ears and just reading what you’re watching, which isn’t nearly as helpful.
Plus, that’s not how language learning works – you don’t hear your target language, translate it in your head, think of your answer in your native language, and then translate it back before you say it. Authentic language learning is about learning to actually think in your target language, so don’t cheat yourself!
YouTube is also a great option for listening practice, since it has so many different kinds of videos: vlogs, music videos, short movies, etc. The more variety in the content of what you’re listening to, the more variety in what you’ll be able to understand, and the better your listening skills will be.
I would start with everyday vlogs. This will show you how actual people speak (even if it is a little exaggerated or funky for the purpose of being on the internet), so you can train your ear to pick up on speed, slang, and recognizing actual words in a way that you’ll hear in conversations.
Music is great for its own reasons as well, but keep in mind that it can get hard. Music is catchy, and learning to sing along to it can definitely help you be more consistent, since you’ll listen to it in your head all the time. But.
Pronunciation is WILDLY different; you know how when you learn a song, you’ll say the lyrics wrong all the time, even in your own language. Same thing. I suggest you listen with the lyrics and learn with the words right in front of you. Lyrics are also more poetic than regular speech, so they might not really make sense. Always remember to take artistic license into account!
Fortunately, the arguably most important language skill is the one you can practice the easiest. Do keep in mind that since you need to speak to actual people, you will probably need to pay your language partner (unless you can find a language exchange, in which case you’ll pay them with the opportunity to speak in your own language). The price of this will generally depend on the economy of the country where they speak your target language.
Verbling is an online platform that connects you to paid native speakers of your target language. Like HelloTalk, you’ll see which country your tutor is from (to, again, be aware of dialects or accents), as well as their levels in other languages, which can be helpful if you don’t feel comfortable going into a conversation in a foreign language with someone who can’t help you out.
Verbling offers hour-long classes at the rates set by each individual teacher. You may book a free 30 minute trial to test out a few teachers before committing (but this is limited, so don’t think you can get away with all free trials), and once you decide, some tutors offer bulk discounts if you commit to multiple lessons.
All tutors also have a bio where they can tell you their experience in teaching your target language, and you can even narrow them down by their availability, so you’re not looking at tutors that you don’t even have the time to learn from.
Click here to schedule a lesson now!
Italki is a very similar platform to Verbling, though it seems to be much more popular. Personally, I’m not completely sure why. I say this because of the quality of the tutors. Not to say the tutors on iTalki aren’t as good as on Verbling for any particular reason, but the qualifications to work as a tutor on iTalki are almost zero.
To be accepted, you need to be a C2 level speaker in the language. While this seems like a great idea, there is a huge difference between practicing with a professional, experienced teacher and someone who just speaks the language well. What do I mean? I mean that I was approved to teach English on Italki and….I was awful. Which makes me wary of the platform’s quality.
That being said, Italki does have a colorful website that does mention features in places like Lifehacker, BBC, and The Huffington Post. They also highlight they offer teachers in any language, which is definitely a big deal (do you have any idea how many languages there are in the world??). So hey, keep Italki in mind!
Or, if you’re ready, click here to schedule a lesson now!
If you’re looking for language learning on the cheap, language exchanges are your best bet. A language exchange is when two people (or more, there’s no real limit to this) who speak two different languages come together to practice their target language. This means a native English speaker learning Chinese talking to a native Chinese speaker learning English, for example. Ideally, you spend an equal amount of time conversing in each language.
Language exchanges are free, because they’re basically just two language learners hanging out in a purposeful way. This is great because, you know, free, and because it’s not like you have an hour-long conversation and call it quits; if you two hit it off, you can hang out as long as you’re both free and you get a new friend out of it!
There is one major downside though. Because it’s free, and because speaking your target language isn’t your partner’s job, there’s nothing stopping them from just not showing up or ghosting you. This happens a lot, in my experience. Which is frustrating and a waste of time. But there’s no way to know unless you try, especially if you’re broke!
There are tons of ways to find language exchanges; there’s so many at all about the same quality, it’s honestly not worth it for me to go into telling you about them all. Meetup.com is a popular network for local language exchanges, or you can look for websites that connect learners with speakers for you.
30-Day Speaking Challenge
This is a great free resource that doesn’t really require any other expectation of feedback (though it is possible, and it’s nice when it happens). The 30-Day Speaking Challenge is based completely on a mailing list and a Facebook group. It restarts every single month, is open to learners of any language, and gives you daily prompts to talk about.
There are zero requirements for speaking experience, so you can even say your first sentence in your target language in this challenge. You can use the app mentioned in the Facebook group to record your prompt, or any number of ways that you decide you want to record yourself.
Once you’re done, you stick your recording in a Google sheet, and hope that someone who speaks your target language gives you some feedback. I also recommend giving some feedback yourself for good karma purposes.
This is great because you get daily reminders in your inbox to practice a little bit, and the group itself is incredibly positive and encouraging. Even if you aren’t happy with your speaking, it’s a great group of language learners, and they’ll lift you right up!
This program is special enough that I think it deserves its own section. The Add1Challenge is a community created and maintained by the folks at Fluent in 3 Months. It starts over every 90 days, and it’s for any language under the sun. It is a paid program, but honestly, it’s absolutely worth it.
The basic idea behind the Add1Challenge is that anybody can be multilingual – you already speak one language, so all you have to do is add 1. It’s a very high quality community of language learners very focused on learning consistently and sharing their resources, their advice, and their wins. You’re separated into groups based on the language you’re learning, so it’s a great way to learn about websites or programs that you might not have known about before.
Before the challenge starts, you commit to spending a certain amount of time to practice every week. This is a great way to teach you goal-setting. If you’re not committing enough time, you’ll be gently pushed to commit more.
Once the challenge starts, you’re added to a spreadsheet where you keep track of your commitment – if you don’t state that you did your studying for the day (or if today was a break day, if you don’t commit every day), you’ll get a big red “no”. It’s another great way to stay motivated and consistent!
Honestly, there so many different options out there, I have absolutely gotten overwhelmed with just that choice and given up on the spot, so I get it if you’re freaking out a little right now. It’s okay, take a breath. Start by narrowing down each language skill and fill those holes. If one of these doesn’t work for you, ditch it and try another. You got this!
Okay, now that you have your goal in mind, you know what you need to learn, and you’ve decided how to learn it, how are you supposed to know when you get there? Like we discussed above, most of these terms are kind of vague with no real, dramatic “YOU MADE IT!” sign.
Language proficiency scales
Fortunately, there are a variety of types of language testing across all spectrums of language learning skills. It’s up to you to choose one. If you attend a formal language school, they’ll generally have you take an exam at the end of the course, in which case this part is already done for you.
However, if you are going about in a more self-driven way (ie. studying a language without a formal classroom setting), you’ll need to decide which language proficiency scale is appropriate for your goals.
Types of language testing for American use
If you’re learning a foreign language for the purpose of working for something like an American embassy, there are two major language proficiency scales: the ILR (Interagency Language Roundtable Scale) and the ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language). They’re similar scales, but if your goal is to get a job, do some research in case your dream job requires a specific test.
The ILR is the test you need if you’re looking for a job in the federal government, developed by the United States Foreign Service. It’s the simpler of the two, split into five scales, from S-1 to S-5, elementary proficiency to native or bilingual proficiency. It’s up to the job you seek which level you need to get to.
The ACTFL is like the ILR, since it was based off the original exam, but it’s broken up into more parts, like you can see below. This exam is “used for global assessment in academic and workplace settings.” So for international jobs, not just the American federal government.
Types of language testing for European use
While those tests cover foreign languages in general, each official language comes with its own exam for you to study for, and you can generally find practice material to see how you measure up to each level. While you can find seemingly unlimited unofficial tests for these things, it’s important to know what the official exam for your target language is.
The European languages follow the same scale, as set by the Common European Framework of Reference of Languages, or CEFR. This makes it easy to kind of generally figure out where you are in your language, once you have a basic understanding of how this scale works. It goes like this:
A1 – Beginner language level
- Understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type
- Can introduce themselves and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where they live, people they know, and things they have
- Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help
In other words, A1 is tourist level. You can ask where the bathroom is, where the bus is, and introduce yourself, but that’s pretty much it.
A2 – Elementary language level
- 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 their background, immediate environment, and matters in area of immediate need
At A2, maybe you’ve been in the country and are starting to stretch your brain, or you’ve taken what Duolingo taught you and can more or less have conversations with it.
At the beginner level, you probably know between 250-500 words in your target language.
B1 – Intermediate language level
- 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 while travelling in an area where the language is spoken
- Can produce simple connected text on topics that are familiar or of personal interest
- Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes, and ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans
When you hit B1, you’re getting the hang of it. It’s still hard and a lot of work, but you’re starting to be able to have real conversations; you mess up a lot, but you’re getting there!
At this point you’re decently conversational, and know from 1,000-3,000 words.
B2 – Upper intermediate language level
- Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in their field of specialization
- 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
With B2, you’re really starting to get come confidence. It’s at this point that you may start considering yourself fluent, and you might be! I’ve met B2 level speakers who understood B2 material but still had a hard time actually communicated, and other B2 level speakers who could speak like they were in C2, but still only had a B2 level of understanding. It’s all about which language skills you practice more!
C1 – Advanced language level
- Can understand a wide range of demanding, long clauses, and recognize implicit meaning
- Can express ideas fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions
- Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic, and professional purposes
- Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organizational patterns, connectors, and cohesive devices
Most job requirements I’ve come across that include proficiency in another language state that employees need at least a C1 level of proficiency. At this point, you’re not a native, but you’re damn close. You’re pretty comfortable in most any situation you could find yourself in.
C2 – Proficient language level
- Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read
- Can summarize information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation
- Can present themselves spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations
I’ve spoken to people who have to use their second or third language so much more often than their native language that they feel more comfortable using it! This is C2. The difference between your native language and your target language is pretty close, with little to no formalities or brain farts.
At this point, you know around 4,000-10,000 words.
If you get to 10,000 words, you’re considered to be near-fluent.
A native speaker knows 10,000-30,000 words.
With these wild fluctuations in how many words you have to know to be considered different levels of fluency, it’s painfully obvious how hard it can be to pinpoint when exactly you get there.
Proficiency standards in other language families
Unfortunately, European languages seem to be the only ones with a standardized measurement of fluency. Every other language has
These exams are generally taken in foreign language schools, though you won’t be required to study through them. They also come with a pretty hefty price tag, so make sure you’re prepared when you do decide to take it.
Language fluency online vs formal language training
Wow. That was a lot. Even so, check back every once in a while, since I update it when I can with resources and ideas.
I hope this post can help you go about your own language learning journey in a purposeful, productive way, and not just shooting in the dark and hoping something sticks (because it won’t).