What Does Language Proficiency Mean?


In conducting research for my most recent book, Raising Global Children, I interviewed hundreds of people. One particular group, college professors, expressed a great deal of concern over the level of language capabilities students were coming onto campus with as freshmen.

One of these was Dr. Jeffery W. Overby, a professor of business at Belmont University in Nashville, who said, “The lack of language education for American students before high school inhibits their ability to master a language and to appreciate other cultures through language learning. We wouldn’t consider sending students to college with only 2 years of math or history. Language should be treated the same — as a core subject beginning in elementary school.”

Many Americans today don’t study a foreign language, and those who do often move from one to the next in the hopes of finding one that’s easier to learn (I did this: Spanish to French to Italian to Polish to Mandarin), and others just give up because it takes a lot of time and effort. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Requiring foreign language as part of the K-12 core curriculum will help more Americans become what so many others are around the world: proficient in a second language.

The term “proficiency” is used a great deal in the modern global world. We use it to describe our children’s competency in a foreign language both in the classroom and in a foreign country as they are able to read and interpret signs and menus in a language other than English. According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) Performance Descriptors for Language Learners, designed to reflect how language learners perform whether learning in classrooms, online, through independent project-based learning, or in blended environment:

Proficiency is the ability to use language in real world situations in a spontaneous interaction and non-rehearsed context and in a manner acceptable and appropriate to native speakers of the language. Proficiency demonstrates what a language user is able to do regardless of where, when or how the language was acquired. The demonstration is independent of how the language was learned; the context may or may not be familiar; the evaluation of proficiency is not limited to the content of a particular curriculum that has been taught or learned.

An assessment of proficiency determines if the language user provides sufficient evidence of all of the assessment criteria of a particular level according to the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines. The individual must do everything expected at a level in a sustained fashion, that is, all of the time, in order to be rated at that level.

Testing for proficiency can be easily done through ACTFL’s Assessment of Performance Toward Proficiency in Languages (AAPPL). My daughters were tested in Spanish at the end of their eighth-grade year; they have been studying Spanish since Kindergarten. Their results, which were great, helped me understand very clearly where they each stood on the ACTFL proficiency scale. This is important because it takes many years to master a language and this test helps a parent see the continuous progress the child is making, even before they become proficient. I am confident they are well on their way to proficiency by the end of high school (as long as they keep studying).

For more information go to ACTFL’s site.