How to *really* qualify your language skills

How to *really* qualify your language skills
How to *really* qualify your language skills

Photocredit: kevinbongart

“So, how good is your [French/German/whatever foreign language]?”

Anyone who has studied a language has probably been asked this question.  Sometimes it’s difficult to answer – how good is good?  Can you order a latte?  Manage a project?  Strike up a killer conversation about politics?

Especially if you want to get a job using your foreign language, one excellent way to get a real answer on your concrete skills is to get – wait for it – formally tested.

Hang on… did you just say I should do a formal test?  Isn’t that boring?  Why would I?

Volunteer for a test, willingly?  Even pay a bit extra for it?  Yes, that’s what I’m recommending.  It might not be for everyone, but I think it’s excellent to validate your true language abilities at some point during your learning (how this works is explained further down).  Here’s why you might like to consider it:

  1. It gives you a real idea of your progress.  You have a measurable, standardised way of talking about your level.
  2. It gives prospective employers a concrete idea of your level.  Many companies require applicants to have a certain level of linguistic competence, depending on the role.
  3. It forces you to practice everything you’ve learnt up to that point, reinforcing parts of the language you might have forgotten, or which had slipped out of use.  It’s a great refresher.
  4. It gives you a great sense of accomplishment: motivation to keep kicking a$$ learning that language.  I’ve never published this until now, but, I failed the Japanese test the first time in 2005.  The pass rate was 65%; I achieved somewhere aruond 58%.  I was very disappointed with myself, and wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to pass if I did it again.  Two years later, I studied my butt off, practiced more than I ever had, and smashed my previous score to a pass rate I was very happy with and the best level of Japanese I’d ever had.  It felt great.

Hmm… I’ll think about it, but how is this done?

Most major languages have an internationally recognised test that’s administered centrally, usually in the country where the language originates, or where it’s most widely spoken.  You can book directly with the testing organisation, or through major language schools who work in conjunction with them.  You prepare as much as you can, turn up on the day for the test (2-7 hours, depending on the language and level), and receive the results a few weeks later.

Here are the two I’ve taken.  Keep in mind that a little Googling will help you find similar tests for most languages.

  • The Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).  Beginner proficiency = Level 4; Native proficiency = Level 1. (Link to JLPT is here.).
    Level 2 is required by many employers in Japan, as it denotes a high level of fluency in speaking, listening, reading and writing.  I’m currently at Level 2, and hope to attempt Level 1 some day after I have chance to spend more time in Japan.  Having this test on my resume helped me move into a role which allowed me to use Japanese every day.  I was a happy boy.
  • Goethe Institut’s Common European Framework of Reference for Languages – German.  Range of levels from A1 (Start Deutsch) to C2 (Zentrale Oberstufenprüfung).  (Link to more info is here- note: this points to the Australian version, but Goethe has schools worldwide, and they all use the same framework.)   I’m somewhere in the middle, at B1 (Zertifikat Deutsch).  Passing this exam was a great landmark for me as I find German grammar very challenging, and it got me get into gear with all the preparation I’d been meaning to do for a long time.

Wrap up

If you want to get a clear idea of where you’re at with your language, get some proactive motivation to revise all you’ve learnt, or get a job using your newfound tongue, you might like to look into taking a formally recognsied test.  They’re not as painful as they sound, and you’ll feel great afterwards.

Question: Have you taken any formal tests, or do you have a better approach?  I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

– Side Note:  I’m travelling at the moment, so it might take a while to get to questions or comments, but I promise I will! Thanks for your understanding. –

4 Responses »

  1. Thanks for this post, Tristan. It reminds me that I have a testing story to blog about someday.

    Because of my formation in the USA primarily teaching Spanish, I came to the conclusion that proficiency testing is evil, and that the Educational Testing Service, specifically, is a giant evil racket that created it’s own monster economy.

    I still believe that, but reading your post reminded me that aptitude testing can still mean a lot to people, especially in those countries (Japan, Germany, China, etc) where testing is a huge part of the academic culture.

    Also, I’m jealous that you’re in NZ now; my best friend lives there, and I hadn’t heard from him in a while. If you happen to see Kiwi Jim, tell him “g’day bro” for me, haha…

    • Hey JP! Thanks for sharing your point of view – I can completely understand that many of the testing services probably have evil parts to them, and no doubt many of them are geared towards massive revenue targets (rather than actually improving/quantifying language skills…). I’m not a fan of “here’s what the test is going to do, now go and rote learn it all”… but I do find it beneficial to have something to work towards. For me, if I know I have a big test coming up, I tend to study and summarise everything I’d learned up until that point, and come out of it feeling like I have a better grasp of much of the content. It’s kind of like having a teacher asking whether you’ve done your homework ;-)

      The trup un New Zullund us ibsolutely Fintistuc! I’m about to get on a ferry from Picton to Wellington in about half an hour. The country is so picturesque, the activities so exciting, and the people are so friendly. If I see your mate Jim around, I’ll pass on your message ;-)

  2. Full on, bro, sweet as!

    You know I noticed one thing: the languages I do most often (American English and Latin American Spanish) are big, international languages with histories of immigration from all over the world. What’s more important is that they’re languages that are relatively tolerant of dialects, varieties, accents, and 2nd language issues. There are tests that exist for them (the TEFL for English and some Instituto Cervantes test) that Americans and Latin Americans don’t give a rip about.

    The languages that have cultures that do put a lot of faith in those high stakes proficiency and aptitude test tend to be monolithic, monolingual cultures, without the same kind of immigration history as North and South America.

    In any case, my beef with proficiency testing is when people use not to measure their learning, as you suggest, but when they do testing programs instead of learning. I try to tell my students that testing and classes are a breeze if they’d only *learn to speak,* but instead I see people wasting their time *learning to pass*.

    Sometimes it seems to me that my students are actively doing everything they can to get by and NOT learn to speak. It’s a real shame. I’ve also known people who’ve passed the TEFL by memorizing the prep books, only to find themselves lost in real life behind a language barrier.

    What’s the situation in Australia? Are foreign students and immigrants motivated by EFL tests?

    • Interesting take on the historically versatile languages and their tests. I hadn’t considered that! That makes a lot of sense. TOEFL is quite big in Australia (perhaps second to IELTS), is it important in the US, or not so much?

      Agree with you 100% on the frustrations of people learning only to pass instead of actually speak. I witnessed this first hand with many-a-classmate at University and to a lesser extent with some classmates in language courses. I met some people who would happily sit through classes and memorise what’s in their books without actually wanting to speak. Of course everyone has their own learning style, but passing a test is no good if you can’t use it in the real world.

      In Australia: Whilst I’m sure there are loads of clever students who do learn a lot by studying for EFL tests, I’d have to say that I’ve seen a lot of what you talked about. My wife also used to teach and train IELTS students in preparation for the test, and came across several who only wanted to know the answers to the practice questions, without actually wanting to understand why. I’d love to see more people ditch the technical aspects of the tests, use them as a measuring stick, and come and talk to me instead :)

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