Proficiency Ratings and Achievement

or why “Fluent in Three Months” is a half-empty ice cream cone

My academic career with Spanish spanned ten years with a six-week jaunt in Spain. By the time I finished, I was pretty okay; I could interpret at a medical clinic with little difficulty, read literature without a dictionary, and participate in most conversations like an awkward gringo. To other students, I was fluent, but to natives, I was probably a train-wreck (who could communicate). Why am I telling you this? Because I can’t wrap my head around how it took me 10 years to reach that level when everywhere I go, I see ads promising to make me fluent in a foreign language in only three months.

THREE MONTHS! If what they’re advertising is true, then I could have achieved fluency in sixteen languages over those four years of college (or nine if I took summers off), instead of just reaching adequate proficiency in two. My youth is officially misspent…well, maybe not. I’m sceptical about express promises, especially after teaching one such program. Why? Because…well, I guess it comes down to how we define knowing a language…let me explain.

Assessing Language

Spolsky outlines three general ways a person can assess his or her language ability:

  • Structurally – knowledge of elements (e.g. “I know a few words”)
  • Functionally – ability based on tasks (e.g. “I can read a newspaper”)
  • General Proficiency – universal skill (e.g. “I’m fluent in Punjabi.”)

Structural assessments use quantitative metrics to define knowledge, meaning we can assign numbers to what we know. This would be like saying a person knows 2,000 words or all of the tenses in English. Qualitative assessments are a bit different; they look at how well someone can do something. These are the functional claims where we describe what activities an individual can perform successfully (like my introduction: interpret at a medical clinic, read literature without a dictionary, converse). If we were to take not a single function but the overall skill, then we’d have proficiency. Proficiency is the universal assessment of an individual’s mastery of a language (depending on skill), but we’ll talk about that later.

It would be great to consider language in terms of quantity. Imagine if there really was a magic number of words you had to know to be considered fluent, or if all you really needed to know was just five tenses. Unfortunately, quantitative claims make up only a portion of what it means to know a foreign language. They are kind of like the bricks and mortar of language while qualitative claims are our masonry skills; the two are inter-connected. So why do we separate them?

Mainly to explain our abilities to others. With something as massive and subjective as language, it’s not always easy to articulate what we know in a way that others can easily understand. If our skills are limited, then quantitative assessments are fine. They tell us there’s a foundation and may be useful when looking at class placement. On the other hand, functional claims imply that we can function in the language. This may be important when looking for a job that requires limited levels of interaction with the language in question. For example, if you work as a researcher, you may need to be able to read articles in another language, but not necessarily create a lot of language verbally (i.e. talk). This doesn’t mean you can’t, but it’s irrelevant.

For situations where more comprehensive use of a foreign language is required, proficiency comes into play. As I said before, proficiency is something like a universal assessment of our language ability. This kind of assessment may be need if, for example, a job requires the employee to paraphrase news reports, meet delegates, and correspond with an overseas office. Since the scope of work is much broader and involves different functions, we need a single scale or system to tell us what a person is capable of in a language.

Luckily for us, those sorts of scales exist! In the United States, there is the ACTFL and ILR scale; in Europe, there’s the Common European Framework of Reference. Naturally, every system has its strengths and weaknesses; language is subjective and proficiency evaluations are far from perfect. Nevertheless, these systems do a fair job at classifying an individual’s language abilities.*

So how do these systems work? I’ll tell you…about the ACTFL system. Despite working with the CEFR for the bulk of my teaching career, I’m more comfortable with the ACTFL guidelines and think it does a better job at visualizing how proficiency works.

I should point out that from here on down, I will be looking primarily at speaking (since that’s usually the skill on everyone’s mind). There are different ways of testing the other skills, but we can save those descriptions for another day.

Rating Speech: the Inverted Pyramid

The ACTFL rating system for speaking proficiency is described as an inverted pyramid and has 5 major levels, most of which are broken down into sublevels:

  • Novice – The base of the pyramid. This is where we have parrots–individuals who know how to communicate in discrete items: words and set phrases. They may try to put sentences together, but it’s not consistent. When in doubt, we get short responses.
  • Intermediate – At this level we start seeing creation! Speakers now communicate using sentences. There are still limitations, but you can have a simple conversation with them provided they’re familiar with the situation (they have the word bank for it) and the topic doesn’t get too complicated. Most speech occurs in the present tense, although we may see the past and future pop up in conversation from time to time.
  • Advanced Now we’re talking! This is sometimes referred to as the reporter. Speech is no longer just isolated sentences, but paragraphs. We can use the past, present, and future without fail. We can handle topics that we’re not familiar with. In short: we can have some down and dirty conversations. This is where most of our daily conversations fall.
  • Superior – Calm down, big fella, this ain’t congress. This is when we go from paragraphs to extended discourse (giving speeches). We’re talking about abstract topics at an abstract level, not just telling stories to get a point across. We usually say this is the level that a highly educated native speaker can operate on (it doesn’t mean they do all the time) and heads up–not all natives can.
  • Distinguished – From what I gather, your speech can be called perfection. I’ll just leave that there.

Provided you have some background with a foreign language, you most likely fall into one of these categories. Keep in mind that I am over-simplifying here and the full descriptions can be found at the link above. Additionally, there’s more at work during the classification process than you may think.

Oral proficiency is not assessed with multiple choice tests or short-answer prompts (not usually at least). It’s done in an interview format. The testee essentially gets to monopolize a conversation for 15-60 minutes (depending on apparent proficiency), which happens to be led by a tester. The interviews are then reviewed with the following in mind:

  1. Ratings are holistic. As I said, these interviews are with a real person and they direct the flow of the conversation (to some extent). They’re looking at your overall ability across different topics and situations. This is why topic-familiarity is important. If you have a superior level conversation about the drinking age in the United States but then mumble only a few words when asked about your favorite restaurant or where you’re from, then you’re probably not a full-on superior speaker.
  2. Your level reflects your consistent performance. We know that knowing and using proper verb tenses is important. What’s also important is using them appropriately all the time. A speaker who uses the past tense only 50% of the time when telling a story is not a consistent performer. This is fair. If for every awesome apple pie you baked you burnt one, we wouldn’t say you were an exceptional baker.
  3. Pauses and rate of speech (fluency) are considered. This may raise some heat since this reflects how you speak in general, but what’s being checked here, as I understand it, is how automatic your speech is. It’s natural to pause to collect our thoughts and construct arguments.That’s fine. What’s not fine is pausing every fifth word because you’re going through conjugation charts in your head or checking which verb is irregular or not.

Did you get all that? Again, no test, testing method, or scale is infallible, but I hope you agree that this seems fair.

If you’re wondering why the inverted pyramid, think of it as a visualization of the amount of knowledge and skill required to reach the next level. This is the sad truth about language that we often overlook: that amount grows exponentially with each level you pass. Let’s say you know 200 words. That’s it. Some food, colors, family members, etc. You know the present tense, but it’s hard to use all the time and you have to spend a few minutes thinking every time you want to say something. You’re a solid novice. Now, let’s pack an extra 800 words in there with a sprinkle of more consistent syntax/sentence-like structures. With enough creativity and a fair grasp of the conversation topics, you’ll probably be able to pass for Intermediate. But to move on to advanced? It’s not just adding the past and future into the mix, it’s improved rate of speech AND accuracy. It’s a bunch of vocabulary. It’s feeling relatively comfortable with unfamiliar topics. Think about filling up an ice cream cone. One scoop might bring you ⅔ the way up, while the next scoop might just peek over the edge. The higher you go, the more volume there is to fill.

So how do we fill up this cone?

Developing Skills + Knowledge

There’s a lot that can be learned and achieved in three months provided you take advantage of every minute. For an adult who works full-time and has no kids (e.g. me), you can comfortably spend an hour and a half in the morning studying, review vocab in the Metro or listen to podcasts on your commute, do grammar exercises during your lunch break, maybe attend a class in the evening, and then Skype with someone before bed. That’s great! That’s a lot of practice. That’s a boat load of practice. Is it enough?

That’s probably not the right question. I should probably ask: What is that enough for? Sadly, I have no idea. This depends on a lot of factors: how disciplined the learner is, what languages they already know, what language they are learning, how much time can be dedicated to studying, how quickly information makes it into their long-term memory, etc. We have to factor in both the quantitative and qualitative metrics. Luckily, most textbooks are designed with this mind.

Taking at least 2 different CEFR levels for 11 different foreign language textbook series, some common elements are found in each chapter of every book:

  • Chapter intro – this may contain some vocabulary and speaking prompts or a reading section about a specific topic.
  • Vocabulary – this may include a reading section as well, where certain words are used in a specific context. You’ll usually also find drills/exercises pertaining to this vocabulary, reading comprehension, and speaking prompts related to the vocabulary or text.
  • Listening – this is usually related to the chapter’s theme and probably has a few questions or exercises related to the audio as well as some key phrases.
  • Grammar – I’ve seen this in the beginning, middle, and end of units. You know the drill: a brief explanation of the rules (maybe including examples from reading/listening section) and then exercises. Some speaking prompts related to the main uses of the tense or topic are also usually included.
  • Speaking/writing prompts – this could be group activities, discussion topics, or it may even be something altogether not related to the main topic.

The order of these sections may vary and some may be skipped from chapter to chapter, but the general idea is the same, and for good reason: to expand declarative knowledge and develop skills synchronously. It’s no good having a vocabulary of 5,000 words if you can’t recognize or retrieve them when you need to. Additionally, you may be able to speak without missing a beat, but there’s not much point if your grammar is all over the place and you repeat the same 200 words again and again. By developing skills and knowledge in tandem, the expectation is that learners are being supplied with enough fuel to perform at their particular level. Of course there are exceptions, especially when dealing with technical or professional language, but that’s a topic for another day.

I mentioned that an important criteria was the ability to maintain level across topics and to navigate unfamiliar situations. Now, don’t misinterpret this–I’m not saying individuals are expected to have a detailed conversation about the inner-workings of the Hadron Collider in Cern. Think of it more like your high school class schedule. You probably took History, Math, Literature, Foreign Language, Science (Bio, Chem, Physics), Technology, and maybe a few other subjects. You may not have been a straight A student, but you knew enough to pass. That’s what’s being asked here. General language textbooks look at all these different subjects to give you the tools necessary to articulate your thoughts on the subjects that you can probably talk about, even superficially, in your native language.

This is is also why some of the same topics will repeat across levels in a single textbook series. The chapter themes may be similar and the grammar may be repeated, and that’s for depth! As adults, it’s sometimes frustrating to approach a foreign language because you may have some great, complex thoughts, but not enough vocabulary/grammar to express it. The textbook levels are designed to build your foundation and then add to it with each cycle. Basically, you’re given a thick marker to outline your thoughts and ideas, and with each level, more vocabulary is added and grammar is explained more in depth to let you start filling out and adding details to your speech. The further you go, the more refined your utterances become, and the more comfortable you should be speaking, listening, etc. However, this does bank on the assumption that students make the effort to maintain what they know and actively use it (things which aren’t always possible).

If we were to run the gamut–from elementary to advanced–we’re looking at 5 text books between 60 and 120 pages each. How can we learn and develop all of these in 3 months?

Hacking Language to Fluency in 3 Months?

Three months can be a lot of time if we plan and use it wisely. That’s what most of these courses and methods advertise–they sell an efficient way to learn a language and outline what you really need to learn. Although some books have great advice and look at the more human aspects of learning a language (like motivation), a lot rely on shortcuts, survivor or selective vocabulary, and barebones grammar (but not all).

The results are usually positive. You can scour YouTube for “3 months [language]” and find a plethora of videos. A lot are pretty good! Some people give 5-minute monologues about themselves or give detailed reviews of books they’ve read. Some have conversations with natives out in the community. It’s impressive! So what’s the deal?

If we think back to the inverted pyramid and textbook layouts, standard methods build knowledge and skill from the bottom up. They try to evenly develop your skills and knowledge so that you are consistent across the board. Most language hacking methods work a bit differently. Think of it like tipping the pyramid onto it’s side and filling it like that. You’re quickly able to speak with intermediate or somewhat advanced level grammar, and you attain enough vocabulary to have a fair bit of conversation in one or two topics, but you may lack the control and fundamentals necessary to navigate a diverse range of contexts.

Looking at someone like Moses McCormick, author of the FLR method, he says that he skips certain common textbook themes, like ordering at a restaurant or booking a hotel room, and instead focuses on the things he wants to be able to talk about. This is similar to the method proposed by Tim Ferris, author of the 4-Hour Work Week and former Berlitz curriculum designer. There is absolutely nothing wrong with these methods; they’re just oriented at different goals. You can achieve adult-level conversation faster, but you may find limitations in your ability to talk about many different topics. Whereas following a textbook series for a similar amount of time and with the same dedication may produce more simple speech, the goal is for the learner to be able to actively survive in a wide array of contexts.

Being able to have adult-level conversations with a decent rate-of-speech about who you are, where you’re from, and what you like to do in three months is achievable, and it’s a good jumping off point for pursuing different paths of language usage, but we have to understand that this is merely a different path towards language mastery, and not mastery itself.


When everything is said and done, fluent is not the only way to judge how well a person knows a language. Qualitative and quantitative metrics are equally important, and they both take time to develop. Depending on your learning method, personal factors, and time available, three months may be enough to achieve a certain level of proficiency, but it is probably not enough to be considered consistently advanced across a wide range of topics.

With focused study and enough practice, a lot can be accomplished in a short time. Looking at the vastness and complexity of language, we may only scratch the surface in three months, but we can certainly build a very strong foundation. What’s important is having realistic expectations, goals, and discipline. Hearing about people who can perform in certain situations after studying for a short time is great, and it is a good motivator, but it is not a good indicator for their total proficiency in the foreign language.

*I know a lot of people may be thinking of the IELTS and TOEFL exam, but those tests are a bit more complex. They’re batteries that assess proficiency, but that are also based on achievement, which may not be relevant to an individual’s language skill, but general reasoning skill. It’s more a test to see if a candidate has the language skill to make it in a foreign university, but is also capable of performing university-level tasks in general.

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