How good is good enough?
Don’t get me wrong. You can get really good at a language and make it do great things for you. But there are always going to be vocabulary words you don’t know, idioms and slang that's new.
A loaded question
So at what point do you “know” a language? (Scroll to the end for the quick answer.)
Measuring language fluency is a difficult assessment, but a necessary one. We simply have a hard time figuring out when someone can claim a foreign language as one they speak.
After two years of French in school, for example, you probably wouldn’t advertise on your resume that you speak it, since you likely can’t handle any basic communication tasks.
But what about a typical tour guide in Bangkok? They typically speak confidently to a bus full of tourists in broken English. They make lots of grammatical and pronunciation mistakes. Are they “allowed” to claim English as a language? After all, they’re able to communicate their main ideas and literally work in the language?
Linguists and language educators have known about this problem for years, which is why they have come up with ways to measure language proficiency.
The term “proficiency” implies that we’re dealing with skills, because language ability is just that – a skill. In many ways, it’s like dancing, playing the guitar, riding a bike, or driving a car.
When it comes to skills, there’s a spectrum of abilities. With languages that involves listening, speaking, reading and writing.
And typically many people have these individual language skills at different levels of proficiency. Thai tour guides may speak English well enough to get you around the Grand Palace, but could they write a professional report in English as some corporate positions require?
Measuring the skills
Different language organizations have developed scales to help identify a person’s foreign language ability. The scales might vary in the details, but they all basically want to identify whether a person is a beginner in the language, an expert, or somewhere in between.
The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (a mouthful I know) has become the industry standard for assessing language proficiency.
The CEFR is a simple six-level system – from an A1 beginner to a C2 native speaker – to measure anyone’s language proficiency.
The brief Understanding the CEFR video will get you up to speed.
A few things to notice
First, proficiency levels are about what you can do in the language, not what you can’t. This is a minor, but important, distinction.
Second, C2 is the equivalent of native speaker. This is considered “mastery” of a foreign language, and it's very rare to see someone achieve that level.
And for most everyone using English as a second language, you don't need it.
Why are we even talking about this?
When we’re out in the world speaking, we tend to think of our foreign language skills as pass/fail.
But the levels let us know more precisely where our skill level is at. We can take pride in what we’ve accomplished while still acknowledging where we have still yet to go.
So what's a reasonable goal?
If your objective is to say use English at a professional level in your job, you need to master enough English to use it functionally.
And for most of us, that's probably a B2 level.
An independent or functional ability means you can communicate well in the language. You won't understand humor or literature at a high level...English idioms may also bite you...but don't you already have these things in your native language?
No one expects you to be perfect. But they do demand enough proficiency so that communication can be made.
The CEFR's Can-Do Table
How much study is needed?
If B2 becomes a reasonable – and very achievable – goal, then the question becomes how much study time do I need to achieve this level?
This post may be of some help in determining that..
About the Author
I’m the Managing Director at Vantage Siam, an authorized Cambridge English Exam Centre and management training firm.
We offer English language training via blended learning to both students and professionals in Thailand and also to remote learners throughout China.