Category Archives: language proficiency

Measuring Language Proficiency

What can be truly measured? I believe that listing the units by which something is measured is essential.

In language proficiency testing, there are many scales being used. Level 1 can mean many different things. I will use units of length as an analogy. MIT students got this right when they measured in smoots. In 1958, they measured the Mass. Ave. bridge between MIT and Boston to be “precisely 364.4 smoots plus or minus one ear” (see link). The bridge is painted in Smoots to this day. Oliver Smoot, the person they used to measure the bridge, went on to chair the American National Standards Institute.  Here is an April Fools’ joke on the topic, from the MIT site itself.

When we compare language proficiency scales, we should have the same level of concern for accuracy. Have these comparisons been validated? Are the units of the comparison mentioned? Saying “Level X is equal to Level Y” is meaningless unless we name the unit (scale) for level Y, and how many people have tested at the same level on both scales in order to validate this result.

Without these comparisons, it is difficult for clients to have a basis for comparison between one vendor’s marketing materials and another vendor’s marketing materials. Maybe it is time for third-party verification to become a common practice in this system.

Until this happens, at Gaucha Translations we will continue to work with the providers we know to be reliable because of their historical track record and the endorsement of the ACTFL and other such organizations, which have the ability to research the practices of said vendors.

Recommended language proficiency guidelines for employees

Bilingual employees often use the foreign language at work. The ACTFL scale gives language proficiency guidelines for different skills, and there are tests for each skill. How does each skill apply to the work duties performed at the office? The following skill descriptions are taken from the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines 2012.

The levels that are described below are what I personally have observed are what is needed for clear communication at work. As I have trained interpreters, I have seen that those who have an oral proficiency lower than Advanced Mid, for example, are simply not ready to learn interpreting because of the problems described below. As a translation instructor and as an interpreter, I have seen how the distractions caused by problematic use of terminology, grammar, and syntax lead to difficulties in comprehension of the text.

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Language proficiency tests available

When an interpreter wonders what is holding them back from making progress, it can be useful to analyze the language proficiency skills in detail. Gaucha Translations proctors tests for spoken languages on the ACTFL scale by Language Testing International so interpreters and translators can analyze their strengths and weaknesses and determine how to make progress in an objective way.

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Language Proficiency self evaluation

These tools give you a way to self-evaluate your language proficiency.

This link, from the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines, has the option to click on different languages on the left, and on the different skills (speaking, writing, listening and reading) on the top. As you see the samples matched with the description for each level, you will be able to picture where you are in the grand scheme of things. This is intended to help you see where you are and give you an idea of how to develop tools to grow.

The National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters requires a level of Advanced Mid to take the certification exam, and the National Council of Healthcare Interpreting recommends a level of Advanced High for healthcare interpreting.

On this page, there are links for self assessment for the ILR scale of language proficiency at the bottom of the page. The skill level descriptions are above, and on the right hand of the page there are links to resources for language study and for teachers of foreign languages. Please evaluate yourself with the speaking self assessment in  order to provide an estimate of your language proficiency. Keep in mind that the Federal Government considers an ILR 3 appropriate for professional work. That means you can complete all the tasks in level 3. However, many organizations accept a level 2 with a significant amount of elements of 3 for some kinds of work. That would be a level 2+ in ILR terms.



Language Proficiency Testing with LTI

First of all, why test for language proficiency?

We are not generally reliable judges of our own abilities. This Wikipedia article shows that many studies reveal that we have a tendency to overestimate ourselves. The Oregon Healthcare Interpreters law requires that Qualified interpreters have proof of language proficiency. The ACTFL exam is one way to determine that.

Therefore, judging our own skills in our use of language is very unlikely to be accurate. However, some tasks must be carried out by people with proven skills. For example, if interpreters lack the necessary linguistic ability, the risk of misinterpretations which would result in potential misdiagnosis is very high.

Interpreting and translation involve more than language proficiency! A language proficiency test is not an interpreting certification! It takes more than language proficiency to be a translator or an interpreter. However, if we can’t speak in Spanish, we can’t interpret into Spanish. And if we can’t write in Spanish, we can’t translate into Spanish. These tests do not cover all the issues related to translation. They do NOT cover the skills involved in transferring a message accurately from one language to another so the message has the same meaning in the target language. However, language proficiency is a foundational skill.

The ILR (Interagency Language Roundtable) developed a 5 point scale to evaluate language proficiency. The ILR is a collaborative effort of Federal, academic and NGO language specialists. Each skill level is designed to evaluate the practical abilities of a person at that level. The ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) adapted this scale for use in academic settings and the two organizations currently work together to ensure that the two systems are complementary.

Language skills can be classified as follows:

Receptive Productive
Oral Listening Speaking
Written Reading Writing

The ILR also has a scale for translation and another one for interpreting. However, the ACTFL does not have tests for these skills.

A spoken language interpreter hears a message in one language (L1) and accurately and faithfully renders it in another language (L2). In a dialog setting, such as a doctor’s office, a meeting with a teacher, an interview, or a deposition, the interpreter must have very high skills in both listening and speaking in both languages: L1 and L2.

Interpreters are also required to perform sight translation: read a document in L1 and render it orally in L2. Therefore, their reading skills are important.

Translators, on the other hand, take a written message in L1 and deliver a written rendition of that message in L2. Therefore, a translator must have very strong skills in reading for L1 and in writing for L2. The ILR has links for self assessment of these skills on this page.

Learn more about the ACTFL scale here.

Language Testing International (LTI) is the Language Proficiency testing center endorsed by the ACTFL. The following are links to the ACTFL demo tests for these skills.

This chart compares the ILR and ACTFL scales, with brief definitions, and lists the levels requried for interpreters in different fields.

The “paperwork” end of the testing process with LTI is:

Computer-based OPI: Can be taken independently by logging in to and clicking on the Get Certified button. You will pay for it with your own credit card, and continue the process independently. About a week later, you can log in to the system and get your score.

All other tests have to be administered through someone with a client account at LTI. The process for the client is:

  1. The account owner (AO) sends a request to LTI and chooses a proctor. The AO has to provide the following information:
    1. Testee’s name and email
    2. Proctor’s name and email. The proctor may be the Account Owner or some other person designated by the AO. The proctor must be someone who is not related to the testee. This could be a supervisor at work, a teacher at school, etc.
  2. LTI sends the AO the information about the scheduling, and the AO communicates with the proctor and the testee.
    1. For the telephonic OPI, which requires a live tester from LTI, the AO must choose two three hour blocks of time, because LTI has to see when a live tester is available.
    2. For computer generated tests (all others), the test is scheduled instantly and must be completed within two weeks of its creation.
  3. Results: LTI sends the results to the Account Owner, who then forwards them to the testee. This can take a week.

Payment: the AO is responsible for payment to LTI for all tests except the OPIc (computer generated OPI).