The Starting Line: How to Determine Your Language Level

Posted on 22. Oct, 2014 by in Language Learning

You’ve heard the mantra: How can you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been? Cliché as it may be, this concept applies perfectly to learning a language. Knowing where you stand will help you set realistic goals, identify the resources that are best-suited for your level, and measure your progress over time. So, here comes the obvious question: how do you determine your level in a given language?

There are a few different well-known frameworks for assessing language learners by level:

Interagency Language Roundtable Scale (ILR): Originally developed by the Interagency Language Roundtable, an unfunded organization representing various U.S. Federal Government agencies, the ILR scale is the standard grading scale for language proficiency for Federal employees. ILR grades proficiency on a rising scale of 0-5, using a + designation to indicate when someone exceeds one skill level (reading, listening, speaking, and writing) but does not quite meet that level for other skills.

  • 0 – No Proficiency
  • 1 – Elementary Proficiency
  • 2 – Limited Working Proficiency
  • 3 – General Professional Proficiency
  • 4 – Advanced Professional Proficiency
  • 5 – Functionally Native Proficiency

There is no actual “ILR exam”. ILR does not actually administer tests. Rather, various government agencies refer to the ILR scale descriptions as a way of grading their own specific language exams. The Foreign Service, for example, administers their own custom language tests administered by Foreign Service personnel, but grades them based on the ILR scale. I wouldn’t get your hopes up just to dash them like this though! ILR does offer  self-assessments, which you can find in the “Self Assessment” section at the bottom of this page. Want something more formal? Check out the next two options!

American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages Proficiency Scale (ACTFL): Developed from the ILR scale, the ACTFL scale has 4 main levels (Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, and Superior), the first 3 of which are divided into 3 sub-levels (Low, Mid, and High). The guidelines for these levels are quite specific, especially at the lower levels. You can read about them on the ACTFL site here.

Image by ACTFL

Image by ACTFL

Unlike ILR, ACTFL administers proficiency tests—more than 200,000 every year! They offer oral proficiency tests in more than 100 languages, and also administer separate tests for measuring listening, reading, and writing proficiency. You can learn more about these tests  on the ACTFL site here.

Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR): Designed by the Council of Europe, CEFR is widely accepted as the European standard for grading language proficiency. The framework consists of 6 levels:

Image from Council of Europe

Image from Council of Europe

Similar to ILR, the Council of Europe does not offer a “CEFR exam”. Various testing centers and universities throughout Europe offer their own exams, aligned with the CEFR scale. If you’re looking to determine your CEFR level in a given language, you’ll want to sign up for one of these exams, such as:

  • French: Diplôme d’études en Langue Française (DELF)
  • Spanish: Diplomas de Español como Lengua Extranjera (DELE)
  • German: Zertifikat Deutsch
  • Russian: Test Po Russkomu Iazyku Kak Inostrannomu (TRKI)
  • Italian*: Certificazione di Italiano como Lingua Straniera (CILS)
  • Diploma Elementare di Lingua Italiana “Firenze” AIL. (DELI)
  • Diploma Intermediodi Lingua Italiana “Firenze” AIL. (DILI)
  • Diploma Avanzado di Lingua Italiana “Firenze” AIL. (DALI)
  • * Note that Italy offers a range of exams, all of which have official status.

These scales all correspond quite nicely, as can be seen in the chart below.


So there you have it. If you’re wondering where you really stand in your language journey, you may want to invest a little time and money in one of these exams.

Have you taken a language exam? What was your experience like? What advice would you give to others considering doing so?

10 More Problems Only a Language Lover Will Understand

Posted on 20. Oct, 2014 by in Language Learning

I’ve got 99 problems and learning a language ain’t one… but these 10 things are. (So are these 10 things from the first post, in case you missed it.)

1. When you think of the right word… immediately after using the wrong one.

1One day it will just come out naturally… right?

2. When you try speaking in a foreign language and the other person immediately switches to English.

2I’ve put hundreds of hours in to this language. You will give me 2 minutes of your time to practice!

3. When you’re texting in a foreign language and auto correct goes apeshit.

3Because changing the language back and forth on your phone is such a pain in the…

4. When someone tells you that you’re wasting your time learning so many languages.

4Right, because that hour they spend trolling Facebook every night is such a productive use of time.

5. When you’re dying to chime in on a stranger’s conversation in a foreign language, but don’t want to give away that you understand them.

5Because eavesdropping in your second language is a thousand times more thrilling than eavesdropping in your native language.

6. When you try to explain some really fascinating aspect of a language to your friends and they Just. Don’t. Care.

6Friends? Who needs them, anyway? Nobody understands you like your fellow language lovers do.

7. When someone says “I’m just not good at languages.”

7Yeah, because the rest of us are just special or gifted, right? It’s called putting forth the effort, buddy.

8. When you practice over and over in your mind what you plan to say, then somehow a bunch of nonsense spills out of your mouth.

8I swear I actually speak this language…

9. When you fall victim to a false cognate.

9What an amateur mistake, I should know better.

10. When you feel the random but oh-so-irresistible urge to start learning another new language.

10Can’t stop, won’t stop until you learn them all! With 90+ languages available in Transparent Language Online, we can help you get there. Sign up for a free trial and explore our alphabet courses, vocabulary lists, pronunciation activities, grammar videos, and more!

Try It Free CTA

6 Tips on Learning to Love Screwing Up

Posted on 15. Oct, 2014 by in Uncategorized

Itchy Feet: A Travel and Language Comic by Malachi Ray Rempen

As I argued last week, if you want to learn a language, you’re going to have to learn to love screwing it up. As someone from the comments last time pointed out, you learn by making mistakes! It’s the only way! So learn to be at ease with making a mess of things.

But how?

Easier said than done, right? Nobody enjoys acting and sounding like a fool (if you do, then you don’t need any help from me). So I came up with six tips for you to get comfortable with discomfort while learning a new language.

1. Start with an easy language

Part of the difficulty with starting a new language is the steep learning curve. With most languages, you need several hundred words before you’re feeling confident speaking about the most basic things. My solution: learn an easy language first, get used to making mistakes in that language, then learn something more difficult. By the time you graduate to harder tongues, you’ll have no problem butchering it.
“But wait!” you say. “There’s no such thing as an ‘easy’ language.”

Wrong: there’s Esperanto! It’s so easy to learn, it’s suspicious. Benny the Irish Polyglot recommends learning Esperanto for this very reason. I’ve heard of people learning it fluently in months—because it’s constructed to be easy (if you’re a western speaker, you point out. True, Esperanto won’t be that easy for someone who only speaks Thai, for example. But this article is written in English, and you’re reading it, so…).

Another reason why Esperanto is so great is that it’s not a native language for anyone (okay, maybe like three people), or an official language for any country. That means you can…

2. Speak with someone for whom it’s a second language

Learning a new language can be a lot harder if you have to communicate with native speakers all day long. As I’ve mentioned before, learning a language from people who’ve learned it as a second language can be a great way to reduce stress on your end. You don’t have to worry about your accent, or biffing the word order, or offending them by accidentally swearing. They don’t care—it’s not “their” language!

That said, remember that you only learn by speaking with someone who is better than you. You have to be okay being the one at a lower level, so perhaps you might as well…

3. Find a helpful native speaker

I’ve got a friend here in Berlin, a native Berliner. He speaks perfect English, as Germans tend to do. But he knows I’m learning German, and I’ve asked him that when we hang out, we speak German together. This doesn’t always work—my own German father finds it really difficult to hold a conversation with me in German when we could just be speaking fluent English together!

But if you can find someone who speaks your desired language as a mother tongue and will help you, you won’t be worried about screwing up, because they’ll be expecting you to screw up. And if you biff it badly, they’ll correct you. That’s ideal.

But you don’t need to limit this to language learning. Why, if you’re going down this road, why don’t you just…

4. Practice screwing up in other areas of your life

We don’t like messing up while speaking a language because we don’t like messing up doing anything. We like being competent! Well, if you can get comfortable making mistakes in every aspect of your life, you can get comfortable making mistakes in a new language.

Ruined the roast for the dinner party? Laugh it off. Wore mismatched socks to work? Say it’s what all the cool kids are doing (they probably are). Dropped your friend’s guitar and broke it? Now you know what to get him for Christmas.

Nobody’s perfect, my friend, and that means you. So what if you make mistakes? As long as you can accept responsibility for them and get on with your life, you’ll be fine. All you have to do is…

5. Love yourself

Speaking of easier said than done, am I right? But honestly, this is pretty much the key to success at anything (who knew this article was going to be a pep talk on life?). Confidence, attitude, charisma, popularity, achievement, beauty—all of these are aspects of love thyself. And the best part? You don’t need any tools, or anyone else, and you can start right now. Just think of all the aspects of yourself that you love. That’s easy. Now start to love the aspects of yourself that you dislike. Harder, but definitely possible. Practice makes perfect. If you can love yourself, warts and all, you will succeed in anything you put your mind to, and that’s a fact.

But let’s say you can’t manage to love yourself, or find willing native speakers, or learn Esperanto—darn it, you just want to be a bit more relaxed when speaking a foreign language! Well, there’s always…

6. Alcohol

Yep! We all know alcohol is a social lubricant. A little bit of beer or wine does wonders for speaking a new language. As long as you can drink responsibly, the words will flow from your mouth like the wine flowing into it. It gives you the confidence to try new words, laugh off your mistakes, and just generally be easier on yourself. You forget that you don’t know things, and you don’t overthink it, which is key. Just know your limits—if you’re slurring your words, they’ll be unintelligible and unattractive in any language (if you’re pregnant, or unable to drink, or a teetotaler, kindly see tips 1-5).

What about you? What tips do you have for those trying to be at ease making mistakes?