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.
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:
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?