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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:
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.
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!
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.
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:
The ILR, CEFR and ACTFL proficiency scales each measure slightly different things and divide their levels at different places. They are not strictly comparable and one can’t really say that a particular score on one scale or test is the same as some given score on another scale or test. But many are interested in how the scales are related, so here’s a comparison chart that many in the language community would consider imperfect, but not too far off.
|(Higher: C1, C2)||(Higher: Superior)||(Higher: 3, 4, 5)|
*To better understand how CEFR corresponds to ACTFL and ILR, we recommend this paper by Brian North, a co-author of CEFR who has done extensive work in this subject area.