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How well do you really know your second language? Thanks to self-assessment tools, you might be able to test yourself to find out.
In today’s increasingly global economy, there is a growing awareness that multilingualism is a valuable skill. That’s why those of us who may have learned a second or third language earlier in life, but felt it slowly fading away over years of disuse, may wonder how proficient we still are today.
How much of the language learned during study abroad do I still remember today? How much of my grandparents’ language did I actually pick up around their kitchen table? How might these language skills be able to serve me today?
What could I honestly say to a potential employer about my current level of proficiency in that second or third language? And what if I wanted to enroll in a language course or purchase some independent study materials to help me bring those dormant language skills back to a level of functional utility? After all these years, how would I even know where to begin?
It wouldn’t be prudent to enroll in a language course, or to make claims about your level of language proficiency on a résumé or job application, without undergoing some form of assessment that will give you a reasonably accurate and reliable measure of your current level of proficiency.
However, it’s not always feasible or appropriate to shell out the money required to take an expensive and high-stakes test like ETS’ TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), ACTFL’s OPI (Oral Proficiency Interview), or the French Ministry of Education’s DELF (Diplôme d’études en Langue Française). These kinds of tests can easily cost anywhere from $100 to $200, or more, depending on where you take them. And in many cases, they can only be taken on specified dates at certified testing centers, presenting issues of accessibility that may be impractical.
While there are certainly many situations where high-stakes tests like these offer the best, and maybe even the only, assessment option, providing answers to the kinds of questions I’ve posed above is probably not their sweet spot. In fact, it’s often the case that these kinds of questions can be adequately answered with an informal self-assessment that you can complete in the privacy of your own home, and at no cost.
What is self-assessment and how does it work? Well, perhaps the best place to begin is by agreeing on what it is not. Self-assessment is not assigning yourself a poorly-defined label like beginner, intermediate, and advanced, remembering the that you got straight A’s through four years of high school French 20 years ago, figuring that after all this time you’re probably not advanced (but neither are you a beginner), and finally arriving at the spurious conclusion that you must be “intermediate”. This kind of approach to self-assessment, or anything similar to it, includes a number of fatal errors that render any conclusions both meaningless and useless. Understanding these fatal errors can help us to recognize what a meaningful self-assessment should look like and how its results might actually be useful in the right circumstances.
The first problem with the “self-assessment” scenario described above is that letter grades awarded in high school or college language courses seldom have any connection whatsoever to actual language proficiency, which should be understood in terms of real-world communicative competence. While an exploration of the reasons why this is true are best left for a future blog post, suffice it to say that this kind of past performance is a very poor point of departure for evaluating current capabilities.
The next problem with this scenario is that the terms beginner, intermediate, and advanced are far too broad to be meaningful, and are not attached to any recognized scale of language proficiency. For any label attached to a level of language proficiency to be meaningful and useful, it must be anchored to a recognized scale of language proficiency such as the CEFR, the ILR Skill Level Descriptions, or the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines. All too often, however, these kinds of labels are thrown carelessly about with no definition, leaving users to interpret them as they will and rendering them both meaningless and useless.
The final problem with the scenario described above is closely related to the last: assigning a label like intermediate to the user’s language proficiency level is not based on any objective criteria. While it is true that self-assessment is, by definition, a subjective process, the results of that process are likely to be much more accurate if based on a clear, measurable, and objective set of criteria that serve to define what a learner can actually do at each of the proficiency levels identified in the scale being referenced. The most useful criteria are those that are expressed without reliance on technical jargon that would only be understood by language professionals, and that describe language proficiency in terms of real-world communicative tasks, often presented as a series of can-do statements such as, I can tell/ask someone how to get from here to a nearby hotel, restaurant, or post office, or I can read and understand very straightforward news reports about current and past events.
A good self-assessment tool, then, should:
There are a number of good self-assessments that meet all three of the criteria I’ve listed above, are freely and publicly available, and that you can administer to yourself whenever and wherever you’d like. If your only goal is to satisfy your personal curiosity or to have an idea of which level of language course to enroll in, or which level of self-study materials to purchase, then self-assessment may well be the perfect solution for you.
Although the stakes may be somewhat higher when describing your language proficiency on a job application, self-assessment results might also be perfectly appropriate there as well, depending on how central a skill language proficiency is to the job you’re applying for and what level of competence is expected. And there are other low- to mid-stakes applications where self-assessment has also been known to provide a very good solution.
Several years ago, the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute was facing a frustrating problem to which self-assessment turned out to be the perfect solution. Intensive language study is an essential part of the training for all Foreign Service officers. New applicants who claim to have already attained a high level of proficiency in a foreign language are required to pass a fairly lengthy and expensive battery of language proficiency tests in order to establish the actual level of their proficiency based on the ILR scale. Over time, administrators noticed that a pattern was developing wherein applicants who had recently graduated with prestigious degrees in highly-sought-after languages like Chinese, Arabic, or Russian, were complaining about the fact that their scores on FSI’s tests were much lower than they had expected.
The problem lay in the fact that many of these applicants were coming out of university programs that did very little to prepare them for the practical, communicative language requirements of a Foreign Service officer. In fact, it’s a well-known problem that many university degree programs focus on the historical, literary, and academic aspects of that language, rather than on the communicative competence that is of importance to an organization like the U.S. State Department and that forms the basis for the ILR Skill Level Descriptors that FSI’s tests are designed to measure.
The solution was to create a set of ILR-based self-assessments that potential applicants can take at no cost and in the privacy of their own homes to have a reasonably accurate understanding of how well their previous language learning experiences have, or have not, prepared them to meet the language requirements of a Foreign Service officer. In the years since those self-assessments have been in use, the number of complaints from disappointed applicants has gone down significantly, and the number of applicants who begin the process with a realistic appraisal of their own language skills has gone up.
Even when used in fairly low-stakes contexts like these, there are two important caveats to consider:
A recent study of the accuracy and reliability of self-assessments, conducted by the National Language Service Corps, found that “self-assessments give a clear profile of target‑language strengths and weakness”, and concluded that, “the Can‑Dos and the global self‑assessments are reasonably valid measures of language skills in NLSC target languages, and should remain as part of the NLSC screening process.” NLSC’s current policy is to use ILR-based self-assessments for screening and for initial membership, while requiring that members pass a more rigorous formal test in the target language before actually being sent on their first assignment.
Self-assessment, even at its best, is clearly not appropriate for many purposes. Self-assessments will never be able to replace the kinds of high-stakes language tests administered by organizations like university admissions departments, the Foreign Service, or the Defense Language Institute, nor are they intended to do so. In the right situation, however, a well-done self-assessment might be just what the doctor—or the instructor—ordered.
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