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What is proficiency in a language?

According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), proficiency is described as what one can do with language in real-world situations in a spontaneous and unrehearsed context in the four modalities of reading, listening, speaking, and writing. Within each modality, proficiency is classified within the continuum of novice, intermediate, advanced, superior and distinguished. These ranges are further divided by low, mid, and high levels. Proficiency takes time and progress varies from individual to individual. This inverted pyramid shows how time and experiences are needed to advance into higher levels of proficiency.

World Language Rating Scale from ACTFL

An individual may perform in various ranges of proficiency in distinct modalities but must demonstrate consistency across all modalities to receive specific classifications. For example, one may demonstrate a proficiency of Intermediate-Mid in reading and listening and Intermediate-Low in speaking in writing. In this case, the individual would be considered at an Intermediate–Low proficiency.

The ACTFL Oral Proficiency Levels in the Workplace chart shows the connection between time, experiences, and different levels of oral proficiency. With more advanced proficiency, speakers can perform more complex language functions and have more potential career opportunities.

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