The experience of learning a language is often likened to going on a journey to a far-off land. As a learner, you have a destination you would like to reach, with various milestones dotting the landscape along the way.
There will be obstacles. In some places you will have to struggle climbing uphill, while in others you will have an easier, downhill slope to travel.
Any traveler’s trek is made easier with the presence of one simple tool: a map. The map shows you what lies ahead, and helps you orient yourself in case you become lost, or need to take a detour.
In this day and age, we have many maps at our disposal — globes, traffic maps, weather maps, road maps, topographical maps, and others. With such a variety of useful options, it is hard to know which is the best map for the journey at hand.
We face the same difficulty when learning languages. There are many excellent language learning “maps”—or proficiency frameworks and scales — available today, and such a range of options makes it difficult to know which is the right one for us to rely upon.
When faced with such choice, it is wise to remember that maps and proficiency scales alike are just representations of the territory, and not the territory itself.
This means that no map nor proficiency scale is perfect. All have their own unique advantages and disadvantages, and that means that we, as would-be travelers, can learn unique lessons from each.
So, just as the Common European Framework of Reference of Languages (CEFR) can show you valuable information about the path, so can the world’s second most prominent language proficiency framework, the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines.
What is ACTFL?
Founded in 1967, The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, or ACTFL, is an individual membership organization with the goal of “Providing vision, leadership and support for quality teaching and learning of languages.”
Since its inception, ACTFL has furthered the cause of language education in myriad ways, from developing the classroom-based learning standards used across the US (the World-Readiness Standards for Learning Languages), to providing tools and resources for language teacher certification. ACTFL’s greatest contribution to the field of language learning as a whole, however, has come in the form of it’s very own proficiency framework, known as the the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines.
History of the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines
The ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines were actually born as an “academic adaptation” of the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale, which has been in use by the United States military since the late 1950s.
The first edition of the Guidelines were published by ACTFL in 1986, three years before work began on their European counterpart, the CEFR.
Since that first edition, there have been two others; a second edition, published in parts between 1999 and 2001, and the third (current) edition, published in 2012. The third version is notable for being the first of its kind to have parallel skill-level descriptions across all four sets of guidelines, as we will examine below.
How ACTFL Describes Language Proficiency
The most succinct description of the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines comes in their opening sentence:
“The ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines are descriptions of what individuals can do with language in terms of speaking, writing, listening, and reading in real-world situations in a spontaneous and non-rehearsed context.” (p.3)
These descriptions are gathered together in a 24-page document, and organized by each of the four major language skills. There are guidelines for Speaking, guidelines for Writing, guidelines for Listening, and guidelines for Reading.
Each set of guidelines follows the same format—a preface describing the nature of the skill, followed by a breakdown of proficiency in that skill in descending order, from most proficient to least proficient language levels.
Each skill breakdown examines what a learner at that specific level of that specific skill should be capable (or incapable of doing). The following text, taken from the Advanced Low level of the Listening guidelines, is such an example:
“At the Advanced Low sublevel, listeners are able to understand short conventional narrative and descriptive texts with a clear underlying structure though their comprehension may be uneven. The listener understands the main facts and some supporting details. Comprehension may often derive primarily from situational and subject-matter knowledge” (ACTFL, 2012).
What are the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines?
As noted above, the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines is, in actuality, a set of four unique guidelines:
- ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines 2012 – Speaking
- ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines 2012 – Writing
- ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines 2012 – Listening
- ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines 2012 – Reading
As of the 2012 edition, each of the above guidelines is divisible into five major levels of proficiency. Furthermore, the lowest three levels of proficiency are further divisible into three sublevels each, giving us a total of eleven different language levels on the ACTFL scale.
Here are the levels, in descending order of language proficiency.
- Advanced High
- Advanced Mid
- Advanced Low
- Intermediate High
- Intermediate Mid
- Intermediate Low
- Novice High
- Novice Mid
- Novice Low
The eleven levels of language proficiency are typically represented visually in the form of an inverted pyramid, representing the growing level of experience and skill a learner needs to ascend from Novice Low all the way to Distinguished level.
Unlike the CEFR, the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines take no official stance on their relationship to the two extremes of language ability: the “zero-beginner” and the “educated native speaker”, respectively. The closest ACTFL comes to taking such a position is on the opening page of the guidelines:
“The levels of the ACTFL Guidelines describe the continuum of proficiency from that of the highly articulate, well-educated language user to a level of little or no functional ability.”
Given the phrases “well-educated language user” on the high end of proficiency and “little or no functional” ability on the low end, it is possible to infer that zero-beginners and educated native speakers could fall along this scale, but this is not directly stated in the literature.
How to Prove Your Language Skills with ACTFL
If you’re looking to prove your proficiency on the ACTFL scale, there are two main outlets for assessment:
- Formal Assessment
- Informal Assessment
Though ACTFL is based in the United States of America, its official exams have a global reach. According to ACTFL’s Assessment page:
“ACTFL proficiency tests are currently being used worldwide by academic institutions, government agencies and private corporations for purposes such as: academic placement, student assessment, program evaluation, professional certification, hiring, and promotional qualification.”
These are the six major ACTFL proficiency exams, according to the skills they test.
- The ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI)
- The ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview Computer Test (OPIc)
- Also known as ProFluent+ Test
- The ACTFL Writing Proficiency Test (WPT)
- The ACTFL Reading Proficiency Test (RPT)
- The ACTFL Listening Proficiency Test (LTP)
- Speaking, Writing, Listening and Reading
- The ACTFL Assessment of Performance toward Proficiency in Languages (AAPPL) Measure
Though the number of available languages varies from exam to exam, ACTFL provides official, formal testing in over 100+ languages in total.
Depending on the language and type of exam chosen, these tests can be administered in-person, over the phone, and online, all through Language Testing International (LTI) the exclusive testing licensee of ACTFL.
Beyond having your ACTFL proficiency informally evaluated by an expert teacher or tutor, ACTFL does provide a single option for learners wishing to evaluate their proficiency level without recourse to an exam: the NCSSFL-ACTFL Can-Do Statements.
This printable document is a series of self-assessment checklists that any learner can use to determine where his or her skills fall along the ACTFL scale.
Much like with the CEFR self-assessment materials, learners using the NCSS statements are given an assessment grid, which allows them to crossreference their own “can-do” capabilities with the five major ACTFL proficiency levels, as well as the three main modes of communication as defined in the World-Readiness Standards for Learning Languages. Additionally, learners are given checklists that allow them to evaluate their level according to these “can-do” statements.
ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines, though less well-known worldwide than the CEFR, provide an alternative “map” to language proficiency. The ACTFL Guidelines’ focus on capabilities in each unique skill allow you to individually test and verify your level in all key aspects of a single aspect, and know precisely where your strengths and weaknesses lie.
If you’re based in the US, or looking to base yourself there, there is no better or more widely available certification options than those provided by ACTFL. In addition, the ability to take ACTFL exams in dozens (if not hundreds) of languages both in-person, over the phone, and online, makes proving your skills with ACTFL easier than with alternative scales.
As with any scale or framework, the strength of the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines are that they provide perspective on the language learning journey, like a map provides prospective on the territory it covers. Use this perspective to orient yourself, and to learn more about what you can and can’t do at this point in your learning. Once you’ve seen where you are, devise a route forward, and then keep on marching towards your language learning goals.