How Well Do You Speak It? Measuring how proficient you are at another language

Measuring how well you know another language can be complicated, and there are lots of tests and proficiency scales out there. In the United States, two of the best, research-validated methods for measuring and describing your proficiency level come from the US government's Defense Language Institute, and from the American Counsel on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL).

Both these organizations have come up with excellent systems for evaluating your language proficiency. The bad news is that these tests can be expensive to take.'s the good news!

While I was working on my thesis for my master's degree in foreign-language teaching, I found out that people are actually pretty good at self-assessing their language proficiency. Here's how it worked.

  1. I used the descriptions that ACTFL uses to describe proficiency, and shortened them down (these are listed below)

  2. Next, I asked people to read through them and self-assess the level that best fit how well they knew a language

  3. After, we had those people take an actual proficiency test

  4. I compared the self-assessment with the actual test

Here's what I found out:

  • The correlation between the scores was r=0.843 (where r=1.0 is a perfect positive correlation). That's really good! That means the two scores were pretty closely related to each other.

  • People did better at self-assessing a language they were learning than a native language

  • People who had experience learning more languages were even better at self-assessing

I've included my poster with all the stats for this project below.

The big take-away? You'll actually do a pretty good job of figuring out for yourself how well you know a language, even without taking a big test.

Try it for yourself!

Here are the descriptors I used for this research. They are based on the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines, and use the ACTFL Proficiency Levels. What's your proficiency level?


I can say a few words and some memorized phrases.


I know some words and phrases, but I probably wouldn't be able to hold a conversation with someone.


I can use short or incomplete sentences to have a brief, simple conversation about something familiar, but I don't understand everything and can't say a lot back.


I can talk about familiar things, like family and hobbies, but not for very long. It's still hard to understand and answer questions, and people don't always understand me.


I can have conversations about familiar things, like myself, family, home, and daily activities without much trouble. More complex conversations, however, are still too hard.


I can handle uncomplicated tasks and basic social exchanges. I can speak using the past, present, and future tenses. I can talk for longer than a single sentence--up to paragraph-length, but not always. I still make a fair number of mistakes.


I can participate in informal and some formal conversations. I can use the past, present, and future, and people generally don't get confused when I speak. Grammar is still sometimes hard, and I still make mistakes. I can't always express myself.


I can talk about almost anything I want to with clarity and accuracy, but abstract or complex topics are still sometimes too difficult for me to talk about for a long time. Overall, people understand me.


I can talk about a wide range of topics, and I'm able to talk about abstract ideas, use specialty vocabulary, and hypothesize and support my opinions. I can't do this 100% of the time, though. I still make mistakes, and they tend to follow a pattern.


I can communicate with accuracy and fluency in all settings and on all topics, including abstract or complex ideas or topics with specialty vocabulary. I might make an occasional error, but my errors don't follow any particular pattern.


I am articulate in the language, and I can use it skillfully, accurately, and effectively. I can use persuasive and hypothetical language. My accent does not distract listeners. I use cultural references, such as idioms, from the language's culture(s). My errors are very occasional and isolated.

The Research