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Out of the Fog

A Review of ACTFL Language Proficiency Tests

Getting out of a fog when your feet are planted solidly on the ground is one thing. When you’re out at sea immersed in learning a foreign language, it is entirely another thing—a particularly disorienting thing.

In that dense fog you need accurate assessment that triangulates your exact location on the linguistic terrain. This is difficult to find. Locals overpraise. Your pride swells. Then it all crashes when you can’t distinguish your left from your right while giving a taxi driver directions. But that crash, that negative feedback, is exactly the honesty you need—it shows you one specific task that you cannot do (yet). A bit of the fog has lifted. Now you can conquer that small sector on the map and move on to your next crash. The language learner is always saying, “Here we go again!”

I’ve been crashing through Mandarin Chinese for the last five years. And I’m still crashing. Recently, a friend suggested that I take a proficiency test to get more specific feedback about what I can do in Chinese. He recommended Language Testing International, the testing service of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). ACTFL provides testing (proctored online) and certification of language proficiency in listening, speaking, reading, and writing (as separate tests). I found the testing process useful. Perhaps you will too.

What ACTFL Is and Isn’t: Description Not Prescription

After completing my first test I received a notice that my rating was available. I opened my account and clicked on my results. I was disappointed to discover that all the feedback I received was two letters. Not letters in my inbox—two mere symbols from the alphabet. The only feedback I have received for all four tests has been this abbreviated form of my achieved proficiency level (for example: “NH” for Novice High). Feedback about specific areas of weakness is not part of ACTFL certification.

To be fair, this is in keeping with ACTFL’s description of their proficiency guidelines:

The ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines are a description of what individuals can do with language . . . in real-world situations in a spontaneous and non-rehearsed context.[1]

ACTFL proficiency testing is descriptive, not prescriptive. If you’d like to get medicine for what ails your language skills, look elsewhere. But if you need an accurate assessment of what you can do in a language, and every language learner does, then the ACTFL offers one of the best options.

If you compare ACTFL testing with the typical Chinese assessment (HSK), the descriptive nature of ACTFL stands out. Students study for the HSK, memorizing vocabulary on HSK lists, even enrolling in HSK preparation classes. In the end, the HSK score received, while certainly an achievement to be celebrated, does not necessarily describe what one can do with Chinese in real life. This is what makes ACTFL unique.  

Is the Cost of ACTFL Testing Worth It?  

The ACTFL testing costs are high: US$159 for speaking, US$105 for writing, US$50 for listening, and US$50 for reading. For those pursuing course credit, ACTFL certified proficiencies are accepted for credit in many university programs. For those seeking business credentials, multiple government agencies and many international corporations require ACTFL certified proficiencies.

But even without a career or course credit on the line, the cost can be justified. While independent language learners may balk at the cost, it may be just such learners who are most likely to be adrift in the fog without an institution pulling them along. ACTFL testing can provide invaluable points of reference for continuing on one’s way to language mastery. But just taking a test is not automatically valuable.

Making Your Testing Count

You will make the best use of this tool by slowly digesting the ACTFL proficiency guidelines before taking the test. You will need a sense of the differences between levels of proficiency, based on the descriptions provided. You should focus on the levels that you are currently nearest, self-assessing based on these guidelines. Only once you are very familiar with the guidelines should you take the test.

Before testing you should also carefully read ACTFL’s “Familiarization Manual.” To take the ACTFL tests without understanding the guidelines would be akin to receiving your precise GPS position, without any other details on a map. If you cannot interpret your results through the guidelines, your results will not serve any useful purpose in your personal progress. Although your certificate will still verify to others what your language learning has achieved, even if you don’t understand it yourself!

Post-Test: What’s Next?

If you reach Superior proficiency—congratulations! You’ve arrived, all the fog is gone. Enjoy the clear skies. If you’re like most of the rest of us, then your natural next step is to open up the proficiency guidelines again and look at the description of the next level. Then walk back into the fog, but this time with a clear direction.

Ask yourself, “What does the next level in the proficiency guidelines describe that I cannot do—yet?” For example, as I took the speaking test, I realized I consistently came up short when describing concrete objects. Even a simple task like describing a room in my house gives me trouble. As I read over the description of the next proficiency level, it become clear that I need to improve my ability to make such descriptions.

This is immediately actionable intel. In my next casual meeting with a Chinese friend I asked to spend fifteen minutes describing the KFC we sat in. In that activity, I not only learned unfamiliar vocabulary (“potted plant”, “surveillance camera”, “fried chicken”), but I also learned new ways of seeing as my friend highlighted how KFC looked Western to him.

And I took one more step toward my ultimate language learning goals, all thanks to the help of ACTFL testing.

Image credit: Petr Ruzicka from Pixabay

T. F. Post

T. F. Post (pseudonym) and his family have lived and served in China since 2013. Their primary ministry focus is mentoring and equipping current and future church leaders. You can reach him at; View Full Bio

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