The Learner’s Guide to Language Proficiency Tests
Tests aren’t often a cause for celebration.
But they have undeniable benefits that will serve you well in your language learning journey.
Indeed, language proficiency tests can be the key that will open doors of opportunities for you.
Let’s talk about the different kinds of tests you can take to prove to others the strength of your lingual skills!
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)
The Virtues of Language Proficiency Tests
The advantages of language proficiency tests are twofold.
First, they can be used as proof of competence for job applications and advanced studies. Sure, the world might be a better place if there weren’t any language proficiency tests. You wouldn’t have to cough up any fees. During interviews, the person screening you would simply have the liberty to ask you anything to test your knowledge and competence in the language.
But imagine how impractical and unprofessional that would be in actual practice. Let’s say it’s your fifth job interview, and you have a particularly curious French interviewer who wants to test your linguistic chops and asks you: What’s the French word for “elevator”? How about “orange”? What’s the difference between avoir and être? Translate this phrase for me: “I am late because my car broke down.”
Wouldn’t that be a little bit insulting, if not time and energy consuming? Could anyone get an accurate, thorough picture of someone’s overall French knowledge in a quick sit-down like this?
Having documentary proof for passing the Test de Connaissance du Français, you can just silently insert the certificate with your other requirements and be on your way. The interviewer will now only have to ask, “What level did you get in TCF?” To which you respond, “C2,” and the two of you can move on to talk about salaries and what not.
Your language proficiency test results are clear and succinct statements of your competency in the language. I’m not saying the tests are perfect, but I am saying that they’re a handy shortcut when you want to prove your linguistic chops. That’s why many governments, companies and institutions require them from applicants. A lettered number like C2 tells them more than they need to know about you and your skills. So, for someone who wants to work in a specific country or take advanced classes, a language proficiency test might be a required element of your application.
A second virtue of language test—and this is on a more personal note—is that by anticipating an exam, a righteous fire is sparked underneath you, compelling you to prepare. You’re provided with an excellent motivation to hit the books, work the flashcards and stay in on Saturday evenings.
Oftentimes, this kind of furious dedication can only be acquired through an upcoming standardized examination. When you’re working for a “golden star” or a “brownie point,” somehow it doesn’t bear the same seriousness as a government sanctioned assessment.
So you get motivated because you’re paying for it yourself and because you don’t get to take it every day. You’ve got one shot to prove yourself (unless you want to pay the fee and sit down to take the test again).
As a result, your study and review sessions result in a very in-depth learning of the language that you would otherwise not have had, had you not prepared so hard for the exam.
That can only mean wonderful things for you! Especially if you’re aware of entertaining ways to study that keep the process from being frustrating or monotonous.
And really, a third virtue of language proficiency tests is that after you pass them, they become bona fide confidence boosters. They add a spring to your steps, scaffolding your chin so that it always remains up. To know that you’re good enough is enough to make you wanna brag, even if it’s just to yourself or your mom.
You passed a hurdle, knocked one out of the park. So, what can life throw your way that you can’t handle? You already have personal proof that as long as you put your mind into it, you’ll make it.
What Language Proficiency Tests to Take?
As far as language proficiency tests go, there are plenty of fish in the sea. So, you must be able to filter what’s good and widely recognized and what’s not. You don’t want to study hard and pass a test only to discover that the institution you’re applying to goes by a different measure.
A great rule of thumb is to first ask your target institution what proficiency tests they require and recognize. This information is often available in job and university application instructions, on the institution’s main website or within the online FAQ, but if these resources yield no results then go ahead and call or email someone.
That said, here are some of the most prestigious as well as widely-recognized language assessment tools for different languages.
8 Foreign Language Proficiency Tests That All Learners Should Know About
If you want to enroll in an English-speaking academic institution in a place like the United States, Australia, Canada or the United Kingdom and you come from a country where English is not the first language, you may have to prove that you can handle English as the language medium for the coursework. In this case, you’ll have to take the TOEFL.
TOEFL stands for Test of English as a Foreign Language. And that, exactly, is what it’s all about. The TOEFL tests your reading, listening, speaking and writing skills in four separate sections, each section devoted to one skill. There are specific elements in the TOEFL geared to assess each of these skills in different ways.
Overall, your English comprehension will definitely be tested. For example, in the Reading Comprehension section, you may be asked to read three to four academic passages and after each one you’ll be asked a couple of questions based on the texts. In the Independent and Integrated Writing sections, you’ll be asked to write an essay or opinion piece on a given topic, and you’ll also need to make a structured argument about something said within a given passage. The TOEFL is set to find out if you’re ready for the rigors of academic training in an English-speaking institution.
You can register for the test online, by mail or by phone. You’ll then get information about the date, time and test center where you’ll sit down for the test.
Speaking of test centers, there’s more than one way to go about taking the test. There are online and paper-based versions of the TOEFL. The online version, offered more than 50 times a year, is the more common one with fees ranging from $160-$250, depending on your location. The test can be completed in 4.5 hours, including a 10-minute break.
The paper-based test ($160, 4 hours to complete) is comparable to the online test except that it doesn’t have the speaking section where you listen to a native speaker talk (sometimes with an accent) and give an audio response based on what you’ve heard.
TOEFL results are valid for two years and you can ask the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the exam’s administrator, to independently send your results to schools and universities that you’ve applied to.
The International English Language Testing System (IELTS) is also another widely recognized English language proficiency test. It’s jointly managed by the British Council, IDP Education and Cambridge English Language Assessment.
IELTS also tests all four English communication skills: reading (60 minutes), writing (60 minutes), listening (30 minutes) and speaking (11-14 minutes). The whole test should be finished in 2 hours and 45 minutes.
The IELTS speaking section is actually a recorded face-to-face interview given by a certified examiner, and it comes close to the real, practical experience of talking to a native speaker. It’s divided into three parts. The first one involves personal introductions. The examiner will introduce himself or herself, and you’ll do the same. The examiners may ask you further questions about your family, work, background, hobbies and interests.
In the second section of the test you’re given a task card, and you’ll be asked to talk at length about the topic written on it. Talking points will also be included on the task card, so make sure you cover them in your discussion. You’ll be given 1-2 minutes to prepare, and writing down and reading from notes is allowed. After your talk, the examiner will ask you a question or two on the topic.
The third section is really an extension of the second. It’ll be a discussion between you and the examiner. The examiner will probe you about the topic and will try to gauge your ability to communicate information, issues and ideas.
IELTS come in two flavors, one geared for students (“Academic”) applying for advanced studies and postgraduate degrees, and another for migrants (“General Training”) who wish to prove English competence as part of their visa or employment application.
The tests differ in the reading and writing sections. Academic IELTS involves questions and passages that test a student’s ability to thrive in an academic or professional environment, while General Training IELTS tests a person’s practical, everyday proficiency with the English language.
There are no failing marks for this test, only band scores (0-9). A “0” means you didn’t take the test, a “1” means that you have essentially no ability to use the language, save for some isolated words or expressions, and a “9” means that you’re an expert English speaker and have full operational command of the language.
The test fee will vary on your location. Find out how much it will cost here.
The Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) rounds up the triumvirate of English-based proficiency tests. It was developed by the Educational Testing Service to (ETS) to gauge English proficiency in the business or professional setting and is now recognized by 14,000 organizations in 150 countries. Korea’s LG Group and China Southern Airlines are just two of the many corporations that rely on TOEIC as a tool for business decisions.
In the question of recruitment, placement or promotion, a stellar TOEIC score could make a huge difference.
There are two types of TOEIC. The first is the TOEIC Listening and Reading and it tests exactly those two skills. It’s a 2-hour exercise made up of 200 questions that gauge listening and reading comprehension in every way possible. For example, in the listening comprehension portion, you’ll be shown a picture followed by four audio statements about the image. You’ll mark your answer sheet to indicate the statement that best describes the picture. So, if the picture is about guys playing basketball, then you choose the statement which exactly expresses that. Be careful because the audio statements will only be presented once.
The second type, TOEIC Speaking and Writing, was introduced in 2006. With this test you’ll be tested on pronunciation, fluency, vocabulary, grammar, coherence and organization.
In the speaking section of the test, there will be 11 oral tasks that you’ll have to complete—ranging from reading a specific text out loud to describing a picture or expressing an opinion. The section takes around 20 minutes to finish.
In the writing test format, there are eight written tasks to be completed, ranging from writing a sentence based on a picture to writing an essay expressing an opinion.
So if you’re thinking of getting ahead in your career or enhancing your professional credentials, consider taking the TOEIC.
When it comes to proving your French mettle, the Test de Connaissance du Français (TCF) is one test you dare not miss. It’s administered by Centre International d’études Pédagogiques (CIEP) for the French Ministry of Education.
Whether it be for personal, academic or professional reasons, the TCF will give you a language assessment that follows the standards set forth in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).
As a short aside, in 2001, a European Union Council Resolution recommended the use of CEFR as a standard system to test and validate language proficiency for the different languages of Europe. The standard levels of proficiency are as follows:
A = Basic User (A1 and A2)
B = Independent User (B1 and B2)
C = Proficient User (C1 and C2)
[A2 is a better than A1, and having a C2 rating means that the test taker has gained fluency and precision with the language. C2 is the highest rating in this system.]
TCF has both compulsory and optional components. The compulsory unit is an 80-item multiple choice test that gauges your listening comprehension, reading comprehension and use of language structures. In the listening portion, for example, you may hear a French dialogue, interview or discussion, and you’ll then be asked a question based on what you heard. The reading comprehension section will assess your understanding of French based on the written word, with the items getting progressively more difficult.
The optional test can only be taken once you’ve passed the compulsory test. You should take this within two years after passing the compulsory test, as this is the duration of your compulsory score’s validity.
The optional component is made up of the speaking and writing sections. The spoken component is a recorded face-to-face interview with an examiner that lasts about 15 minutes. They’ll give you a series of tasks that will elucidate your French verbal dexterity, and they may ask you to describe an experience or event, explain an idea or discuss a complex topic. The recording of the interview will then be sent to CIEP where it will be evaluated by a team of qualified teachers.
The written portion of the test is composed of six tasks that will progressively get more difficult. All these will be used to see if you can create complex French sentences, synthesize an idea and even paraphrase a paragraph.
Since the spoken and written tests are optional, you may decide not take them at all.
Diplomas de Español como Lengua Extranjera (DELE) are tests administered by Instituto Cervantes on behalf of the Spanish Ministry of Education and Science, and adhering to the standards set forth by the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). This means it follows the standard taxonomy of language competency as explained above, where A1 is considered absolute beginner and C2 signifies a high level of fluency.
The test is held five times each year—in April, May, July, October and November—at 800 test centers in 100 countries.
The DELE is similar to other language proficiency tests, having features that comprehensively gauge Spanish grammar and comprehension. But it does differ in some important respects from tests we’ve discussed so far. While other test results are valid for only a limited period of time, usually two years, the DELE is permanently valid. (You are, after all, given a diploma.)
Another unique feature of the DELE is that you determine before the actual assessment which level of testing you’d like to take. While other tests give students the same or similar test and, based on the test results, determine what competency level the student is in, the DELE makes the student choose which test to take beforehand.
This means there are six different versions of the test. There’s a DELE for A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2, each successive test getting a little bit more difficult. You determine beforehand what test level you’d like to take. So, you’ll need to research which diploma is required by the institution to which you’ll be sending your results. B2 is often enough for entry into a Spanish university. But if it’s a medical school you’re interested in, they often require at least a C1 diploma.
How much does it cost? Well, in this respect DELE is like many other tests. It depends on where you’ll be taking the test. Get the contact info for the testing center nearest you here.
The European Language Certificates (TELC) Deutsch, in partnership with the German federal government, provides a fair evaluation of your German aptitude according to the standards set forth by the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).
Like the DELE, you’ll have to choose which TELC level you take. For example, when applying for a spouse visa, an A1 TELC test (the most basic one) is enough. Applying for university and medical school is a different proposition altogether.
The test has a format that’s similar to that of the other tests we’ve discussed here. There are reading and listening comprehension sections and a language elements section, as well as sections devoted to assessing your writing and speaking skills.
The oral part of TELC is a unique one, in that it may not be a one-on-one interview with an examiner. Two persons may be tested at the same time. In this case, the examiner will take the role of facilitator and mediate the conversation.
Twenty minutes before the start of the oral examination, you’ll be given a task sheet detailing the things you and your partner will have to do. (No talking with your partner during the prep stage.)
It’s important that you actively participate in the conversation and respond to what the other examinee is saying—without, of course, dominating the conversation. In case your partner has trouble with the task, try to help him out. (This will merit you extra points!)
TELC also offers proficiency tests in nine other languages—Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Polish, Turkish and Arabic. Check out their official site to find out more.
Chinese (Mandarin in particular) is fast becoming a required language for business. There’s a whole lot of people studying it at the moment and you could very well be one of them. At some point, you’ll want to know where you are in your Chinese progress as well as receive certification for your hard-earned proficiency.
Mandarin Chinese can be a tough language to conquer, so if you want extra practice or aren’t sure where to start learning, FluentU can help out. With its library of authentic videos combined with interactive captions and comprehensive dictionary, the FluentU Mandarin Chinese program aims to teach you Chinese vocabulary in context. To review material and boost your confidence during test-taking season, you can study with the app’s customized flashcards, vocabulary lists and personalized quizzes.
The Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì (HSK), administered by Hanban, an agency of the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China, is the test you should take. It’s the only official, standardized test for Mandarin Chinese.
You can choose from six levels of the test, ranging from HSK1 to HSK6.
HSK1 is the easiest and is designed for learners who can communicate in basic sentences and understand simple Chinese characters. Because of the nature of the language, in addition to the usual fare of reading and listening comprehension, there’s a section which tests your ability to identify Chinese characters. (There’s a list of required characters provided for every level.) Pinyin, Chinese transliteration, is provided in HSK1.
HSK6 is the most difficult test to take and is designed for folks who can fluently converse in the language, know linguistic nuances, use idiomatic expressions properly and express themselves by both written and oral means.
The oral portion of the test can be taken separately. For this separate speaking section there are just three levels: beginner, intermediate and advanced.
The written test fees start at $20 for HSK1 and go up in $10 increments. Oral fees also start at $20 for beginners and go up to $20 and $30 for intermediate and advanced levels respectively.
So get a move on. Start your Chinese review!
If you wish to land a top job in the third largest economy in the world, chances are you’re going to need to be certified in Japanese. Even if you’d just like to cultivate excellent business relationships with the Japanese, then knowing some of the language can be a great foot in the door.
In general, the Japanese tend to look favorably on those who not only respect their cherished traditions but also those who can speak their tongue. So, a lot of businesspeople are getting started with their Japanese language programs.
In order to be certified, you’re going to have to take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), administered by Japan Educational Exchanges and Services (JEES) in cooperation with the Ministry of Education.
Unlike other language proficiency tests that are held several times annually, the JLPT is conducted only twice a year, July and December, in Japan and selected countries. (Well, there are even some countries who have it only once a year.) So, you’d better make your test count.
There are five JLPT levels you can take. N1 is the highest level and N5 is the most basic level. (For serious job seekers who will need Japanese for daily professional purposes, you must pass at least the N2 certification exam.)
The JLPT has reading and listening formats that are comparable to the other language tests we have featured here, testing your knowledge of different grammatical structures and characters, and I’m sure you’ll be sad to know that it doesn’t have a speaking component. Well, that’s okay. I’m sure you’ll have your hands full with the written section.
To end this post, let me simply say that language fluency tests are not the monsters of the deep they’re often purported to be.
They’re simply a gauge, a way of telling you where you are in your language journey. They’re a check, a guide you can use to plan your way and achieve your goals.
So, have at it already, and good luck!
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)