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Language proficiency is the ability to speak in a certain language or the ability to perform well with different language tasks. This general term gets a lot of attention from linguistic experts, but its exact parameters are often unclear. Different institutions and organizations have their own ways to measure proficiency in language, and that means that those researching this human attribute need to bring a lot of their own observations into play.
The term language proficiency is often used along with related terminology. Those evaluating language proficiency might also talk about language competence, or accuracy of use in a given language. The term “fluency” is also frequently used. Fluency largely refers to the use of an expanded set of vocabulary to express oneself fully, and also implies a certain level of comprehension in a language. The definition of fluency can differ significantly from the definition of proficiency, which is a more comprehensive term for using a language.
Various academic institutions have developed their own tests and standards for language competence or proficiency. For example, the language proficiency index or LPI from the University of British Columbia in Canada is one way to assess and characterize an individual’s level of competence in a given language. These types of tests are often used to place individuals for immigration, an academic role, or in a job context.
Many elements of language competence or proficiency tests involve common categories of language use. Four classic elements are speaking, writing, listening, and reading. Tests may weight these four areas differently according to proprietary ideas about what constitutes language competence or proficiency.
Some local governments and communities that evaluate language competence or proficiency have developed concrete “language proficiency levels” to evaluate an individual’s use of language. Many of these begin with basic understanding of a spoken language at level 1, with additional levels for reading and writing, along with expanded vocabulary and extended language tasks skills. Generally, at the higher levels, the individual is able to understand more complex language constructs, including idioms and vernacular speech. The advanced levels of proficiency also involve the ability to write and speak much the same way as a literate native English speaker.
The use of language proficiency models is useful for instructors and schools, but it can also be useful to other parties. Companies may use aspects of language competence or proficiency in evaluation of employees, and more demographic models can help with public administration in communities where many residents are not native English speakers. It’s helpful, therefore, to look at a variety of established models and customize them according to the needs of the linguistic analyst.