Saturday, January 26, 2013

Clarification on how ACTFL *labels* mislead us

I don't know if people go back and read the comments to early posts, since there almost never are any! I wrote about  how ACFTL labels mislead career overseas workers into thinking they are more advanced than they are. 

Paul Sandrock, the ACTFL Director of Education responded kindly, and informatively, but I felt he misunderstood what I was saying. He wrote that "The ACTFL levels (like the government's ILR levels) describe the range of skills needed to function in real life situations, from highly predictable and controlled everyday situations (novice level) to situations requiring very sophisticated and extended discourse (distinguished level)." 

So in Prof. Sandrock's sense, if someone understands "Intermediate" or "Advanced" in terms of the ACTFL level descriptors, then that person won't be mislead, since the terms "Intermediate" and "Advanced" will have special, technical meanings, for them, rather than the more everyday understandings most people will have. 

But since most people don't have those technical understandings of the terms, they are hearing the words "Intermediate" and "Advanced" with their everyday meanings. (I keep mentioning these two labels, because they are about the only two I hear people ascribing to themselves.) For people without ACTFL's technical understandings of the words, the FSI/ILR labels such as "Elementary Proficincy" or "Survival Proficiency (rather than ACTFL's "Intermediate") and "Limited Working Proficiency" (rather than ACTFL's "Advanced") are more accurate, while the ACTFL labels (not the detailed descriptors) are generally--in reference to the long-term overseas career population--misleading. 

I feel that the reason that the ACTFL labels are misleading for that population, is that they were coined in a different context, with a different population in mind: school and university foreign language students. And for that originally intended population, the labels, "Intermediate," "Advanced" (etc.) are not at all misleading. They say the right thing.

So this is not to say that the detailed ACTFL descriptors do not validly cover the whole range of proficiency ("range of skills needed to function in real life situations"-- though I guess that could be a bit exaggerated in the opinion of some!), as do the FSI/ILR descriptors. It is only to say that whether the labels convey the right meaning in everyday English depends on the population to which they are being applied.

Does anyone not feel that "Intermediate Proficiency" means something different from "Survival Proficiency" in everyday English, or that "Advanced Proficiency" means something different from "Limited Working Proficiency" in everyday English? Is what should be considered "Advanced" for a university foreign language student, the same as what should be called "Advanced" for a long-term, overseas career person? In any case, I gave a clear example of someone who was misled into thinking he was more advance than he was, not be the level descriptors, but the the labels, and in fact I have met many such people.

I have great respect for the FSI/ILR/ACTFL OPI. The process has been honed over a couple of generations, and countless thousands of individual clients, and obviously has considerable validity (as well as some widely debated limitations). Things may have changed, but I felt in years past that the theoretical explanation for the pattern of development reflected in the discriptors was lacking. I once tried to provide a partial theoretical basis myself (Thomson, Greg. (1996).  "Hierarchical dependencies in comprehension abilities and the evolution of proficiency." Presented at the annual conference of the Canadian Association of Applied Linguistics. London, Ontario, May 1996).

In saying that the labels mislead--when applied to the inappropriate population--I'm also affected by the way those labels (primarily "Intermediate" and "Advanced") are so widely bandied about by overseas workers who have a less than fully adequate idea what the labels are supposed to mean as technical terms, and also by "raters" who aren't adequately trained, if trained at all, and certainly not certified. This latter problem is not the fault of ACTFL, of course.


  1. Hi, I saw that you posted about how the phases in the GPA system correlate to ILR levels. . . and I was wondering -- how do they correlate with common european framework for language learning?


  2. Thanks for writing this. I had seen Prof. Sandrock's comment and wondered if you would write a response. I was also interested because the ACTFL terms are what my org has adopted for use across the org.