Sunday, January 13, 2013

How ACTFL *labels* misinform us

Awhile ago, I met a Canadian who lives and works in China. He told me something like this:

"I did a proficiency interview over the phone. They told me that after being here for seven years, I'm 'Intermediate High'. I'm not yet 'Advanced' but at least I'm 'Intermediate High'. I feel pretty good about that."

"Intermediate High" and "Advanced" are labels for proficiency levels used by the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages and chosen for rating "learners" who have been learning a language in school or university classes in America, without living and working where the language is normally used. Those labels therefore don't apply to that guy in China, nor to you or me if we're living and working abroad in the country where the language is regularly used. For our situations, the corresponding labels would be "'Survival Proficiency' with some features of 'Limited Working Proficiency'" ( for "Intermdiate High") and "Limited Working Proficiency" (for "Advanced"). These are the US government labels designed to describe those who live and work where the language is regularly used, not people taking language classes in schools and universities in the US.

So now, let's translate that guy's report from the misleading ACTFL labels to the appropriate US government (FSI/ILR) labels:

"I did a proficiency interview over the phone. They told me that after being here for seven years, I have 'Survival Proficiency' with some features of 'Limited Working Proficncy'. I'm not yet at the level of  'Limted Working Proficiency' but at least I'm at 'Survival proficiency' with some features of 'Limited Working Proficiency'. I feel pretty good about that."

After 7 years, would he really feel good to hear this? We need to use the right labels in the right contexts, or we are telling innocent people something other than the truth!


  1. I wanted to share some background on the ACTFL Proficiency Levels. The ACTFL levels (as is the case with the ILR levels) do not address where, when, or how someone acquires their language skills, but rather compare the language user's performance on a standardized assessment to the criteria, as described in the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines – 2012 (see Living in a foreign language environment does not determine a level of proficiency. Many people have lived in the US for years and are still Novice Mid in English because their predominant language experience in still in their native language. 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). Please visit for more information.

  2. Wow, a comment! Thanks, Paul. Sorry I didn't see it until now. I don't yet have the hang of

    I recognise that an ACTFL assessment is blind to the learning history of the client (which is part of what is meant by "proficiency"). Also, that people living in the host environment are often not very proficient. Neither of these was my point.

    There was a reason ACTFL chose different labels for the proficiency levels than the FSI/ILR labels, rather than just using the FSI/ILR level labels. As I read the history of the ACTFL scale a number of years ago in grad school, I recall that ACTFL chose labels which made more sense in a school/university context, whereas the FSI labels made more sense in a long-term overseas context. This was also the reason more sub-levels were added (low, mid, high, rather than just Level X and Level X+)--because people typically don’t progress as quickly or get as far in the "foreign language" school/university context as in an overseas career context. The result was that FSI/ILR and ACTFL have different labels for essentially the same proficiency levels, and those labels have different meanings in everyday English. I find that people widely use the labels without understanding the definitions.

    So while it is true that (to the extent that OPIs are reliable) "Advanced" means the exact same thing when applied to a long-term overseas worker or a fourth year university foreign language major in an America university, nevertheless, in terms of how the word is understood (based on its normal English meanings), there is a difference. People who are not specialists in language testing/assessment will get a very different idea from “Intermediate” than they will get from “Survival Proficiency”. Likewise with “Advanced” versus “Limited Working Proficiency”.

    Many people living long term and working overseas do have higher goals than are typically achieved by school/university students in America. So while it might be great for a forth-year American university foreign language major to be told she is “Advanced” in relation to, say, many third-year American university foreign language majors, that same label misleads people living long term overseas, working full time in a host milieux, who really intend to do better than “Limited Working Proficiency” but understand “Advanced” to mean they are truly advanced (in the everyday sense) in relation to their specific population of career people overseas.

    See my example of the guy in China. He really seemed to misunderstand “Intermediate” in a way that he would not have misunderstood “Survival Proficiency”. That label didn't serve him well.

    So you see, Paul, you are talking about meanings of the detailed descriptors to those who understand them, while I was talking about the meanings of the *labels* (ACTFL versus FSI/ILR) as understood by laypeople in everyday English.