How Do You Prove Your Language Level? – The ILR Scale

What’s the point of proving your language level?

There are many answers, but they all boil down to one thing: representation.

If you want to prove your language skills, you’re looking for a grade or ranking that represents how good you actually are at a given language.

Normally, these grades and rankings sit on a certificate or CV, and represent to others that you’ve got a certain skill level, without you having to prove yourself repeatedly.

On certain official occasions, however, these rankings not only represent your language capacities; they also prove how well you can use those skills in matters of international relations and diplomacy, among others.

The ILR scale—the oldest of the world’s major language proficiency frameworks—was developed with just such international diplomacy in mind.

What is the ILR?

The Interagency Language Roundtable or ILR is an organization of the federal government of the United States of America.

The Roundtable, officially established in 1973, is the culmination of a series of ideas set forth by various US government agencies dating back to 1955.

In the years following the Korean war, US federal agencies had found it very difficult to verify the language skills of their employees. To compound this difficulty, nebulous self reports (like “fluent in French” or “excellent German”) abounded.

As a solution to this problem, an organization known as the Foreign Service Institute (or FSI) spearheaded the development of a language proficiency framework for the exclusive use of the United States government and its subsidiary organizations.

The FSI-led committee that worked to develop this framework evolved into what is now recognized as the Interagency Language Roundtable.

Today, the ILR officially describes itself as follows:

“The Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) is an unfunded Federal interagency organization established for the coordination and sharing of information about language-related activities at the Federal level. It serves as the premier way for departments and agencies of the Federal government to keep abreast of the progress and implementation of techniques and technology for language learning, language use, language testing and other language related activities.” (emphasis added.)

The brainchild of the early ILR is the language proficiency framework known as the ILR scale, which went through a series of iterations before taking its current form.

History of the ILR Scale

The first iteration of the ILR scale was, unlike its successors, a single scale. This scale aimed to rate general language proficiency across all major skills; this was achieved through a numerical rating of one (1) at the lowest skill level, and six (6) at the highest.

This single-scale format did not last. Tests that ranked language learners according to this scale were not standardized, and final evaluations varied wildly from skill to skill and language to language. To address these problems, the FSI reworked the scale to its current format, which we will examine below.

How the ILR Describes Language Proficiency

Today, the ILR breaks down language proficiency according to what are officially known as the ILR Skill Level Descriptions; colloquially referred to as the ILR Scale(s) or ILR Guidelines.

The ILR Scales are mapped to an 11-level proficiency framework, consisting of six principal numeric levels (0-5) and five intermediate “+” levels (one “+” sub-level between every two numeric levels)

Within the framework, a given learner’s skill is described in terms of ability, that is, what a learner can or cannot do within the context of that skill. This is in line with the CEFR and ACTFL sister frameworks, the latter of which was developed as an academic off-shoot of the ILR scale.

The following text is an example of how the ILR describes speaking skills at the “2” level.

The individual can get the gist of most everyday conversations but has some difficulty understanding native speakers in situations that require specialized or sophisticated knowledge. The individual’s utterances are minimally cohesive. Linguistic structure is usually not very elaborate and not thoroughly controlled; errors are frequent. Vocabulary use is appropriate for high-frequency utterances. but unusual or imprecise elsewhere.

What Are the ILR Skill Levels?

Here are the eleven ILR Skill Levels, in descending order of language proficiency.

  • 5Functionally Native Proficiency
    • (4+Advanced Professional Proficiency, Plus)
  • 4Advanced Professional Proficiency
    • (3+General Professional Proficiency, Plus)
  • 3General Professional Proficiency
    • (2+Limited Working Proficiency, Plus)
  • 2Limited Working Proficiency
    • (1+Elementary Proficiency, Plus)
  • 1Elementary Proficiency
    • (0+Memorized Proficiency)
  • 0No Proficiency

Important Considerations

Level Names & Numbering – The level names and numbering for each above skill level hold for the scales of each of the four major language skills (i.e. Speaking, Reading, Listening, Writing). All scales but the “Competence in Intercultural Communication” scale recognize all five plus (“+”) levels, while the three “Performance” scales follow different schemes for level names.

Upper & Lower Limits of Framework – Note that like the other two major proficiency frameworks, the lowest rating (0, in this case) does not necessarily represent zero-beginner/zero knowledge language skill, while the highest rating (5, in this case) is not necessarily native-speaker proficiency.

What Is the ILR Scale?

The current iteration of the ILR scale is, in reality, a grouping of eight (8) unique language proficiency scales.

Four total scales are devoted to the four major language skills:

  • Reading
  • Speaking
  • Listening
  • Writing

Three total scales are devoted to performance on translation/interpretation tasks in government settings:

  • Translation Performance
  • Audio Translation Performance
  • Interpretation Performance

And one scale is devoted to intercultural communication competence in government settings.

  • Competence in Intercultural Communication

How to Prove Your Language Skills with the ILR Scale

The ILR scale was developed for the benefit of United States federal employees. If you are an employee of the US government, or looking to become one, you have two principal routes for proving your language skills: formal assessment and informal assessment.

Formal Assessment

The ILR itself does not develop language proficiency tests. To assess the language skills of government employees based on the ILR guidelines, most agencies have developed their own tests, which are not available to the public.

However, some federal agencies do outsource assessment services to outside companies, and therefore it is possible for private citizens to have their skills rated on the ILR scale. The primary exam provider outside of the governmental sphere is Language Testing International (LTI), a company that is also the exclusive licensee of all ACTFL exams.

Informal Assessment

For unofficial assessment purposes, the ILR has published three self-assessment documents that allow anyone with Internet access to rate his or her skills on the ILR scale.

These documents are a series of yes-no questions organized predominantly as “can-do” statements, and cover only three of the eight proficiency scales described above.

The three ILR self-assessment scales are available at the below links:

Conclusion

The ILR is one of the oldest major language proficiency frameworks still in regular use today. Though limited in scope compared to its academic successor, the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines, the ILR scales laid much of the conceptual groundwork for what the ACTFL scales—and even the “rival” CEFR scales—were to become.

If you’re a federal employee of the United States Government looking to have your skills evaluated for on-the-job use, then ILR-based examinations are the right choice for you. If, on the other hand, you’re an American simply looking to pinpoint your proficiency level, go for the more common ACTFL and CEFR exams, which are intended for private citizens.

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