Language proficiency tests are the most accurate and efficient way to officially prove your language level.
The most widely-available and accessible of these tests are based on three major proficiency frameworks: the ILR scale, the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines, and the CEFR.
There’s one problem, however.
Taking proficiency tests requires you to have time, energy, and money to prepare for them and take them.
- Time – In addition to the time you spend preparing for the exam, any offline language exams will require you to travel to the exam site. Once there, you will have to spend several hours taking the exam. Depending on the exam, it could take anywhere from days, to weeks, or even months to find out your results.
- Energy – Exams can be stressful, both mentally and physically. In the lead up to the exam, you may spend extra waking hours studying or otherwise preparing. On test day, you need to be ready, alert, and focused for several hours at a time.
- Money – Language level tests are not free. Depending on the test you take, and the testing site that administers the exam to you, you can spend anywhere from €90 to €200 ($100 to 220)—or even more.
If you’re short on any of the above resources, taking an official standardized language proficiency exam may not be quite right for you at this time. The tests are a worthwhile challenge, but only if circumstances make them worthwhile for you.
If you’re not ready or able to take a language level test at this time, that doesn’t mean that you can’t still enjoy the benefits of proving your language level.
Even without an official CEFR, ACTFL, or ILR exam, you can still:
- Estimate where your skills fall on each proficiency scale
- Set your language learning goals and organize priorities according to the scales.
- Discuss your skills with others by making informed estimates of your proficiency.
How can you do this?
Through resources known as self-assessment tools.
What are Self-Assessment Tools?
Self-assessment tools are, quite simply, any resources that allow you to assess your language level by yourself.
Self-assessment tools take various forms:
- Proficiency scales – Much like the proficiency scales against which official tests are evaluated, certain frameworks offer modified scales that allow you to pinpoint your skill level easily. Scales are, in most cases, not language-specific.
- Proficiency checklists – Similar to the above, proficiency checklists are lists of “I can do” statements corresponding to particular language levels. You simply go down the lists, and check off which statements you identify with. Whichever level has the greatest number of checked-off statements will roughly correspond to your language level. Checklists are, in most cases, not language-specific.
- Official practice exams, exercises, and prep books – These are mock-ups of actual exam material that you can complete on your own at home. Test providers who offer practice materials will also allow you access to the answer keys for that same material, giving you the ability to score yourself (or have it done for you automatically). Your performance on the practice tests or exercises will typically demonstrate how capable you are of performing at a given language level, with a high-degree of reliability. These resources are typically language-specific and level-specific.
- Unofficial self-assessment resources – Across the Internet, you can find many third-party resources (i.e. materials not endorsed by official testing organizations) that will claim to accurately identify your language level. These can be full exams, short multiple-choice tests and quizzes, checklists, or any other type of document. While these tests may be an entertaining challenge, I personally do not recommend self-evaluating your language level by any means other than ones provided by official makers of standardized language proficiency exams.
Self-Assessment Tools for ILR, CEFR, and ACTFL
Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) Scale
The ILR offers a set of three documents that act as self-assessment checklists that allow you to determine your level in a specific skill:
Additionally, there are official correspondences between the ILR and ACTFL scales, so it is theoretically possible to assess yourself using the ACTFL-based resources below, and use the equivalencies between scales to determine your ILR level.
As of this writing, there are no ILR-based practice exams readily available to the public.
ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines
ACTFL’s premiere self-assessment resource is a checklist known as the NCSSFL-ACTFL Can-Do Statements.
This document is a combination of a skill matrix (skill descriptions according to skill and level) and a self-assessment checklist that you can print out and take on your own, available here.
There is little reference material available for practicing specific ACTFL exams, though there is a English-only demo of the computer-based Oral Proficiency Interview (OPIc) available online.
The major self-assessment resource for the CEFR scale is the Self Assessment Grid.
While not explicitly a checklist, the Self Assessment Grid (available here) is a matrix of can-do proficiency statements organized by skill and language level. The CEFR also provides an interactive flash game that will help you assess your level in multiple languages according to this grid.
Official practice tests and exercises are available according to language and test provider.
To locate them, search online for your specific exam (e.g. DELE, DELF, DALF, Goethe Zertifikat, etc) followed by “practice exercises”, “practice tests” or “sample exercises. An example of a C2 Level DELE (Spanish) exam can be found by clicking here.
Test preparation books for the most popular CEFR exams are also widely available through major online booksellers, such as Amazon.
Self-assessment tools are resources that allow you to gain most of the benefit of language proficiency frameworks, without having to sacrifice the time, energy, and money required to be officially evaluated.
Through resources like checklists, assessment grids, practice tests and exercises, many official exam providers allow you to self assess in a quick, free, and relatively accurate manner.
The one great caveat is that these tools only provide informed estimates of your skills, and so cannot and should not be used for any official purposes, such as employment.
If an official evaluation is like a “you are here” point on a map, showing you exactly how proficient you are, self-assessment resources are more like a compass. With the aid of a “map-like” proficiency framework, these tools can help you ensure that you’re headed in the right direction.