Linguistic Proficiency – Important Considerations
Specialist Dr. Jan Dormer
- There is a difference between learning about a language and actually using a language.
- A person can learn how the language works, acquire vocabulary, and learn grammatical structures, but if he or she does not invest time in real communication, the knowledge remains theoretical and is not necessarily useful for effective communication.Proficiency in a language includes knowing the form, meaning and use of words and structures.
- Proficiency in a language includes developing fluency and precision/acuracy.
- Proficiency in a language does NOT mean sounding like a native speaker!
The important thing is to be able to communicate. There are many dialects in English, with different accents and use of different words to refer to the same concept, such as “pop” and “soda” for “soft drink”.
- To determine if something in English is “correct”, we must understand the following concepts:
- Dialect: Can be correct in one dialect and not in another.
- Register: Acuracy depends on who we are talking to and what the communication target is. For example, in “country” music from the U.S., the use of “ain’t” slang is perfectly acceptable.
- Language is a living organism: It is also important to recognize that languages develop through time and rules change.
- The terms “basic”, “intermediate” and “advanced” are common in reference to proficiency. Some systems use 5-6 levels. See the graph of the TESOL and CEFR systems. Generally, proficiency levels indicate the number of known words, the complexity of the structures used, the topics the person is able to discuss, and the functions the person can perform in the language.
- Progress from one level to another only happens when using the language. Students evolve using their previous knowledge of the language, and adding only little new language. Some say that this percentage should be 95% known language and only 5% unknown.
- Even when reaching the advanced level, with perhaps 8,000 words, the learner is still far from the 20,000-30,000 words or more that an educated native speaker knows. However, if the person continues to invest time in language development, he or she will obtain good results in academic and/or professional life.