When do we achieve proficiency in a foreign language?

According to the data of the Central Statistical Office about 40% of Polish people know one foreign language, 19% – two and 20% – three or more foreign languages. These data, however, does not specify to what extent Poles know those languages. It has not been defined either at what point we can say that we are proficient in a given language. And what is the actual meaning of “proficient” in this context?

A person learning a foreign language is often asked to specify the degree of their proficiency. This question is asked on a regular basis during an interview or at enrolment on a language course. Does proficiency in a foreign language mean that we can easily pass an exam in this language? Or maybe it means that we can use this language in a particular context? Contrary to popular belief, this is a very tricky question and there is no clear answer to it.

The Council of Europe has developed the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, including a definition according to which a proficient user of a foreign language can easily talk on any subject while differentiating finer shades of meaning, and has extensive knowledge of idiomatic and colloquial expressions. The Council of Europe has also defined an advanced level. According to this definition an advanced user of a foreign language can spontaneously, fluently and accurately formulate their opinions both in social contexts and while performing their professional duties. Interestingly enough, the very term “proficiency” does not appear in any of the definitions – these refer only to the high and the highest level of advancement as regards the use of a foreign language.

The definitions developed by other bodies include terms such as “should”, “pretty”, “generally”, which confirms the theory that it is not possible to define proficiency in a clear and detailed manner. This concept is highly subjective and it will mean for everyone a slightly different level of competence in a foreign language. It can be said that self-confidence and confidence in one’s skills, as well as the context of the utterance, are of a great importance while seeking to achieve proficiency in a foreign language.

It is acknowledged that a native speaker of a given language uses on a regular basis about 20,000 words. Another 15,000 words constitute a passive vocabulary, i.e. words which are familiar but not fully understood. This is specialist terminology relating to areas in which we are not competent. Thus, the conclusion is that none of us is fully proficient even in one’s mother tongue. The number of language areas in which we feel at ease makes up a significant part of the concept of “proficiency”. It is hard to tell if a person using easily some specialist terminology, e.g. terminology relating to mechatronics, can be considered to have more competence in a given language than one that can easily talk on general topics.

Increasing globalization and easy access to language courses make more and more people speak one or two foreign languages. This is an overwhelmingly positive phenomenon as it makes it easier to find a good job, study at universities abroad or travel. Moreover, learning foreign languages affects the structure of our brains as it has a positive effect on the ability to think creatively and prevents this organ from premature aging. There are increasingly more bilingual people, which may seem to put the future of the translation profession at risk. Will translators and interpreters still be needed in a dozen or several dozen years? Of course they will. We should keep in mind that not every person who speaks a foreign language well enough will be competent enough to translate or interpret. We encourage you to read our article “5 powodów, dla których nie każdy może tłumaczyć” (Five reasons why not everyone can be a translator or interpreter), and to learn foreign languages as well!

Related Posts

Summa Linguae uses cookies to allow us to better understand how the site is used. By continuing to use this site, you consent to this policy.

Learn More