How do we measure language competence? (2023)

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How do we measure language competence? (1)

By Eva SandovalSeptember 4, 2019

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There are many ways to categorize a person's language skills, but the concept of fluency is difficult to define.


Mayor Pete Buttigieg's youth, military record, and marital status may set him apart from other candidates in the US presidential languagesthat there really are peopletalking.

This seemingly magical feat is especially impressive in predominantly monolingual countries like the United States and the United Kingdom (where, respectively,about 80%y62%of the population speaks only English). But where does such an enviable talent create amystical aura, also inevitably arouses curiosity. When former Senator Claire McCaskill asked Buttigieg to comment on her ability to speak languages ​​on a Feb. 14 episode of MSNBCGood morning Joao,he replied, “it depends on what you mean by talk!” adding that he "can still read a Norwegian newspaper... but only slowly" and that he "got rusty" in Arabic and Dari. It's humbling, but not so humiliating that Buttigieg and his team dismiss polyglot rumors for good.

This is not to make fun of Mayor Buttigieg. Your perception of fluency interests me because I was a language teacher (I taught English for 11 years in Japan and Italy) and I am also an oral examiner for the Cambridge English exam; a role that requires me to dissect variables in candidates' second language production such as pronunciation, speech management, and grammatical range. Buttigieg is clearly fascinated by languages, willing to learn and brave enough to practice with native speakers on TV, qualities that would make him the star of my class. But like many of my former students who expected to go from "novice" to "native" in two months, Buttigieg may have underestimated what it means to "speak" a language.

I can relate very well to overestimating someone's abilities. “Heritage speaker” of Italian, I had been living in Italy for two years when I heard a receptionist refer to me as “that foreigner who doesn't speak Italian”. I was confused, then destroyed. That casual phrase started a journey that forced me to recognize that although I had grown up speaking Italian at home and wasfluent, I was not at allcompetent.

How do we measure language competence? (2)

Pete Buttigieg speaks Norwegian, Spanish, Italian, Maltese, Arabic, Dari and French (Credit: Getty Images)

What does the word "fluency" really mean? In lay circles, that term has come to equate to "natively competent," with no gray area between clumsy novice and mellifluous professor. A stranger listening to a conversation in a foreign language hears only a haze of sounds, so he noticesanyone who can put together a phrase like "fluent".

But Daniel Morgan, head of learning development at Shenker Institutes of English, a popular network of English language schools in Italy, saysfluidityrather, it refers to how "fluently" and "efficiently" a second language (L2) speaker can talk about "a variety of topics in real time". Although fluency may denote a degree of proficiency, it does not automatically implyprecision– the ability to produce grammatically correct sentences – ni implies grammatical breadth.

how importantsongrammatical accuracy and range? This depends on the needs of the speaker. If they simply want to converse in social settings, their focus might just be on achieving fluency, but if L2 is needed for business or academia, accuracy and range are crucial as communications are fraught with problems.mistakes can be seen as unprofessional.

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How do we measure language competence? (3)

When you speak a foreign language, locals can understand you very well, even if you make a lot of grammatical mistakes (Credit: Alamy)

These errors can includeliteral word-for-word translation from your native language ("I'm going to Spain") and language change ("I want to eatring”). Verb tenses, prepositions, plurals, and confusing articles are a natural, even essential, part of the learning process.

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Many students, however, fall into the trap of assuming that because they are understood, their speech is "perfect." And it's not just the speaker who makes mistakes; at thesecond language assessment manualNivja de Jong, Senior Lecturer at the Center for Linguistics at the University of Leiden, argues that grammatical errors usually do not impede the understanding of the listener, who can automatically "edit" the errors. In English, a sentence like “I am 17 years old” is incorrect, however, it is understood that the speaker means that he is 17 years old. Furthermore, friends and teachers tend to encourage L2 learners rather than discourage them, which can also contribute to inflated self-evaluation.

I think of popular memes that compare how we imagine a story orscene in our head, the way we tell or paint it. In those crucial first few years of learning a language, you might be thinking in glorious brush strokes but speaking in squiggles.

How do we measure language competence? (4)

Language proficiency measures generally consider both accuracy and the range of language you can use (Credit: Alamy)

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So when can someone be said to "speak" a language? That's the million dollar question. Can someone be considered a Spanish speaker if they are conversational but generally cannot understand native speakers because they “speak too fast”? What if they only use two tenses and each sentence contains mistakes?

The answer may be less "yes/no" and more "how well?"

Fortunately, there are scales to measure oral fluency and general proficiency. “Fluency is an abstract concept, so we assign observable variables,” explains Daniel Morgan. Two of the most reliable factors are "speech rate" and "speech length". Speech rate can be defined as the (effective) amount of language you are producing over time, for example how many syllables per minute. Sentence length is, on average, how long you can produce between non-fluencies (e.g., a pause or hesitation). You can consider accuracy as part of fluency, in terms of grammatical accuracy, lexical choice, pronunciation and accuracy.”

De Jong describes the unconscious process any speaker goes through before speaking: conceptualizing what to say, formulating how to say it, and finally articulating the appropriate sounds. All of this occurs at approximately six syllables per second. A second language speaker who needs to convert his thoughts into an unfamiliar language faces an even greater challenge in meeting these strict time constraints. They must also overcome inhibition and pronunciation challenges. Precision may still be lacking at this stage, but make no mistake: achieving L2 fluency is a colossal feat.

The Council of EuropeCommon European Framework of Reference (CEFR) for languagesgroups language learners into specific proficiency levels, where fluency and accuracy are just two of the many criteria examined. The CEFR -available in 40 languages– divides the competition into six “can do” levels: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2. A corresponds to the “Basic”, B to “Independent” and C to “Competent” levels. Observable abilities include:

A1:The range of skills includes basic introductions and answering questions about personal details, provided the listener speaks slowly and is willing to cooperate.

A2: You can describe in simple terms aspects of your background, environment and issues related to your immediate needs and carry out routine tasks that require basic exchanges of information.

B1:You can deal with most everyday life situations in the country where the language is spoken. You can describe experiences, dreams and ambitions and give brief reasons for your opinions and goals.

B2:You can understand the topics of complex texts on both concrete and abstract topics and will have achieved a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes interaction with native speakers possible without significant strain on either party.

C1: Can understand a wide range of longer texts and recognize subtleties and implied meanings; Produce clear, well-structured and detailed texts on complex topics, showing the controlled use of organizational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.

C2: You can understand virtually everything you hear or read, expressing yourself spontaneously, with great fluency and precision, while distinguishing subtler nuances of meaning even in very complex situations.

Geraint Thomas, Team Leader at Cambridge English Examinations, explains: “We look at things like cohesion, response rate, speech management and pronunciation, but each variable has sub-variables. You can divide the pronunciation intostressyindividual sounds.” He emphasizes that the progression is gradual. “You can expect a good B2 candidate to have certain things under control; the present tense, perhaps. However, they may not get their second parole, and you are aware that this is somewhat progressive."

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How do we measure language competence? (5)

What is the extent of your conversation skills? Are you equally happy talking about economics and politics? (credit: Alamy)

Thomas adds that individual second-language speakers can show different strengths: “You can get students who are very accurate but are so afraid of making mistakes that their fluency suffers, and others who are jumping at something, who are quite fluent, but their language is full of errors."

According to an investigation by theCambridge University English Language Assessment, it takes 200 guided hours for a motivated student to progress from one level to the next. keyword,motivated: Language acquisition varies dramatically between individuals. Is the student open to new structures? Will they build on what they've already learned rather than sticking to basic "good enough" grammar? Will they commit to consistent study and practice? Simply put: there are many steps between "The pen is on the table" and writing a perfect thesis on a literary work.

Proficiency scales provide an excellent gauge for assessing L2 ability, but I find that the quickest and dirtiest "tests" of fluency and accuracy are real-life situations with native speakers. How smooth and long are your interactions in your L2? Do you avoid or ignore certain topics and situations because you don't have the words? Are you looking for “keywords” and are you content to get “the gist” instead of the whole conversation? How well can you understand a movie without subtitles or read a book without a dictionary? If you write an email and ask a native speaker to proofread it, how many mistakes will he find?

As for me, although my Italian grammatical range has improved dramatically in my nine years in Italy, as a writer, I yearn for accuracy and native primitive syntax. I am not there yet, and there are many days when I despair that I will ever get there.

And then I remember that learning a second language is like getting married. You think you know your partner when you put the ring on his finger, but this is just the beginning, and the commitment is for life.


Eva Sandovalis an Italian-American writer who has lived in Italy since 2010. Her writing on travel, food and culture has been published in The Telegraph, CNN Travel, Fodor's Travel Guidesand HuffPo Travel, as well as several luxury hotel and airline magazines.

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