Levels of Language Proficiency: My Life in Germany

Recently I enjoyed reading Julia Child’s My Life in France (with Alex Prud’homme). It’s a great book (and the first one I ever read as a Kindle edition on my iPhone). Anyone who has lived abroad or spent only a brief time in the French capital will appreciate it even more. Julia’s husband Paul worked for the United States Information Service (USIS) in Paris from 1948 to 1954. A remark he made about language learning somehow struck me as profound:

“It’s easy to get the feeling that you know the language just because when you order a beer they don’t bring you oysters.”
– Paul Child, quoted in My Life in France*

Julia goes on to say: “At least he could communicate. The longer I was in Paris, the worse my French seemed to get. I had gotten over my initial astonishment that anyone could understand what I said at all. But I loathed my gauche accent, my impoverished phraseology, my inability to communicate in any but the most rudimentary way. My French ‘u’s were only worse than my ‘o’s.” At a Thanksgiving dinner party, where more than half the guests were French, she felt extremely frustrated when she, a confirmed talker, “could barely say anything interesting at all to them.” That was when she decided that she was “going to learn to speak this language, come hell or high water!”

She enrolled at Berlitz for private French lessons, two hours three times a week. As time went by, her French began to improve, helped by her own daily efforts. Her shopping experiences went from finger-pointing and basic phrases to the point where she “could actually carry on a lengthy conversation with the jolly olive man.”

My Life in France is a marvelous book about exploring and getting to really know a “foreign” place. It’s about food and cooking, of course, but it’s also much more than that. Paul’s artistic black-and-white photos are sprinkled throughout the pages, and one gets some real sense of what Paul and Julia experienced in la belle France. But I want to focus on the language aspects and what they can mean for expats in Germany or any other place.

I’m sure my own year living as an expat in Berlin made Julia’s book even more impactful for me. I could especially relate to many of her experiences with a foreign language. I have been learning German for almost 40 years. I have seen more of Germany than most Germans. I was a student and then a teacher of German, but I feel as if I have never truly mastered “die Sprache der Dichter und Denker” (“the language of poets and thinkers”) – at least not to the degree I would like. Which brings us back to Paul Child’s remark about knowing a language.

What does it really mean when we say someone knows French or German or Japanese? The real question is to what degree do they know the language? Just because you can order a beer in German and not get oysters, doesn’t mean you can speak it at what I sometimes call “the Henry Kissinger level.” (The German-born Kissinger has a strong German accent, but his English is far better than most native-born Americans.) Knowing a language really means: What can you really do with it?

Can you carry on an intelligent debate on some topic? Can you tell a joke without making a fool of yourself? Are you at ILR Level 2 (limited working proficiency) or Level 4 (full professional proficiency)? Then of course there the three skill areas: Speaking, reading and listening. You may be much better at reading German than speaking it.

Both government and academia in the US (and elsewhere) have developed proficiency scales to measure language ability. The Defense Language Proficiency Test (DLPT) is a battery of foreign language tests produced by the Defense Language Institute and used by the US Department of Defense (DoD). It is based on the guidelines of the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR). The similar ACTFL scale is used more for academic purposes. It has a scale that runs from Novice-Low to Superior (native-like proficiency).

Most expats don’t need to take such a test to know where they are roughly on the proficiency scale. Daily life experiences tell them pretty well at which level of proficiency they are. But ILR does offer Self‐Assessments (PDF format) of foreign language ability that can serve as informal guides for people who have not taken a government‐sponsored test but “would like to have a rough estimate of their proficiency in Speaking, Reading, and/or Listening comprehension of the language.” By answering questions in the ILR Self-Assessment questionnaire, you can get a more precise idea of where you are on the ILR scale of 1 to 5. Here are five examples ranging from minimal to higher proficiency in speaking a language (S1 to S5):

  1. I can tell/ask someone how to get from here to a nearby hotel, restaurant, or post office. (S1)
  2. I can take and give simple messages over the telephone, or leave a message on voice mail. (S2)
  3. I rarely find myself unable to finish a sentence because of linguistic limitations (grammar or vocabulary). (S3)
  4. I consistently use the language in a sophisticated and nuanced way to effectively communicate with great precision. (S4)
  5. My vocabulary is extensive and precise, allowing me to consistently convey complex ideas and details. (S5)

There are also ILR Self‐Assessments for reading (R1 to R5) and listening (L1 to L5). People wishing to work as military language analysts are required to maintain at least L2/R2 proficiency. Where do you rank?

*My Life in France, Chapter III: Roo de Loo (Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme, Alfred Knopf, New York, 2006)