The general consensus says that polyglot is a person who is able to speak four or more languages (including your native language). But how do you measure the proficiency of this people?
Several organizations have proficiency scales, first, I’ll show one of the best known and my favorite, which is of The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, from the Council of Europe. There are six levels, divided into A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2.
A1 – Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type. Can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has. Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.
A2 – Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment). Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters. Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate Basic need.
B1 – Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. Can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. Can produce simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest. Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes and ambitions and brieﬂy give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans
B2 – Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her ﬁeld of specialisation. Can interact with a degree of ﬂuency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party. Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.
C1 – Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognize implicit meaning. Can express him/herself ﬂuently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions. Can use language ﬂexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes. Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organizational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.
C2 – Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read. Can summarise information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation. Can express him/herselfspontaneously, very ﬂuently and precisely, differentiating ﬁner shades of meaning even in more complex situations.
For more details, check: http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/Linguistic/Source/Framework_EN.pdf
Another well-known scale is the ILR scale, used by the U.S. State Department. It was developed by the U.S. Foreign Service Institute and aimed to evaluate the proficiency of foreign affairs officials and U.S. diplomats. I consider more rigid than the scale of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.
The scale has five levels, which are:
ILR Level 1 – Elementary proficiency
This is the first and essential level of the scale, often called S-1 or Level 1. The following describes the traits of an ILR Level 1 individual:
- can fulfill travelling needs and conduct themselves in a polite manner
- able to use questions and answers for simple topics within a limited level of experience
- able to understand basic questions and speech, which allows for guides, such as slower speech or repetition, to aid understanding
- has only a vocabulary large enough to communicate the most basic of needs; also makes frequent punctuation and grammatical mistakes in writing of the language
The majority of individuals classified as S-1 are able to perform most basic functions using the language. This includes buying goods, reading the time, ordering simple meals and asking for minimal directions.
ILR Level 2 – Limited working proficiency
Limited working proficiency is the second level in the scale. This level is sometimes referred to as S-2 or level 2. A person at this level is described as follows:
- able to satisfy routine social demands and limited work requirements
- can handle with confidence most basic social situations including introductions and casual conversations about current events, work, family, and autobiographical information
- can handle limited work requirements, needing help in handling any complications or difficulties; can get the gist of most conversations on non-technical subjects (i.e. topics which require no specialized knowledge), and has a speaking vocabulary sufficient to respond simply with some circumlocutions
- has an accent which, though often quite faulty, is intelligible
- can usually handle elementary constructions quite accurately but does not have thorough or confident control of the grammar.
ILR Level 3 – Professional working proficiency
Professional working proficiency is the third level in the scale. This level is sometimes referred to as S-3 or Level 3. S-3 is what is usually used to measure how many people in the world know a given language. A person at this level is described as follows:
- able to speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most conversations on practical, social, and professional topics
- can discuss particular interests and special fields of competence with reasonable ease
- has comprehension which is quite complete for a normal rate of speech
- has a general vocabulary which is broad enough that he or she rarely has to grope for a word
- has an accent which may be obviously foreign; has a good control of grammar; and whose errors virtually never interfere with understanding and rarely disturb the native speaker.
ILR Level 4 – Full professional proficiency
Full professional proficiency is the fourth level in the scale. This level is sometimes referred to as S-4 or level 4. A person at this level is described as follows:
- able to use the language fluently and accurately on all levels and as normally pertinent to professional needs.
- can understand and participate in any conversations within the range of own personal and professional experience with a high degree of fluency and precision of vocabulary
- would rarely be taken for a native speaker, but can respond appropriately even in unfamiliar grounds or situations
- makes only quite rare and minute errors of pronunciation and grammar
- can handle informal interpreting of the language.
ILR Level 5 – Native or bilingual proficiency
Native or bilingual proficiency is the fifth level in the scale. This level is sometimes referred to as S-5 or level 5. A person at this level is described as follows:
- has a speaking proficiency equivalent to that of an educated native speaker
- has complete fluency in the language, such that speech on all levels is fully accepted by educated native speakers in all of its features, including breadth of vocabulary and idiom, colloquialisms, and pertinent cultural references.