I have a question for you:
How good are you at your target language?
Do you know? Beyond vague assessments like "I'm conversational" or "I can understand most of what I hear", do you have a real sense of your foreign language skills?
Most people don't, and that's okay. Often, knowing that you can use the language "well enough" when traveling abroad, or that you can understand "just enough" when spoken to, is all the assessment people really need.
But what if you're a serious language learner, who really wants to know how his or her German, Catalan, or Japanese is? What should you do, then?
There are many possible answers, but I believe you should take an official language proficiency test.
These include exams like those given under the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) in Europe, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) in the United States, and other, more language-specific exams given around the world.
A language proficiency test not only evaluates your skill level in a particular language, but also provides a number of other surprising benefits.
I will share four of those benefits with you today.
1. Language Exams Give You a Clear Goal to Achieve
Language exams, in most cases, are organized around a framework that describes what language learners should be capable of at specific skill levels (e.g. beginner, intermediate and advanced).
If you can pass a test designed for high beginner learners, you know you can perform at a high beginner level. If you fail a test designed for low intermediate learners, you know that you're not quite at that point in your target language just yet. And so on, and so forth.
Language proficiency tests are useful, then, because they serve as a goalpost. The framework they are built around directly tells you what types of skills one should expect to have at specific stages in the language learning process.
Without taking tests, it is much harder to know exactly which stage you're at, and what skills you need to develop in order to move forward. You can set goals, but you'll have difficulty determining if that goal is reasonable, or if it will improve your abilities in any meaningful way.
2. A Language Proficiency Test Gives You a Deadline to Focus On
Another benefit of language exams is that they keep you accountable to actually meet the goal that they represent.
They do this through:
The exam registration deadlines mean that you have to commit to taking a language exam well in advance of actually sitting down and taking it. This typically means that once you sign up, you'll have a few months or more to actually prepare yourself adequately to sit (and hopefully pass) the exam.
The exam registration fees help you stay committed even further by requiring you to pay money. Since each exam could cost anywhere from $50-$200 or a bit more, you'll be more likely to take each exam seriously, and study hard so that you don't need to pay to repeat.
The fixed exam dates have a similar benefit to the registration deadlines. Most language proficiency tests are only offered a few times a year, and only in very specific places around the globe. If you want to take a certain exam, you need to know well in advance, so that you can make plans and prepare appropriately.
In a way, you can view all of the above elements as tools that force you to focus on your learning leading up to the exam.
That's certainly the role they played for me when I decided to take the Goethe-Zertifikat C2, which is the most-advanced German CEFR exam currently available.
Once I registered for the exam, I knew I had no choice but to work hard, so I committed myself to living my life almost exclusively in German for several months prior to the exam date—I listened to German radio, talked often with German-speaking friends, and even wrote my language logbook entries, all in German.
It was an intense few months, but the added focus certainly helped, as I succeeded in passing the exam.
3. Language Exams Reveal Your Biggest Strengths and Weaknesses
The act of preparing for and taking a language exam will ultimately reveal which areas of the language you excel at, and which areas you do not.
You see, the majority of language proficiency tests acknowledge the fact that being skilled in a language means you actually possess a range of different skills (like speaking, listening, reading, and writing) and factual knowledge (like grammar and vocabulary). This means that you will not only receive one overall grade, but also a number of other component grades that evaluate the aforementioned subskills.
Normally, it's not possible to be equally skilled in all of those things at once. We all have things that we naturally are better at, and other things that we are naturally worse at. Your examination grades on each component of the exam will reveal exactly where your strengths and weaknesses lie, so you can improve them in the future.
If the idea of taking an expensive exam to expose your language flaws intimidates you, then know that most language exam organizations make previous exams available online. Since they are (in most cases) authentic exams, you can use them to study for the exam you're taking. This allows you to get all of the critical feedback that the actual exam would give you, but in a less high-stakes fashion.
This system of using exams to train and retrain specific skills is effective because it forces you to do deliberate practice, a powerful type of practice that is built around focused improvements on very specific aspects of one’s performance. This is how language tests or exams can be used as incredible learning tools, instead of something to be scared of. It is a major paradigm shift that my students and I have leveraged in order to make real, consistent progress, and has turned out to be particularly important when overcoming the "intermediate plateau"—the infamous point that all learners tend to feel stuck at once they move beyond the beginner level.
Regardless of whether you officially sit for an exam, or take a practice version, use the grades you receive on each section to help you recognize where you need to improve.
4. Exam Results Can Be Put on Your CV/Resume
As much as you may wonder how good you actually are at your target language, the people you mention your language skills to may wonder even more.
This is most especially true when applying for a job or other position that may require you to use your language skills professionally; even if the people who are hiring you don't know the language you claim to speak, they'll need a way to verify that you're as good as you say you are.
The language proficiency test is a near-perfect solution to this problem. Once you take a test and receive a specific result, you can use that result as proof that you know the language well, at least up to a certain level.
I call it a "near-perfect" solution, however, because there's nothing preventing you from taking a test, passing it, and then never using your target language again. Language skills do deteriorate over time, so all taking an exam can really do is certify that you at least had certain skills some time in the past.
In any case, language exams can answer the question of "how good you are" in an objective way. Written proof of language skills can be helpful in many ways, even beyond job interviews.
If I didn't have those exam results as proof, wouldn't that change the way you judge my language ability, or the advice I give?
I think it might.
Ready to Test Your Language Skills?
In the above paragraphs, I hope I've given you ample reasons to prepare for and take a language proficiency test.
Though the idea of taking an expensive test may seem scary to you, I hope you can also weigh the benefits: increased motivation, greater focus, powerful feedback, and objective proof that you're skilled in the language.
If you're still intimidated, start small. Take a test that you think may be just below your level, and see how you do. If you succeed there, use the additional motivation to take the next level's test, and truly challenge yourself to grow your language skills.