What is Proficiency?

It is definitely NOT what I learned in my college Japanese courses. 

Proficiency is a much-discussed word in the language field. Our company delivers Avant STAMP and other "proficiency" tests. But what proficiency are we assessing? Proficiency at conjugating verbs or reproducing dialogues memorized in the classroom? After all, someone who does these well is probably proficient at memorizing grammar rules and set phrases. But do assessments of these skills tell us anything meaningful about the ability to function with that language in the real world? The problem with real language is that it is messy and unpredictable, not neat and orderly like a verb conjugation table or a classroom dialogue.

I studied Japanese for two years in college before heading off to Tokyo to study in earnest.  In college we learned the famous "Jordan Method", rich in set phrases and constructions to memorize. If A then B. If B then C and so on. When I got to Japan I quickly realized that even when I remembered A, instead of B coming next, it was C or K or Z that I heard, and I was completely lost.

I vividly remember the first time I broke through the barrier and had a conversation in Japanese with a real Japanese person on a train into Tokyo. It was halting, mistake-riddled and very basic, but it opened a whole new world for me. I have never forgotten the magic of that moment. You probably remember your first real conversation in another language in a similar way. I doubt that your experience followed the A, B, C sequence of the dialogues you had learned in school. I learned quickly that had to think on my feet, improvise and respond even though I didn't understand all of the words my new friend was saying. 

Proficiency to Avant is just that – functioning in real world language – reading, writing, listening and speaking. And these are the skills we measure when we build our Avant assessments. At the novice levels we assess topics that learners would be expected to be able to manage if they were in a foreign country: family, weather, food etc. – the building blocks for basic conversation. We use real texts, listening passages and real-to-life situations to write and speak about rather than artificial classroom-based texts or dialogues. At higher levels the breadth of topics and the complexity of the topics increases, just like in the real world.

Striving to operate in real-world language to connect and communicate in meaningful exchanges at any level is what language is all about. That is what proficiency is to us.

About the Author:

Photo: David Bong

David Bong

Co-Founder & CEO of Avant Assessment

After successful roles in consulting, sales and web service information, CEO David Bong co-founded Avant Assessment in 2001 with his wife, Sheila, and Dr. Carl Falsgraf, formerly the Director of the Center for Applied Second Language Studies at the University of Oregon. Avant is a leader in improving student outcomes in immersion and world language programs by providing data from its online, adaptive, real-world language assessments.