World Language Proficiency

ACTFL Proficiency Scale

View the ACTFL Proficiency Scale

Contact Information

Veronica Trapani-Huebner

Associate Director of Content, World Languages

Language proficiency is a person’s ability to use language for real-world reasons naturally for many topics and reasons.

Proficiency is a range and language users can build proficiency across different skills at different speeds. Proficiency is also flexible, meaning that over time, learners can show both improvement and decline in any skill.

For students in K-12 grades, our goal is to develop a system that supports any bilingual student to receive world language credits by demonstrating language proficiency.

Frequently Asked Questions

How is language proficiency measured?

There is no universal standard on describing proficiency in but there are scales for rating language ability. These scales can be different, depending on the language, context, need, or even country.

The ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines are the most common scale for K-12 schools in the United States. The ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines explain what people can do with language across the four skills at five major levels: Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, Superior, and Distinguished. The main levels of Novice, Intermediate, and Advanced are divided into Low, Mid, and High sublevels. The levels of the ACTFL Guidelines describe the range of proficiency from little or no practical ability to a highly articulate, well-educated language user.

Other language scales used in the United States include the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale, used for federal- and military-level service, ALTA’s Language Testing Scale, the Sign Language Proficiency Interview (SLPI:ASL), and the American Sign Language Proficiency Interview (ASLPI).

Outside the United States, the Common European Framework of Reference for Language (CERF) is used across the Eurasian continent, while many countries have their own levels and scales specific to their languages.

What are the four language areas?

In general, the four main language areas are listening/attending, speaking/signing, reading, and writing but they are not required as not every language will have all four. Another way to divide up the skills is by whether they require the user to produce or understand language.

How is proficiency different from performance?

Proficiency is the ability to use language in a real-world situation. Proficiency demonstrates what a language user is able to do regardless of where, when or how they learned the language.

Performance is the ability to use language in a limited and controlled situation, such as a classroom or on a specific test. Performance refers to language ability that has been practiced and is within familiar contexts and content areas.

Each skill has a role in language learning, but only proficiency is what people use to communicate in the real world. An assessment of proficiency determines if the language user provides enough evidence of all of the assessment criteria of a particular level according to the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines. The individual must do everything expected at a level in a sustained fashion, that is, all of the time, in order to be rated at that level.

Proficiency Levels

As the ACTFL Proficiency Levels are consistent across the country, ACTFL has also created Performance Descriptors for each level. It can be helpful to imagine each level with a part of the language.

  • Words: Novice-level speakers and writers can regularly communicate using learned information, such as words, characters, phrases or simple sentences.
  • Sentences: Intermediate-level speakers and writers can regularly create with language, ask and answer simple questions on familiar topics, and handle simple situations or transactions.
  • Paragraphs: Advanced-level speakers and writers can narrate and describe in all major time frames (past, present, future) and handle more complicated situations or transactions.

What proficiency level is necessary for credit?

Proficiency Level

Credit(s) Earned

Seat Time Equal

Novice Mid


1 year

Novice High


2 years

Intermediate Low


3 years

Intermediate Mid and above


4 years

The Five C's

The five “C” goal areas are Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities. The focus is on the purpose of learning a language beyond school. The goal is to prepare learners to apply the skills and understandings measured by the Standards, to bring global competence to their future careers and experiences.

  1. The goal of Communication is to connect well in more than one language in order to understand and perform in many places and for many reasons. People use the three modes of communication (interpersonal, interpretive, and presentation) to do this.
  2. The goal of Cultures is to interact with social knowledge and understanding. Language learners should use the target language to explore, explain, and reflect on the relationship between the traditions, products, and beliefs of the cultures studied.
  3. The goal of Connections is to share with other content areas and learn information through several viewpoints to use language to perform in school and career-related positions.
  4. The goal of Comparisons is to develop understanding about the interaction between language and culture to act with cultural ability.
  5. The goal of Communities is to connect and work together with cultural competence to take part in multilingual communities at home and around the world.

Three Modes of Communication

Interpretive Communication
  • Learners understand, explain, and analyze what they hear, read, or see on a variety of topics. This includes the skills of reading and listening/attending.
Interpersonal Communication
  • Learners interact and exchange meaning in spoken, signed, or written conversations to share information, reactions, feelings, and opinions. This includes all four skills of reading, writing, listening/attending, and speaking/signing.
Presentational Communication
  • Learners present information, concepts, and ideas to inform, explain, convince, and describe in many topics in different ways and change the meaning of the message to fit a wide range of listeners, readers, or viewers. This includes the skills of writing and speaking/signing.