Why Most Language Proficiency Exams are a Pointless Waste of Your Time

Why Most Language Proficiency Exams are a Pointless Waste of Your Time

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I think you make a valid point. Proficiency exams are definitely not an accurate way of measuring actual proficiency in the language. They are a reflection of one’s ability to test well in specific circumstances. Some people pass the highest levels of these exams, yet are absolutely unable to have a conversation with a native speaker.

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Thanks for reading :slight_smile:

I think it’s worse than that.

Sure, we all know the proficiency tests are useless at measing actual ability.

But they’re actually damaging too.

If courses force you to do well in proficiency tests in order to pass or get a good grade, you will inevitably spend more time preparing for them and have little time left for actually learning a language.

Everybody should be warned about that before signing up for a formal course.

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I recently had to start a Portuguese course (Level A2) in university as well. It´s mandatory for an internship in Brazil which I´m going to start in October. I was put in to the A2 course because I couldn´t fulfil certain drills correctly during the classification test…Now I´m sitting there with other students which have only a basic knowledge in the language and are barely able neither to speak nor to understand Portuguese.
And to be honest…I´m shocked and disappointed on the way they teach languages especially in this early stage. The biggest part consists of grammar explanations out of context and drills. As a passionate language learner, I don´t find it any effective nor enjoyable. Only in combination with the learning I do on LingQ the grammar explanations are somehow helpful.
But what surprised me most was that there were some students doing really good on those drills but then being barely able to understand the spoken language. This is a perfect prove for the point you made in your blog post.
So, I´m fully with you that official tests and courses are not the optimal measurement for your level in a foreign language…

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Thanks for your comment. This is a perfect example of what I’m talking about.

More people should call out this nonsense for what it is. Language educators who design these curricula must be held accountable.

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5% is disgraceful and clearly a failure. The fact the teacher can’t see that is pathetic. That is a rounding error away from utter failure.
edit: I feel like I noticed similar problems for the tapes with tests too on Japanese.

Does anybody take these seriously anymore if they ever did? Its almost tongue and cheek at this point. I am solidly intermediate in Portuguese probably somewhere around B1 I tried to place out of the early modules of Duolingo just to sample, because as much as it sucks there is something to some of their approach in my view, and it was just too ridiculous, pedantic fine points of grammar, diacritics, or whatever which should come very last, requiring perfection to place out. Its like the guido bodybuilders who just beeline to size and get bulky without as much real strength, vs the rock climber type who bulges less but has completely dense muscle tissue. I guess part of the issue, classes and apps alike, is that unless everyone agrees on a North Star (like learning to read the classics) like they used to, which is a process more like learning math than what a toddler goes through to get fluent, then the need to make a least common denominator just ends up making it bogus. Pimsleur has the same issue in my experience, trying to get as unintimidating as possible for mass production, and just too wonky and inefficient for serious learners as a result. LingQ hasn’t caught on because its not trying to do this for you; its just a tool and you still have to chart the course yourself.

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What is this in response to?

“Does anybody take these seriously anymore if they ever did?”

As I mention in my post, many learners are forced (by their schools) to take these tests seriously and prepare for them whether they want to or not.

“I am solidly intermediate in Portuguese probably somewhere around B1…”

You had me until “B1.” I’m suprised people still refer to the CEFR framework as if it’s meaningful. I may write a post soon on why I think people should stop doing so.

“Its like the guido bodybuilders who just beeline to size and get bulky without as much real strength, vs the rock climber type who bulges less but has completely dense muscle tissue.”

I don’t think this analogy works. In my experience people who focus on passing tests don’t tend to sound impressive when they speak Chinese. They have nothing to flex.

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The article you posted where she asks the teacher how many can accurately produce the tones.

Ah, yes of course. Sorry, my bad.

Btw the article was written by me and I’m a ‘he’ haha.

It is a widely held belief among many Chinese teachers that most foreigners basically can’t learn tones to any decent level. Also a self fulfilling prophecy.

I actualy haven’t come across very many teachers who don’t hold that view. So the teacher I cited in the article wasn’t an exception.

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“Its like the guido bodybuilders who just beeline to size and get bulky without as much real strength” yeah most bodybuilders not on drugs are just very fat lol and if they are using steriods then its all the water they are holding from the artifical testosterone, similiar to a woman during a woman during her third trimester of pregnancy. Rock climbers are strong but its more the skill and specific strength such as hand strength and being lean. I agree that language tests are stupid because you can study for the test versus someone who has actually language ability.

“I’m suprised people still refer to the CEFR framework as if it’s meaningful. I may write a post soon on why I think people should stop doing so.”

Please do! I’ve always found it both vague and overspecific in a confusing way, but haven’t been able to articulate why exactly.

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Yeah it’s a tough one to tackle because there are so many things wrong with it it’s hard to know where to start. I’ll give it a shot though.

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Destroying the CEFR, I’d like you to consider proposing something better in its place. Although I fully agree with you that the CEFR framework is quite inadequate, there is no alternative categorization system that I know of.
I’m currently participating in Lingoda’s Sprint, which means one lesson a day for 60 days. I see that although people clearly overestimate their level, the C1 filter somehow works.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the topic and am especially curious about your ideas on how to change or what to replace the current framework with.

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@SergeyFM “Destroying the CEFR, I’d like you to consider proposing something better in its place. Although I fully agree with you that the CEFR framework is quite inadequate, there is no alternative categorization system that I know of.”

  • I disagree with your premise. I don’t think that creating a generalised language proficiency scale and then imposing it on all learners is a desirable or useful thing to do. So I don’t think it’s necessary to replace CEFR with anything.

It’s not that I think the CEFR is a particularly bad attempt at describing people’s language level, rather any generalised attempt to do so is doomed to failure since language proficiency is simply too complex and personal.

Firstly, any system like CEFR must assume that language learning progresses in a convinently linear order and that this order is the same for everyone. But this is the opposite of the truth.

For example CEFR says that at A2 you can: “communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on…routine matters.” But there are people who have passed C2 exams, meet the C2 criteria and can write PHD theses in a foreign language yet struggle to meet the A2 criterion above when ordering food at a restaurant.

Conventional wisdom tells us that first you learn to handle yourself in a restaurant before progressing to more formal ways of expressing yourself, with an academic thesis being considered the ‘pinnacle’ of language ability. But this is contradicted by many people’s experience.

Instead we can describe our proficiency more accurately in ordinary language that reflects our personal circumstances. Let me illustrate this point using myself as an example:

If I tell you “I am C1 in Mandarin” this gives you close to zero information about my level. If you take a sample of people who describe themselves as “C1 Mandarin” or have passed a C1 proficiency exam, you will find huge variation in their actual functional level across various areas.

However, if I say something like:

“I can communicate effectively in most everyday life situations and discuss topics of interest in fluent Chinese. I can comprehend most conversational listening content intended for natives speakers but may struggle if the language is more formal or specialised or if the speaker has a strong regional accent.”

This is simplified and doesn’t tell you a whole lot. But unlike CEFR it does carry some information. You now actually know something about my level.

Moreover, CEFR states that at C2 you can “understand with ease virtually everything heard or read.” This is ludicrous. No native speaker can do this either, however educated.

I recently got my Chinese friend who speaks excellent English and scored 8.5 (C2) on the IELTS exam (one of the less insane proficiency tests) to read an article about a Premier League football match. The article may as well have been written in a language she had never studied, her comprehension skills immediately plummeted to 0%.

Attempting to measure language proficiency is analagous to ‘intelligence’. Very few thinking people believe that a concept as complex and subjective as ‘intelligence’ is linear or measurable. I think the same is true of language ability.

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That is as ridiculous and gross as the held belief by some Japanese that no foreigner can really know Japanese and be totally fluent.

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This is a reply to your later comment below.

Agree with you about C2. If I’m trying to read about Quantum Physics in Arabic or French vs. English I will have difficulty in the former. In this way I would argue C2 is about being able to communicate effectively in that language so that those questions you ask for explanations in terms of Futbol or Quantum Physics can be easily understood, the explanations given to you I mean.