What is language proficiency after all? (Part 1)

“Proficiency” is a concept that is very dear to us language teachers. As dear as hard to define, perhaps. After all, the term “proficiency” is ambiguous at best. If we consider common uses of the word, there are at least three competing definitions.


Some international exams offer certificates at “proficiency level”, a step up from advanced. In this sense, proficiency seems to be the top end of a scale and it is often compared, more or less implicitly, to the competence/ability/knowledge/performance of an idealized native speaker. Lay people and even school adverts frequently refer to this as being “fluent”, too: “Be fluent in a month! La garantía soy yo!”

proficiency as a point

(Adapted from Scaramucci 2000)


Then there’s all the talk about “raising students’ proficiency level” or “catering for different proficiency levels”. Whoa, “proficiency levelSSS”? That means to say proficiency is not a single final stage but a continuum of competence/ability/knowledge/performance, which might get to the utopian top end, but not necessarily. In theory students could be considered proficient at an intermediate level if that’s all they need. Controversial? Indeed!

one-dimensional proficiency

(Adapted from Scaramucci 2000)

Still, both of the definitions above reveal a one-dimensional, vertical even, view of proficiency. Becoming more proficient in this sense is like climbing up a ladder: it’s a matter of degrees, levels, stages.


However, I’m sure most of us have had the experience of not knowing what to say, how to put it or how to go about a task which involved language, even in the language(s) we most identify with. Do you remember your first time at customs and immigration, your first month at a new job, or that time you had to fess up to a mistake? How proficient did you feel? I’m confident that you put in some conscious effort and waded your way through, learning the tasks along with the waves of language that washed over you.

That’s why English for Specific Purposes exists after all. It’s the realization that no human being could be (linguistically) proficient at every possible task, situation, or topic. No, not even if we’re born, raised and highly educated in what we understand to be a single language. We’re always proficient IN doing some things, and not IN several others.

(Hey, ask me to talk about my much loved though slightly crazy family, and I’ll go on and on. Ask me to explain the country’s legal system, and you’ll see me at a loss for words.)

It seems no matter what “level” you’re in, there’s always something of equal (and even smaller) complexity you don’t know how to do with the language. In order words, proficiency is not only a matter of going up, there’s a lot of branching out. There are the levels in the vertical axis, but the horizontal axis lays out the situations for language use, the tasks or topics. To sum up, it’s a two-dimensional view of proficiency.



 “2D at this day and age!? Even printers can do better nowadays!,” I hear you complain. And you’re right. 2D Proficiency is closer to a more contemporary concept of proficiency, but still not quite there.

“Should I go get my 3D glasses?”

“You bet.”

But I’ll wait till you have them on for Part 2 of this post. Till December 5th!


This post is largely based on

Scaramucci, M.V. (2000). Proficiência em LE: Considerações terminológicas e conceituaisTrabalhos em Linguística Aplicada, 36, pp. 11-22.

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Natália Guerreiro

Natália Guerreiro has been a teacher since the year 2000 and currently works in Aviation English assessment and teaching for the Brazilian Air Force. She holds a CELTA, a B.A. in English & Portuguese from UFRJ, and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics from the University of Melbourne. She's been elected BRAZ-TESOL's Second Vice President for the 2019-2020 term.

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