People on the street bandy about words like "fluent", "knows French", "speaks broken French" as if it all means something. How do linguists determine if a speaker is competent and what taxonomy do they use to separate those who are remarkably fluent from those at various degrees of being less so?

I imagine this has application in language acquisition and in the documenting of language death.

5 Answers 5


The European Union is steadily transitioning to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessmen (CEFR)

CEFR distinguishes 6 proficiency levels and suggests to evaluate different aspects of language ability separately.

A Basic Speaker
    A1 Breakthrough or beginner
    A2 Waystage or elementary
B Independent Speaker
    B1 Threshold or intermediate
    B2 Vantage or upper intermediate
C Proficient Speaker
    C1 Effective Operational Proficiency or advanced
    C2 Mastery or proficiency

There are numerous self-assessment guides which can help you determine your level, as well as tables correlating CEFR levels to tests such as TOEFL, IELTS, etc.


There are some standards, but they tend to be organization specific (such as DLPT for the US military, or ILR for US Foreign Service Officials), or language specific (such as Japanese Language Proficiency Test).

what taxonomy do they use to separate those who are remarkably fluent from those at various degrees of being less so

In the case of JLPT, the lowest level test (N5) corresponds roughly to a first semester college course in Japanese. The next levels, N4, N3 and N2 correspond roughly to 1 year, 2-3 years and 3-4 years of university level study respectively. If you can pass N1, you can probably do well going to a university in Japan, or work in an office environment in Japan (where everyone else speaks Japanese).

In Europe, you'll find the CERF4 (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) ratings on many people's CVs or résumés. There are three levels with sub-levels within each.

A. Basic Speaker
 A1. Breakthrough or beginner
 A2. Waystage or elementary
B. Independent Speaker
 B1. Threshold or intermediate
 B2. Vantage or upper intermediate
C. Proficient Speaker
 C1. Effective Operational Proficiency or advanced
 C2. Mastery or proficiency

Stealing shamelessly from wikipedia, here is a description of what is to be expected at each level.

level   description
A1  Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases
        aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type. Can introduce 
        him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal 
        details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things 
        he/she has. Can interact in a simple way provided the other person 
        talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.
A2  Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to 
        areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family 
        information, shopping, local geography, employment). Can communicate 
        in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of 
        information on familiar and routine matters. Can describe in simple 
        terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters 
        in areas of immediate need.
B1  Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar 
        matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. Can 
        deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an 
        area where the language is spoken. Can produce simple connected 
        text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest. Can 
        describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes & ambitions and 
        briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.
B2  Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete 
        and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her 
        field of specialisation. Can interact with a degree of fluency 
        and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native 
        speakers quite possible without strain for either party. Can 
        produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and 
        explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages 
        and disadvantages of various options.
C1  Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and 
        recognise implicit meaning. Can express him/herself fluently 
        and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions. 
        Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic 
        and professional purposes. Can produce clear, well-structured, 
        detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of 
        organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.
C2  Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read. 
        Can summarise information from different spoken and written 
        sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent 
        presentation. Can express him/herself spontaneously, very 
        fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning 
        even in the most complex situations.

Competency in a language would be judged on ability to communicate ideas effectively. There are several areas one can look at for something like this, like if the speaker's phonology is the same as a native speaker, or if the speaker has a lexical command equivalent to a native speaker. Fluency could be looked at too, but one can be non-fluent in a language and still have near-native command of a language. This is because fluency is actually just referring to the ability of a speaker to speak at a constant rate without having to pause to think of vocabulary or how to phrase something grammatically.


In addition to Mark's good answer above, when documenting endangered languages, it is also important to consider lexical entrenchment from another more dominant language. With endangered languages, the speakers in a community often use a plethora of foreign words, usually adapted phonologically to the target language. Therefore, you might factor a speakers native lexical knowledge into computing competency, especially when there are no native speakers who do not use foreign vocabulary as a metric.


All of the above are good for assessing if someone has learned an L2 language in non-academic settings, such as when you are deciding whether to hire someone, or what grade to give them.

In studies, a common way to measure acquisition is to give the subject a bunch of sample phrases and ask them to rate their grammaticality. High scores are taken to be correlated with higher linguistic competence; linguists compare the tested population's scores against the scores of a control group of L1 learners.

There are other methods, but that one is pretty basic and pretty common. While this particular assessment tests syntactic competence, it can be pretty easily adapted to test competence in other domains; you can give them nonce-words (like blug and ftalze) and ask them to say if they would be acceptable words in the L2 language or not.

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