Language Proficiency Tests

March 11, 2021
Language Proficiency Tests

I wanted to take some time today to talk about language proficiency tests. A proficiency test can be a useful way to prove your skills, whether to an employer, a government agency, an education institution or simply to yourself. 

Below, I’ll walk you through what language proficiency tests are, discuss a few sample use cases and look at some of the most commonly used tests for a range of languages. Ready? Then let’s get started. 

What Are Language Proficiency Tests? 

What is a proficiency test? The kind of language assessment tests that we all remember from school are designed to check that you have learned your vocabulary and grammar. A language proficiency exam is designed to test how well you are able to use the language. It’s about real-world situations and usage. 

The difference means that there’s more to passing a language proficiency test than studying a textbook. You’ll need to have a natural feel for the language and how to use it in everyday conversation. I’ll discuss further below how you can prepare for this kind of linguist test. First, let’s look at what’s involved. 

How Do Language Proficiency Tests Work? 

These types of language tests focus on four areas: listening, speaking, reading and writing. When you use a language daily, you’ll need to use all of these skills. Language proficiency tests are designed to examine how competent you are at doing so. 

In pretty much any language fluency test you’re going to spend a fair amount of time talking. Conversational testing can include you speaking with the examiner or talking with a third party while the examiner watches. You might also be asked to watch a video or listen to an audio clip and then answer questions based on it. 

Other bilingual tests combine skills in different ways. You might, for example, be asked to read an article and then discuss its contents. This will allow the examiner to consider both your spoken skills and your comprehension of the detail that you’ve read. 

Why Should You Take Language Proficiency Tests? 

Proving your proficiency through a language fluency test can open up doors that might otherwise remain closed to you. It could mean landing your dream job overseas – or domestically, with a company that serves foreign markets. It could mean accessing the education course you want. Or it could just be for personal pride. 

The kinds of linguistic tests also have wider benefits. Cardiff University Business School advises that the UK loses £48 billion every year in lost contracts due to a lack of workplace language skills. 

The UK has a reputation for its monolingualism, but I was still surprised to read that 96% of English exporters don’t have any foreign language ability in the markets they serve. This means that companies can’t move in an agile way when it comes to winning new business, or sometimes even maintaining existing business. Suddenly that lost £48 billion per year makes sense. 

If you’re interested in learning more about sought-after languages in the business world, click the article below. 

Read more: The Languages That Every Translator Should Be Thinking About

Common Use Cases of Language Proficiency Tests

I think it’s worth running through some common examples of when and why you might be required to undertake a language assessment test. 

Employment Scenarios

Do you want to work in a country where you don’t speak the language natively? If you move to the US or the UK, for example, you can sit an English language competency test to show that your linguistic abilities are sufficient for a role in the corporate world there. 

Studying Abroad

Young people who dream of studying abroad need to do more than get good grades in their chosen subject. Many will need to complete a language proficiency exam in order to show that their linguistic skills make the grade too. 

Government-mandated Language Proficiency Tests 

In certain circumstances, it may be a government-mandated test that you need to take. For certain visa or citizenship applications in the UK, for example, you may need to pass a Secure English Language Test (SELT). In the US, meanwhile, it is the ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview that you’ll need to complete. 

Specialist Tests 

There are also situations when you many need to take a specialist proficiency test. The Defense Language Proficiency Test, for example, is used to test individuals’ use of languages that are needed by the military. 

Language Proficiency Tests You Should Know About

There are so many proficiency tests out there, it can be hard to know where to start. Indeed, the same can be true even of which language to learn. Thankfully, we’ve rounded up 15 of the best languages to learn to make it a little easier for you. 

Before I run through which language proficiency tests you should know about for each language, it’s worth noting that European Language Certificates (TELC) are available to cover ten languages: English, German, Turkish, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Polish and Arabic. These language proficiency tests correspond with the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages and can be taken in over 20 countries. 

Let’s look at some additional options. 


Taking a standardised English proficiency test is one of the fastest ways to prove your linguistic credentials. 


One of the most in demand standardised English proficiency tests is the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), from the Educational Testing Service. It is one of the two most recognised English proficiency tests used around the world and is favoured particularly by academic institutions, as well as many professional bodies. 


The other major English language test is the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), which has been in use since 1989. It is the only Secure English Language Test approved for use currently by the UK Visas and Immigration service. 

IELTS is used to verify non-native speakers’ English proficiency in multiple countries, including the UK, Australia, Canada, Ireland, the US and New Zealand. Many European countries also use it. As with TOEFL, it is commonly used in academic settings, as well as professional organisations. 


The Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) is commonly used to test the language skills of those working in international environments. It includes language exams designed to test listening and reading proficiency and speaking and writing proficiency. 


Sprechen Sie Deutsche? If so, and you want or need to prove your abilities, it’s likely that you will be one of the German language proficiency tests below. 


The Deutsches Sprachdiplom Stufe I and II (DSD) is designed to test the linguistic proficiency of those who speak German as a foreign language. Used main in schools, the test has been around since 1973. Speakers are assessed on level A2/B1 or B2/C1 of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.


The Deutsche Sprachprüfung für den Hochschulzugang (DSH) is the language assessment test used by German universities to test students’ ability to understand the language that their classes will be delivered in. Its three grading levels equate to B2, C1 and C2 on the Common European Framework of Reference. 


The Test Deutsch als Fremdsprache (TestDaF) is used in 95 countries to assess the German language proficiency of academics and scientists who wish to work in German universities, as well as those who wish to study at them. 


If it’s your French language credentials you need to prove, one of the following options may well do the trick. 


The Test d'Évaluation du Français (TEF) is used by a range of institutions, including many universities and the Federal Government of Canada to test fluency as part of its immigration procedures. The full test is divided into five sections and takes just under four hours to complete. In some situations, two of the sections are optional. 


The Test de Connaissance du Français (TCF) is used in both France and Canada by job applicants and for education purposes, as well as for immigration processes in Québec. Proficiency levels follow the CEFR, from A1 through to C2. 


The Test de Français International (TFI) is a language test administered by the Educational Testing Service. It assesses listening and reading skills and lasts for around 2.5 hours. 


Many people learn Spanish in order to study or work. As such, there are a range of Spanish proficiency exams that learners can take. 


The Diplomas de Español como Lengua Extranjera (DELE) are used by more than 100 countries to recognise speakers’ Spanish proficiency. This respected Spanish fluency certification is used by schools and universities across the Spanish-speaking world. Over 60,000 DELE Spanish language proficiency exams take place every year. 


The Servicio Internacional de Evaluación de la Lengua Española (SIELE) is an official Spanish proficiency test that assesses individuals’ level of ability for both academic and professional purposes. SIELE approaches Spanish as a universal language, meaning that it includes characteristics from Latin American Spanish as well as European. 


The Certificado de Español: Lengua y Uso (CELU) is an Argentinian Spanish language proficiency test for both studying and working purposes in Argentina. 


While some assert that Mandarin Chinese is the hardest language to learn, many people attempt it with a view to enhancing their career or business prospects. The language proficiency tests detailed below are used to assess their level of linguistic success. 


The Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) is the standardised language assessment test for learners of Standard Chinese. Administered by Hanban (an agency of the Ministry of Education of the People's Republic of China), it can be used in both academic and corporate settings. It can be taken in in mainland China, Hong Kong and Macao but not in Taiwan. 


The Test of Chinese as a Foreign Language (TOCFL) can’t be taken in mainland China, Hong Kong and Macao. It is the standardised test of Taiwanese Mandarin and is usually undertaken by non-native speakers wishing to study in Taiwan. 


Do you speak Korean and plan to study or work in Korea? If so, one of the following could help you on your way. 


The Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK) is available for non-native speakers to take to prove their Korean language skills. It is used by universities and businesses to assess applicants’ proficiency. 


The Korean Proficiency Exam (KPE) can be taken by those who live overseas and wish to work or study in Korea. The standardised language assessment test covers speaking, listening, reading and writing. 


Japanese is a fascinating language and one that can be very rewarding to learn. To prover your credentials, you can sit one of the following proficiency tests. 


The Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) is a five-level foreign language test that is held twice every year in Japan and once elsewhere. It assesses language knowledge and reading and listening abilities. 


The Japanese Language NAT-TEST mirrors the JLPT in many ways. It is designed for students who wish to study in Japan but don’t speak the language natively. 


The Business Japanese Proficiency Test (BJT) is a comprehensive Japanese literacy test suited to the corporate world. While the JLPT focuses on general language use, the BJT has business language at its core. 


Are you looking for an Arabic language proficiency test? If so, will one of the following suit your needs? 


The Arabic Language Proficiency Test (ALPT) is an Arabic proficiency test that is endorsed by the Islamic Chamber of Commerce and Industry. This covers all 22 Arab countries, along with a further 34 countries in Africa and the Far East. Its five sections include tests designed to measure listening comprehension, reading, speaking, writing and structure. 

Certificat International de Maîtrise en Arabe

The Paris-based Institut du Monde Arabe introduced the Certificat International de Maîtrise en Arabe in 2019 to provide a common measurement of proficiency in Arabic in line with the Common European Framework of Reference. It has been rolled out mainly in private high schools in Arab countries, as well as in France and Switzerland. 


Parla italiano? If you do and need to formalize your skills, then one of the following language proficiency exams could help. 


The Certificazione di Italiano come Lingua Straniera (CILS) is widely used by Italian higher education institutions to assess the language abilities of non-native Italian speakers who wish to study at them. It’s also recognised by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 


The Certificato di Conoscenza della Lingua Italiana (CELI) is another qualification used by non-native Italian speakers looking to study in Italy, as well as by immigrants and those seeking work in Italy. It is recognised by the Italian Ministry of Education and Research and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 


The Progetto Lingua Italiana Dante Alighieri (PLIDA) are language diplomas that recognise the holder’s Italian language proficiency, following the completion of a standardised language test. 

Tips on How to Ace Different Language Proficiency Tests

If you’re psyching yourself up to pass a foreign language proficiency test with flying colours, there are plenty of ways that you can help yourself: 

  • Put the hours in: immerse yourself in the language in every way you can, for as many hours a day as you can. 
  • Make it fun: mix up conversations, watching TV/movies, reading books or online articles, playing videogames that have chat functions, using flashcards, playing word games and more to vary your learning and stay engaged. 
  • Take mock tests: Transparent Language is a great resource for this and TELC also allows you to buy mock exams for a wide range of languages. If I wanted to test my Spanish proficiency, for example, this is where I would head to first. 


Are you ready to sit your language skills test? I’ve run through some of the most common options here, as well as looking at what’s involved in foreign language proficiency testing, the benefits of it and how you can prepare. Now, the rest is up to you. 

By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



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