Measuring Multilingualism: Routine vs. Proficiency


A certain confusion plagues the usual understanding of language proficiency.

It makes itself most obvious when people try to interpret ability in terms of fluency.

This same confusion also comes into play whenever people talk about knowing a language, or else wanting to master it.

If such terms are used in the formulation of broad language-learning goals – as they often are – they occupy such a vague and unmeasurable space that as targets they have almost no meaning at all.

And then we have bilingualism, trilingualism, and other variations on multilingualism. These have something close to real meaning – if, that is, we can assume by them that a person can consistently display about the same amount of skill in two or more languages.

Better Descriptors

A number of people and organizations have recognized this confusion and so have started searching for better descriptors to address it. The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, and its derived scales, provide the best and most robust examples of these.

Other terms, like the “Professional Working Proficiency” used by LinkedIn, or related terms as found on the Interagency Language Roundtable, also offer fairly meaningful descriptions of someone’s language ability.

These approaches all seek to measure how successfully learners perform in specific situations and contexts. For example, “professional working proficiency” presumably measures people’s ability to use a language at work. Meanwhile, the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages defines a series of tasks and contexts, ranking them in terms of the demands they place upon a speaker’s language ability.

But there’s another question to ask when it comes to using a foreign language: How much has the learner integrated the language into his or her daily life?

Multilingualism as Routine

Such integration does not necessarily mean general profieciency.

Almost every expat living in a foreign-language environment – even those who make no effort to learn a language – will start to use the language in some common situations.

In restaurants, for example, they will start to order food. They will find it impossible to avoid using some part of the language fast-food chains or coffee shops. They may even perform tasks like this everyday.

And even if in other areas of language use – such as vocabulary, grammar, general listening or conversation skills – they perform poorly, they may come to carry out these common tasks quite effectively, with a minimum degree of effort.

It has become for them a routine part of their life – one that has become so habitual that these second-language users may stop reflecting upon it altogether.

At the same time, you may have a language learner who spends many hours a day studying, but the use of the language remains completely academic. The closest they get to using the language habitually in ‘real world’ settings may be in the consumption of television shows and movies.

When such academic learners use the language in public, they do so well enough. In fact, they may use the language better than the routine users. The experience retains a feeling of abnormality, however.

This public performance can inspire a high degree of self-reflection, but it may not be very useful. The user may feel a kind of excessive pride for some subtlety of language use – or else self-criticism, if she or he doesn’t feel it went very well.

And finally, you have a third group of learners, who bit-by-bit integrate language use into their social, their professional, their private lives.

We imagine this kind of process taking place in ‘immersive’ environments, where the learner can be fairly passive. But this kind of integration actually takes place as the consequence of a more thoughtful process and effort. The immersed person may only use the language at school or work, while those seeking integration will look to balance the use of different languages in different parts of their lives.

These people may not be multilingual or even bilingual, but they resemble such speakers in the situations they use the language. Their language ability has become more a part of them than those who studied language in a more academic way – even if they lack the same proficiency.

Measuring Integration

We don’t have many tests or metrics around to measure this kind of integration, however. It may be that it doesn’t yield itself easily to quantification.

Instead, record keeping would have to resemble a series of calendars, a portfolio of activities engaged in, or even an old-fashioned journal – tools, in other words, that are best employed by the learner him or herself.