Are language levels bullshit?

I’ve spent some time reading through the language learning blogosphere, so to speak – started off at Japanese Level Up and continued from there, although I found the Japanese learners’ community to be the most active. I noticed (and have always known it to be true) that there’s a huge focus on language “levels”, attaining them, testing at them, almost always following some sort incredibly vague description of each one.

And I think that’s kind of bullshit.

I’ll take a moment to note here that I can absolutely see the psychological benefit of hitting certain quantitative milestones when you’re studying a language like Japanese. But for most languages in your standard bunch, particularly those that use an alphabet, I don’t think it makes any sense at all.

First off, levels are incredibly subjective, and even if they’re broken down by category (speaking, listening, reading, writing), what really separates a foreigner’s level 7 from another foreigner’s level 8 in writing? Let’s look at an example near and dear to my heart I despise with the fiery passion of a thousand suns: the IELTS.

IELTS stands for the International English Language Test System administered by the British Council (nota bene), the U.K’s cultural diplomacy arm.  Right there you have problem number 1: the test is compiled and graded by speakers of British English. For an illustration of problem number 2, let’s compare the “writing mark schemes” for levels 9 (the highest) and 8 (the second highest):

Level 9

  • fully satisfies all the requirements of the task
  • clearly presents a fully developed response
  • uses cohesion in such a way that it attracts no attention
  • skilfully manages paragraphing
  • uses a wide range of vocabulary with very natural and sophisticated control of lexical features; rare minor errors occur only as ‘slips’
  • uses a wide range of structures with full flexibility and accuracy; rare minor errors occur only as ‘slips’


Level 8

  • covers all requirements of the task sufficiently
  • presents, highlights and illustrates key features / bullet points clearly and appropriately
  • sequences information and ideas logically
  • manages all aspects of cohesion well
  • uses paragraphing sufficiently and appropriately
  • uses a wide range of vocabulary fluently and flexibly to convey precise meanings
  • skilfully uses uncommon lexical items but there may be occasional inaccuracies in word choice and collocation
  • produces rare errors in spelling and/or word formation
  • uses a wide range of structures
  • the majority of sentences are error-free
  • makes only very occasional errors or inappropriacies

First of all, my computer does not consider “inappropriacies” to be a word, British Council. Secondly, this grading system makes no allowances for differences in cultural and educational background, or even just interest in the subject. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the task itself is ridiculous – part of it involves describing but not analyzing a graphical representation of some data (some people are just naturally analytically minded, British Council!), and the other part of it involves writing one of those stupid “for and against” high school essays, usually on some mind-numbingly boring topic.

Anyway, the reason love fire burns in my heart for this particular exam is because I had to take it to get into grad school. Since the language of instruction for my undergraduate degree wasn’t English, I couldn’t get out of the requirement, and it was easier to take the IELTS than the TOEFL (equally awful, btw) at that time. Anyway, I got 9s on listening and speaking, an 8.5 on reading (there was a text about the woodpecking habits of woodpeckers in New Jersey…), and an 8 on writing. Look, I ain’t no James Joyce, but I can write, yo. I was VERY ANGRY, but I literally had no choice but to send those results in to complete my application. Anyway, I got in, and because I still had some sort of leftover trauma from that 8 on the writing section, I spent hours meticulously crafting every paper for every assignment during my first semester. Then they started coming back with comments like “excellent writing, great job” and “this is very well written”, and I wanted to print all of them on a giant banner and fly them past the headquarters of the British Council.

Or something.

Anyway, point being, all that test did (besides get me into grad school, okay, okay) was sow unnecessary panic and erode my confidence in my abilities.  Obviously I wrote well, I just happened to only write about things I liked and not some made-up pie chart.

I’ve never taken a formal French test outside of school and don’t expect to need to do so, but just going by my experience with the IELTS exam and with my widely varying competencies in other languages, I’ve kind of started developing this theory that tests and levels are confusing, even counterproductive, and that they engender either false security or false insecurity, depending on where you fall relative to where you thought you were. I say that because I can, and routinely do, read newspaper articles in Bulgarian or Polish, but I can’t say anything in either one, and I frequently read complex commercial litigation in Spanish, but can only really carry on a beginner-level conversation. Sometimes (and this is terrifying), I can understand nearly 100% of an Almodovar movie, but only about 80% of a French TV show, yet my Spanish is far far far weaker overall. There are accents, dialects, regional variations, thematic groupings in which cognates dominate, etc – none of this matters in conventional language testing, it seems.

I think there should be a different system altogether, one that considers natural aptitude, affinities for certain topics, technical vocabulary and so on, and it would, by definition, be very personal. I hope to write more about that soon.

P.S. Here’s a very good JALUP post on levels and “native” “fluency”.

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