Why Take a Language Exam or Language Test?
You may find yourself wondering why a language test would be useful for you at all, especially if you’re not studying for work or school. But there are a few excellent reasons to dive into the idea of test prep.
1) Gain a Solid Framework Instantly
Self-guided language study is a bit haphazard at times. You may lack the support network of a group class, and you may not have found the right tutor yet. You may even find yourself changing resources a lot of the time. One day you spend half an hour on Memrise, the next day it’s back to podcasts. If you find that your entire language learning system is not as good as it could be, working towards will help you grow from solid ground. Language exams are built on the four core skills principle of listening, reading, speaking and writing.
Read more about the core skills in my book Fluency Made Achievable
2) Achieve More, Faster
Believe it or not, putting a smaller goal such as a specific language test at the next level in front of you will make you feel better. It’s a bit like going on marathon training. You could try and run the whole 26 miles all in one go, and then you’ll feel frustrated when you haven’t got there after 1 hour. Or you could practice little and often, and aim for a level that’s the next sensible goal. As you approach the 5 mile marker for the first time you’ll feel pretty proud and you’ll know you can build onto this foundation. The same mindset will work for you when you aim to pass the right exam instead of spending all your days wondering “how long until I’m fluent?”.
3) Get the Benefit Without The Fees
Language tests are created for applicants to universities, aspiring immigrants or job applicants who need to prove that they can function at the required level in a language. This has two big advantages for you as an independent learner:
First of all, the tests are not about rote learning and recalling 1000 words. They are about how well you can function in your target language. Can you read the paper, can you understand your boss, can you convince a friend to see your movie choice? For anyone dreaming of true functional fluency in another country, language tests are perfect.
But secondly, if you’re not actually planning to move to your target language’s country, you have got a fab deal. Buy a test prep manual, join a test prep class, research a test…but don’t go and take it because you don’t need to do this. You can mock test yourself in ways that are cheaper than some of the registration fees charged by test providers. For example, work with a tutor just to check your answers or become a study buddy for a learner at your level.
The Most Popular Framework for Languages
These days, most accredited language tests are designed in line with the Common European Framework for Language Proficiency (CEFR), which is split into levels A1 to C2.
You may also see websites that refer to the amount of study hours a student has put in to achieve this level, but it’s a lot more helpful to think about it as the answer to the question “What can you do with your language skills at this level?"
The aspect that I like best about this framework is that it does not focus on numbers. Instead of checking which vocabulary words you know (like the scary/horrible American GED), these tests are about interaction. They are exactly what language learning is about in the 21st century. If you’re hoping to speak to a real person soon, then this system is exactly right for you.
The Most Popular Language Exams
- TOEFL, most popular in the USA
- IELTS, the most common exam in Britain and Australia
Both exams are accepted widely throughout the English speaking world. With both of these, you don't study towards a specific level exam. Instead, you're tested and your result will indicate which level the testers found you are at.
- Goethe Certificates from A1 to C2
- ÖSD, the Austrian language diploma which assesses the Austrian dialect of German
- DELF and DAF are the official French government language exams and offer tests ranging from A1 to B2 and the DAF as the higher option
- TCF, the Test de Connaissance du Français also has a Québec option if you're looking at Canadian French in particular
- DELE is the official Spanish government language exam and awards diplomas from A1 to C2
- CILS, the Certificazione di Italiano come Lingua Straniera is particularly useful for people aiming to study at Italian universities, and also available from A1 to C2. It's offered by the University of Siena.
- The popular CELI is available at levels UNO, DUE and TRE. View all options at the University of Perugia website.
- The JLPT is the Japanese Language Proficiency Test or Nihongo Nōryoku Shiken. It doesn't follow the usual framework to the letter but instead runs from level N1 to N5.
If you haven't found a language exam that interests you on this page or want to find even more options, read further on Wikipedia.
Do You Think a Test is Right For You?
In my own experience, I have prepared students for Goethe Exams at levels B1 to C1 and found that it really focused our lessons. And I'm not a stranger to language exams myself, having taken the IELTS before moving to the UK many moons ago.
Have you ever taken a language proficiency test or prepared for one? Would you do this in your language learning?
Share your opinion about formal language exams in the comments!