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Defining Levels of Language Proficiency Avoids Confusion

By Alison at Accredited Language
Updated on Wednesday, May 18, 2016
Category: Interpreting, Translation

Language proficiency levels aren’t always easy to define. Translators, interpreters and linguists define different levels of language proficiency with different terms: bilingual, fluent, proficient, native speaker and others.

But the terms used to define language proficiency are not strict and are often used loosely or interchangeably. Since the use of vague terminology can lead to confusion or misrepresentation of just how skilled an individual really is in a language, it’s important for professional translators and interpreters to have working definitions for the various levels of language proficiency.

Just how can we define these terms, and when is it appropriate to use each of them? Here are some of the most commonly-used language proficiency labels and when they should or should not be applied:

Native Speaker

The term native speaker is equal to that of “mother tongue,” and it is generally safe to use these two terms interchangeably.

A native speaker’s language is his first language. This usually means that it dominated his youth and is therefore the language he does his thinking in. A native speaker is more than fluent — he correctly and easily uses his first language.


Like a native speaker, a fluent speaker of a language is very comfortable with the language — however, it is not necessarily his first, native or mother tongue. Although it’s difficult to achieve, fluency can be attained through extended study and, usually, with time spent living in full linguistic immersion.

Merriam-Webster defines the adjective “fluent” in reference to language as “capable of using a language easily and accurately.” It’s important to note that while a fluent speaker may be nearly perfect, he may require more conscious concentration when speaking and may not have the same spontaneity as a native speaker when it comes to idioms and similar terms and phrases.


Turning back to the dictionary, “proficient” is defined as “well advanced in an occupation, art, or branch of knowledge.”

In terms of language, the “proficient” label can therefore be seen as referring to a speaker who, while very skilled in the use of a language, uses the language with greater formality and less familiarity than a native or fluent speaker.

Bilingual, Trilingual, etc.

These words are some of the most misused among language proficiency terminology! Someone may say they are trilingual when in fact they perhaps speak one language as a native speaker, a second language fluently and the third at only a proficient level.

The dictionary definition of “bilingual” is “using or able to use two languages with equal fluency.” Unless each language gets spoken with equal strength, the term “bilingual” could be misleading.

Why Language Proficiency Needs to Be Defined

It might seem nit-picky to differentiate between various terms relating to linguistic proficiency, especially since the differences can be trifling. In fact, it’s the relative similarity of these terms that makes the need for more concrete definitions all the more necessary, in order to avoid confusion and misrepresentation of an individual’s linguistic capabilities.

It should be noted that, while the descriptions above aim to clarify these terms, they are by no means concrete, go-to definitions. In an ideal world, those in the language professions would develop and use an official industry standard of language proficiency terms in order to more accurately represent their capabilities as interpreters and translators.

Until such a standard is adopted, however, those requiring language services should seek to verify a linguist’s language proficiency.

7 Responses to “Defining Levels of Language Proficiency Avoids Confusion”

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  3. Donna Says:

    I agree that language proficiency needs to be clearly defined, especially in regards to job descriptions/applications. With that said, doesn’t “fluent” mean more than just being able to speak the language with comfort? Doesn’t it also involve being able to read and write with comfort in the language as well? Am I right to assume this? I am able to speak Arabic fluently, but I find it difficult to read or write it. I would never call myself fluent in Arabic, but by your definition I would be… Is this true?

  4. Amy at Accredited Language Says:

    Hi Donna,

    Your question hits on the heart of the matter — some people would say you are a fluent speaker, while others would say that your difficulty reading and writing in Arabic means you can’t be fluent. “Fluent” is a very fluid term, and as the post says, this is why a concrete definition for the term would be helpful — especially for hiring a language professional!

    Thanks for reading!

  5. Patricia Harlow Says:

    I am in a quandary. There must be an adjective, a single word, which indicates one’s proficiency in the masterful use of words. Shakespeare, for example, was far beyond “fluent.” And the authors of speeches for JFK and MLK set new boundary lines for “compelling,” and “persuasive!” Is there such a word?

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