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Proficiency Testing

There are a lot of language tests out there you can take to demonstrate your proficiency in your language. But what are they really worth, what do they prove?

Japanese has its "Japanese Language Proficiency Test" (Nihongo Noryoku Shiken), there are also the DELF for French and DELE for Spanish. Other test exists, or will exist for all major languages. And many, such as the ones mentioned above, have several levels, from basic to advanced.

The tests evaluate listening, reading, speaking, and in some cases, writing proficiency. But what's important to bear in mind is that the tests are brief, only a few hours, so can hardly cover the range of language that an advanced student would have, to say nothing of a professional translator or interpreter.

These tests essentially are milestones, a nice accomplishment when you pass, but seemingly trivial when viewed years later, after your skills have further matured. No one in the translation or interpretation profession will take passing these tests as anything more than history; they will not be seen as substantial proof of language proficiency for professional purposes.

The reason is simple: the tests simply are not hard enough. The typical entering student in a graduate-level translation or interpretation program will have long since been able to pass all such tests in her second language, and the admissions test for the school she is entering will be much harder than anything she has seen before. Similarly, any company hiring a translator or interpreter will subject the potential employee to one or more tests that are far more challenging than these proficiency tests are.

Further, cheating is rampant on these proficiency tests. When I took the Japanese Language Proficiency Test in December, 1989, I saw other test-takers with dictionaries open in their laps, and still others passing notes to collaborate on an answer or corroborate a choice. And, of course, there are people who forge the certificate received when passing such tests. Schools and companies are understandably wary of claims about such tests.

So use these proficiency exams not as proof that you are fluent (a word which itself is meaningless), but rather as goals to motivate you to learn more, and milestones of achievement as you work toward native-level proficiency in your second language.

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