First of all, why test for language proficiency?

We are not generally reliable judges of our own abilities. This Wikipedia article shows that many studies reveal that we have a tendency to overestimate ourselves. The Oregon Healthcare Interpreters law requires that Qualified interpreters have proof of language proficiency. The ACTFL exam is one way to determine that.

Therefore, judging our own skills in our use of language is very unlikely to be accurate. However, some tasks must be carried out by people with proven skills. For example, if interpreters lack the necessary linguistic ability, the risk of misinterpretations which would result in potential misdiagnosis is very high.

Interpreting and translation involve more than language proficiency! A language proficiency test is not an interpreting certification! It takes more than language proficiency to be a translator or an interpreter. However, if we can’t speak in Spanish, we can’t interpret into Spanish. And if we can’t write in Spanish, we can’t translate into Spanish. These tests do not cover all the issues related to translation. They do NOT cover the skills involved in transferring a message accurately from one language to another so the message has the same meaning in the target language. However, language proficiency is a foundational skill.

The ILR (Interagency Language Roundtable) developed a 5 point scale to evaluate language proficiency. The ILR is a collaborative effort of Federal, academic and NGO language specialists. Each skill level is designed to evaluate the practical abilities of a person at that level. The ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) adapted this scale for use in academic settings and the two organizations currently work together to ensure that the two systems are complementary.

Language skills can be classified as follows:

Receptive Productive
Oral Listening Speaking
Written Reading Writing

The ILR also has a scale for translation and another one for interpreting. However, the ACTFL does not have tests for these skills.

A spoken language interpreter hears a message in one language (L1) and accurately and faithfully renders it in another language (L2). In a dialog setting, such as a doctor’s office, a meeting with a teacher, an interview, or a deposition, the interpreter must have very high skills in both listening and speaking in both languages: L1 and L2.

Interpreters are also required to perform sight translation: read a document in L1 and render it orally in L2. Therefore, their reading skills are important.

Translators, on the other hand, take a written message in L1 and deliver a written rendition of that message in L2. Therefore, a translator must have very strong skills in reading for L1 and in writing for L2. The ILR has links for self assessment of these skills on this page.

Learn more about the ACTFL scale here.

Language Testing International (LTI) is the Language Proficiency testing center endorsed by the ACTFL. The following are links to the ACTFL demo tests for these skills.

This chart compares the ILR and ACTFL scales, with brief definitions, and lists the levels requried for interpreters in different fields.

The “paperwork” end of the testing process with LTI is:

Computer-based OPI: Can be taken independently by logging in to and clicking on the Get Certified button. You will pay for it with your own credit card, and continue the process independently. About a week later, you can log in to the system and get your score.

All other tests have to be administered through someone with a client account at LTI. The process for the client is:

  1. The account owner (AO) sends a request to LTI and chooses a proctor. The AO has to provide the following information:
    1. Testee’s name and email
    2. Proctor’s name and email. The proctor may be the Account Owner or some other person designated by the AO. The proctor must be someone who is not related to the testee. This could be a supervisor at work, a teacher at school, etc.
  2. LTI sends the AO the information about the scheduling, and the AO communicates with the proctor and the testee.
    1. For the telephonic OPI, which requires a live tester from LTI, the AO must choose two three hour blocks of time, because LTI has to see when a live tester is available.
    2. For computer generated tests (all others), the test is scheduled instantly and must be completed within two weeks of its creation.
  3. Results: LTI sends the results to the Account Owner, who then forwards them to the testee. This can take a week.

Payment: the AO is responsible for payment to LTI for all tests except the OPIc (computer generated OPI).