Bilingual employees often use the foreign language at work. The ACTFL scale gives language proficiency guidelines for different skills, and there are tests for each skill. How does each skill apply to the work duties performed at the office? The following skill descriptions are taken from the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines 2012.

The levels that are described below are what I personally have observed are what is needed for clear communication at work. As I have trained interpreters, I have seen that those who have an oral proficiency lower than Advanced Mid, for example, are simply not ready to learn interpreting because of the problems described below. As a translation instructor and as an interpreter, I have seen how the distractions caused by problematic use of terminology, grammar, and syntax lead to difficulties in comprehension of the text.

Therefore, the skill levels recommended are based on my personal evaluation of the ACTFL descriptions and the realities of communication with native speakers of a language other than English in the United States. There are certainly gaps in the training opportunities in the United States, and I am attempting to bridge some of those gaps. That will be the focus of another post.

This article does not cover translation or interpreting, which is the transfer of meaning from one language to another. In this post, I am simply covering the requirements communicate clearly in one language without misunderstandings.

Communication happens in four ways:

  • Listening
  • Speaking
  • Reading
  • Writing


Listening is key to spoken interaction. At the Advanced Low level, listeners can understand the main facts and some supporting details.

At the Advanced Mid level, listeners have a greater facility with the language itself and therefore can understand the main facts and many supporting details.

At the Advanced High level, listeners can comprehend the facts and some speaker-intended nuances. Therefore, this is the lowest level I would recommend for listening comprehension in many cases.

See page 17 of the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines 2012 for the full description.



At the Distinguished level, oral discourse typically resembles written discourse, and speakers can tailor their speech to the audience.

At the Superior level, though the speaker’s main language may influence his or her foreign language, the errors in their speech do not distract the native interlocutor or interfere with communication.

The speech of Advanced Mid speakers is more influenced by their main language, but they are able to convey their intended message without confusion. They are readily understood by native speakers unaccustomed to dealing with non-natives.

Advanced Low speakers, on the other hand, may have to restate their material when dealing with native speakers in order to clarify issues.

Because of these issues, I recommend Advanced Mid as the lowest level for speaking the language as part of a job description.

See pages 5 and 6 of the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines 2012 for the full description.


I recommend a minimum of Advanced High, preferably Superior, for reading texts such as medical instructions, medical reports, and complaint letters, which can be complex and include material from unexpected contexts. Advanced High readers are able to understand subject matter that is new to them, but they are “likely challenged by texts in which issues are treated abstractly.”

Superior-level readers, on the other hand, are able to understand lengthy academic and literary texts. They may still be challenged by cultural references that are deeply embedded in the text. Errors in understanding a text can be reflected in the review of a written text, and in the response given to a letter from a community member, or worse yet, treatment given to a patient. Therefore, Superior-level reading is desirable.

See pages 21 and 22 of the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines 2012 for the full description.


For writing, I recommend the Superior level or higher for writing documents that will be distributed to the public, to avoid risk of misunderstandings. This criteria should also apply to anything that is given to a patient, since a misunderstanding in the home care instructions could affect the patient’s health and well-being. As an interpreter, I have seen patients reject translated documents because they had incorrect grammar or spelling. They did not trust the content based on the problems they could already see in the capitalization and punctuation, for example. Therefore, documents that are distributed to the public need to be accurate and be error-free regarding the mechanics of the target language. English and Spanish, for example, have different capitalization rules. According to the ACTFL:

Writers at the Distinguished level can carry out formal writing tasks using techniques to advocate for positions that are not their own. They demonstrate full control of the lexicon, style, and syntax of the language, and use conventions appropriately to the text modality and the target culture.

Writers at the Superior level are able to produce most kinds of formal and informal correspondence, in-depth summaries, reports, and research papers on a variety of social, academic, and professional topics. Their treatment of these issues moves beyond the concrete to the abstract. […] At the Superior level, writers demonstrate no pattern of error; however, occasional errors may occur, particularly in low-frequency structures. When present, these errors do not interfere with comprehension, and they rarely distract the native reader.

The following comment is mentioned under Advanced High writing: “The linguistic limitations of Advanced High writing may occasionally distract the native reader from the message.”

See pages 11 and 12 of the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines 2012 for the full description.

A word of caution is in order. Reading and writing skills at these levels are a prerequisite for learning translation skills, not a guarantee of having translation skills. When ATA accepted ACTFL testing results as one of the means to prove eligibility to take its certification exam, passing the test at the Advanced High level did not prove to be a predictor of passing the translation certification exam. These recommendations are for monolingual work, not for translation.

In the United States, based on my conversations with professors of foreign languages in universities in the United States, students often graduate from a Bachelors in Foreign Languages with an Intermediate Mid on the ACTFL scale. Some universities require an Advanced Mid or Advanced High for acceptance to a MA in Spanish or Translation. To bridge that gap, students generally have to go to a country where the language is spoken and study for a year or two. Other universities do not require a specific language proficiency level to begin graduate foreign language studies, but based on my conversations from graduates of those programs, students are not always able to keep up with the work required if they do not enter with a strong language proficiency foundation. However, I have had to interpret for a teacher of AP Spanish who had a Masters in Spanish. Because of these experiences and conversations, I believe that the ACTFL test by a vendor who is licensed by ACTFL is the best way to verify language proficiency in the United States.

Helen Eby, Gaucha Translations