Language Goals: How good is good enough?

So, I set myself an NYR (New Year’s Resolution) concerning my learning of the German language. It got written up in my diary as “Target: Speak (reasonably) proficient German.

The “reasonably” clause is there because, well, it’s only a year we’re talking about. It takes most people a lot longer to pick up a new language, depending on exposure/willingness to learn, etc. I admit I’m being rather vague here.

The thing I’ve noticed is that it is really difficult to quantify and scale language abilities. If you’ve attended all 6 course levels on the European scale A1-C2, then by definition your language skills should be “proficient/mastery/advanced”. Though of course in reality there are plenty of people out there who have done the courses…but can’t hold a conversation without fumbling for words. You can have the ability to natter away in your foreign language with colloquialisms and cultural references…but continually fudge spelling and grammar on paper. You might be able to watch films without subtitles…but get totally lost in a technical piece of writing.

I’ve seen the phrase “Conversational [language] ability” quite a few times. Used by myself, too. What does that really mean? That you are able to conduct some kind of conversation, sure. However I’d say there’s a massive gap between having a conversation about your background (Where do you come from? What do you work as?) and about the intricacies of the current US Republican Nomination Campaign (What is the political significance of the Iowa Caucus? Discuss the socio-economic reasons for supporting your preferred candidate). I personally would say that “conversational” falls between the two…but others no doubt would have different ideas.

So…I’m not going to quantify my success on “conversational” levels.

(a) I don’t think it means anything concrete, so I can’t measure it. Thus it’s an impossibly-defined goal.

(b) I’d like to be able to watch German films/write/read books/understand what my colleagues are talking about. Conversational doesn’t address any of these criteria.


I’ve hinted before at the importance of speaking German as a professional goal as well as a personal one. Germany & Switzerland are technological powerhouses, home to a number of pharmaceutical and chemical companies. Being able to speak German would be a good thing to put on the ol’ CV, wouldn’t it? It would also make my personal life so much easier of course, but that’s another story.

Here the American ILR scale comes into the fore. We have Elementary, Limited Working, Professional Working, Full Professional and Native/Bilingual Proficiency levels. This takes into account (a) ability to handle conversations (b) dealing with technical material (c) ability to understand conversations (d) accent/pronunciation (e) number and type of grammatical errors. Also, it is how I must classify language abilities on my LinkedIn profile.

As a reference, most native German-speaking colleagues at work have Full Professional Proficiency in English. They can talk about Chemistry with confidence, they have only a slight accent (enough to demonstrate that English isn’t their first language, but not necessarily enough to place which country they come from), they never get lost in lunchtime discussions.

Professional Working Proficiency is apparently used as an international benchmark for “knowing” a language. It’ll take me more than a year to get there, for sure. While it is unlikely that I’ll get to Bilingual Proficiency, I don’t think it is impossible for me to reach Full Professional if I kept at the German. I’ve told you all already that I want to be “a professional scientist”, it seems like a suitable goal…

At the moment my LinkedIn profile says Elementary Proficiency. While it isn’t an exact fit, I think it’s a fair overall assessment.


In one year I think I could reach the level of Limited Working Proficiency in German. Provided I keep at it. It still isn’t easy to quantify or assess, but I think that there’s a lot of mini targets and anecdotal evidence of competency I can look back on. I can go through the ILR scoring system too if I’m wanting to be really thorough. I’ll know in my heart if I’ve failed or not, won’t I?


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