I don’t think about my Chinese level very much. I speak it everyday and ever since I’ve been able to watch Chinese news and movies comfortably without subtitles, I’ve considered myself fluent. But what does fluent mean? There are varying levels of fluency and there always inevitably seems to be more to learn.
According to the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale, there are 5 levels of fluency:
Level 1 – Elementary proficiency
When I think of elementary proficiency I remember these conversations:
Yes, back in the day, I got praised for my amazing ability to say just a few words. Being able to say my name and order a bowl of rice was often considered “fluent.”
Level 2 – Limited working proficiency
This level is where you can be understood, but people still don’t want to talk to you because it’s frustrating and they don’t have patience. From what my friend who tutors Chinese says, most students who study Chinese in America stay at about this level. I think a lot of people give up right about here. This is also the level where every few words or sentences people ask: 能听明白吗？
Level 3 – Professional working proficiency
This is where you can talk about mostly anything, but still sound like a foreigner and have to reword things for lack of proper vocabulary. Most people who study Chinese in China end up at about this level. This is level where you hear: 你说真不错但还不是大山
Level 4 – Full professional proficiency
When people talk about fluency, I think of it at about here. This is where people stop asking you if you can understand what they are saying and assume you can. Even though people sometimes praise 哇，你说比中国人还好，you know in your heart that you don’t. People who speak this well usually have spent a lot of time living in China.
Level 5 – Native or bilingual proficiency
This is where you can start quoting Confucius and use idioms to prove all points.
So I had an oral language assessment today. It’s made me think about what level of fluency I actually am. My husband makes fun of my Chinese all the time so I know I really don’t speak that well. I do like to watch those Chinese competitions on TV and laugh at how easy the questions are and yet the people can’t answer them. The thing is though, I think I did poorly on my assessment. I got nervous and started rambling and couldn’t think of anything to say. The proctor kept pushing me towards more serious topics like pollution or history, but I kept rambling about other things. It reminded me of my Chinese 6 final oral exam where I got a low score for not demonstrating higher levels of vocabulary, though the teacher asked me if he could use my written thesis to teach his other classes. It makes me look at those foreigners on TV and think that they are probably pretty nervous too. I bet they speak better when not under duress. Actually, some of those contestants are amazing and could speak circles around me, but anyways. I won’t know the results of my assessment for two weeks. I’m afraid to know what my assessment is. If you can already communicate fluently, does how fluent you are really matter though?
So what would you say is your Fluency?
Is it worth it to strive to a level 5?
Do all Chinese spouses make fun the other’s language skills?