Are language tests useful?
In the online polyglot community, you’ll often see people post their language exam results or share study techniques to prepare for an upcoming exam. We’re seeing more people with full-time jobs unrelated to languages are taking exams in their free time.
On the one hand, language exams are useful if you’re looking for a very standard way to prove your level. This is generally when you’re applying for a job in another language, regardless of the field. Companies or schools require a certification to see if you can communicate in the language. That being said, I don’t believe language tests are true reflections of one’s level in a language.
Language tests are standardised expressions of your level but don’t take into account nuances and natural fluency.
I’ve met people who have passed the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) at level N2, the second highest level, yet struggle to form a coherent sentence when speaking. That’s because there is a difference between memorizing vocabulary and having great test-taking skills, and actually being able to communicate fluently in a language as a result of immersion and enough speaking practice.
The same goes for Korean-based English education. Educators in Korea pressure students to take exams, memorise advanced words and essays. Classrooms are full of students racing to finish test papers and score high marks, and silent for the most part when it comes to conversational skills. Most Korean school students have an exceptional level of advanced English vocabulary, but struggle to speak because they don’t get adequate practice. It’s easy to memorize words and paragraphs by rote and in turn neglect natural speaking and listening practice. We should be careful not to fall into this trap when we prepare for language exams.
Why I take level tests now
With the above in mind, I always thought it would waste my time and money to take a language exam. I took a DELF exam in French years ago but of course my level has fallen significantly without practice and the test probably expired since then. In that case, it was useless for me to take it – I just took it cause my school required it.
With the above in mind, I always thought it would waste my time and money to take a language exam. I took level B2 in the French DELF exam years ago as my school required it. This was to prove that I completed a course at the Alliance Francaise successfully. However, I haven’t touched French for a while and a quick online test showed me that my level dropped to B1. The certification has also since expired. In a case like this, taking the DELF exam really wasn’t any use to me.
But this year, I’m taking the Korean and Japanese standardized exams (TOPIK and JLPT, respectively). This is for two reasons:
1. To test my own level
2. To be a motivator for me to study
To test my own level: I can somewhat figure out what level I’m at roughly (beginner, intermediate, advanced) but specifically can’t say which CEFR or TOPIK level I’m at. Having a standardised framework like a language exam helps other people understand my level and manage expectations.
As for the second point, personally I need some kind of motivation to keep me going. My Korean level has been stagnant for the past few years – I’m at a level good enough to help myself in daily life but not advanced enough to understand politics, science or advanced news. This is called the intermediate plateau. By having something slightly intimidating like an exam loom in the distance, I feel pressure to study, learn new vocabulary and put time and effort in to actively improving my level.
Related video: How to get past the intermediate plateau
That being said, I am not planning on working in Korea or Japan for the next 2 or 3 years, so for now that’s not something the certificate will prove useful for. If you’re planning on working in a country of your target language, taking a level test will prove useful.
How do you know if you’re ready?
Let’s face it, we never feel fully ready for tests, right? I studied for JLPT N3 for 3-4 months and still freaked out a few days before the exam.(Don’t worry, I passed and there was a happy ending). Every school exam feels like that too – it’s just because it’s unknown and you don’t know what will show up in the exam. That’s OK and that’s normal! If you’re asking how do you know which level you’re ready for, you can take practice tests online to gague your level before you sign up for a specific level.
Tracking your progress outside of tests
If you’re taking tests yearly, it’s a good way to see where you’ve improved or stayed stagnant. If you’re not taking any tests, you can track your progress by filming yourself or writing a diary and checking back on how much you’ve improved. My friend and online polyglot inspiration Steve Kaufmann said his talk at Polyglot Conference that he tracks his progress by asking himself: How much could I say before and how much can I say now? It almost sounds too simple, but that’s such a pure and personal way to track your own progress. I remember listening to songs I last heard a few years ago and saying “wow, I clearly understand a lot more of the song lyrics than I remember”. What a nice feeling!
Whether you choose to take a language exam or not is up to you – but just remember, it’s OK to fail. It’s OK to make mistakes. An exam doesn’t reflect fluency very accurately and should just be taken as a guide. Enjoy the process and use it as a motivator to study. All the best, friends!