What does it mean to know a language?

This question has recently come up in a discussion with some colleagues who are not language teachers.  Professionally, we speak of helping our students become ‘competent users of a language’. This is of course age-specific: people use a language differently when they are five and eighteen. Still, if we think of an adult using a language, what does ‘being competent’ imply? This refers to using a native language too but what do we mean when we say: ‘So-and-so knows English very well’? What can we infer from foreign language tests?

I would say it depends on what one needs the language for. Let’s say, Alex plans to use English mostly to watch shows, films, and competitions, to arrange holidays, and to socialize when he travels. He can very well get by with somewhat limited vocabulary and grammar, basic writing, good listening skills, and fluent, even if inaccurate, speaking. All these skills are relatively easy to develop, considering the abundance of digital English language content. In fact, thanks to the Internet, many young people speak English confidently and with good pronunciation.

His friend Anna, however, plans to study at a university so she will need a different language skill set. In addition to everyday communication, she will read, listen to, and write academic and later, professional texts. She will also have to present and discuss complicated issues so she needs to know sophisticated vocabulary and complex grammatical structures. It will be relevant even if she studies in Latvian, and even more so when she starts working.

These two rather extreme examples illustrate that there is a spectrum, which some language test developers recognize. For example, IELTS has two variants: IELTS Academic - for those who apply to a university, and IELTS General - for immigration and work training, and the content of each test reflects the language’s potential use. All main language tests assess receptive (reading and listening) and productive (speaking and writing) skills. In the second category they evaluate content/ideas, the ability to structure thoughts, active vocabulary, grammar, and either pronunciation or spelling. Unsurprisingly, candidates usually score lower on productive skills, especially writing, and those differences are significant between Academic and General tests [1].

What about Latvian Year 12 exam in English? Unlike IELTS, this is a mandatory exam, and high school students take it irrespective of their needs and plans. Last academic year, the highest overall average scores were for speaking, which indicates our young people can indeed communicate effectively. The results for writing are more revealing though. While the average scores for writing a letter (task 1) are good, writing an essay (task 2) appears to be much more challenging [2]. Obviously, not every school graduate plans to go to a university, which is why the new school standard offers studying subjects at different levels. Still, plans change as we mature and what seems to be irrelevant now may well become a necessity in a couple of years. It makes sense to get as much language training as possible while you are still at school.

  1. IELTS. Test taker performance 2019. https://www.ielts.org/for-researchers/test-statistics/test-taker-performance
  2. Valsts pārbaudes darbi 2020./2021. m.g. Statistika PowerPoint Presentation (visc.gov.lv)