Before we get started, I have a couple of questions for you and I want you to think about them as we go through this article and video:
- How would you describe your current level of English?
- What are you trying to achieve next?
- If someone asked you to describe your language skills in an interview, would you know what to say?
In this video, I’m going to explain how to sound more natural and more like a native English speaker when talking about your English level and language skills.
I recently received a question from a member of this community who asked how they could express that they want more advanced skills in English.
When I stopped to think about the language I would use, I realized that there’s a disconnect between the levels you often hear when in English classes, and the words people actually use in order to describe their language skills.
Let’s talk about more natural language you can use in order to discuss your English skills in everyday, real-life situations.
The truth is there are so many different ways you can evaluate your English level.
The Truth About English Evaluations in Language Schools
The type of “rating” you should use for your English level really depends on who’s asking: the organization or program that you’re applying to, or the person who needs to know your language skills.
In fact, every language program you enroll in may have a different way of evaluating your skills and placing you in the correct level. (Here’s a list of the many, many English evaluation systems.)
Some places may have three levels: beginner, intermediate, advanced. Other places may have five levels: beginner, pre-intermediate, intermediate, high intermediate, or advanced.
Other places may have even more levels that they use to place their students. It really depends.
Quite honestly, the levels used in many language programs are incredibly subjective.
The evaluation criteria might be standardized, but they still depend on the person interviewing you, as well as on the level of the students who are already enrolled in the program.
You may go to one school and be an intermediate student, and a week later, you’ll transfer to another school and that may be considered advanced.
And quite honestly, this is why saying you’re an intermediate or an advanced learner doesn’t really make much sense outside of a school environment.
If I really stop and think about it, I’ve never heard anyone describe their language skills outside of a language classroom as “intermediate” or “advanced.”
While I do think people will say “I’m a beginner,” if they really have a basic understanding, most of the time we’re going to use different words to categorize our language skills.
Let’s talk about the expressions people actually use in order to describe their language skills in English.
How to Talk About Basic Language Skills
If I’m just starting to learn a language, I might call myself a beginner, but I’m more likely to say “I’m just starting to learn French.”
If I had to describe this beginner level, I would probably say something like, “I have a basic knowledge of French” or “I can understand basic French.”
Or even more simply, I may say “I’m learning Italian,” because people understand that if you’re learning something, you’re not expected to have some sort of mastery.
At times we may get more specific.
For example, I may say “I studied German in college.” By mentioning that I studied German many years ago, the person understands that I probably don’t have an up-to-date knowledge of the language.
I wouldn’t be able to have a lengthy conversation, but I might be able to decipher a few words in German or kind of follow an idea if I read German.
When you say, “I studied something in college” or “I studied something 10 years ago,” the person understands that your knowledge isn’t super great, but you would probably be able to decipher a few words.
If I were to write about my German skills on my resume, I would say something like, “I have a working knowledge of German.”
(You can find many different opinions on how to mention your language skills on an resume, but this is a good summary if you’re curious.)
“Working knowledge” means I can probably figure out a few words of German, perhaps get an idea of the topic that’s being discussed, but I wouldn’t be able to translate and I wouldn’t be able to discuss anything in great depth.
Here are the expressions you can use to talk about basic language skills:
- I’m just starting to learn English.
- I have a basic knowledge of English.
- I can understand basic English.
- I’m learning English.
- I studied English in college.
- I studied English 10 years ago.
- I have a working knowledge of English.
How to Describe “Intermediate” Language Skills More Naturally
Next, if we move beyond this basic level, would we say “I’m intermediate”?
Like I said at the beginning of this video, I would probably only use the term “intermediate” if I were enrolled in a language program.
The idea of “intermediate” seems like an academic concept that doesn’t necessarily have a lot of relevance to your everyday life or the type of language skills you need in the workplace.
While most people do understand that intermediate means a “middle level,” it’s still incredibly subjective.
The term doesn’t tell me very much about what you can actually do with the language.
To sound more natural, you want to be more specific.
In this case, I would say something like, “I speak Portuguese conversationally.” What do I mean by conversationally?
When I say “I speak Portuguese conversationally,” it means I can have an informal, relaxed conversation in Portuguese. I could talk about daily topics and have a short, friendly interaction with someone.
Speaking Portuguese conversationally does not mean I speak it accurately, or that I can talk about any subject in depth. It doesn’t mean I can use complex language or grammar structures.
When we write our resumes, we often have to abbreviate all of our language skills, so I write “I speak Portuguese conversationally,” and people can understand that I can hold a conversation in Portuguese.
If I have the opportunity to explain myself, I’ll say that “I understand much more Portuguese than I speak.”
In fact, I often use this language to warn people that I actually understand what they’re saying.
If you think about it, most everyday conversations aren’t really that complex or in-depth, and so I can follow the general idea of what people are saying.
In my experiences studying Portuguese, I’ve learned a lot of language to talk about everyday situations, describe people, and talk about my life.
I’ve had the chance to speak Portuguese with a number of Brazilian friends and I can generally predict and follow the flow of conversation.
All of this can be summed up by saying, “I speak Portuguese conversationally.”
Now, think about how I’ve described my language skills.
Do they apply to how you speak English? If so, I want you to remember that you don’t have to say you speak English at an intermediate level. That doesn’t really mean anything!
If you can speak English conversationally, say it!
You can even tell somebody “I understand more English than I speak.”
Most people who’ve studied another language understand exactly what you mean.
(Depending on the situation, you may want to talk about your ability to read and write the language. That said, most people are interested in describing their speaking skills, so that’s what I’m focusing on here.)
Here are the expressions you can use to talk about conversational language skills:
- I speak English conversationally.
- I speak conversational English.
- I understand more English than I speak.
How to Discuss Professional Proficiency and Language Skills
The next step above conversational English or conversational Portuguese is to talk about your professional skills in the language.
Many people have to speak English in professional environments, but they may not feel like they speak fluently. This is completely normal!
If you speak English in professional situations and you can handle negotiations, discussions, presentations, and general business-related interactions in English, you can talk about your professional proficiency in the language.
You don’t have to be fluent in order to say you have professional proficiency.
This just means that you have a certain degree of mastery in the language used to interact in professional situations, to communicate effectively, to discuss important ideas, to present your ideas to your English speaking colleagues.
Does this sound like you? If so, you may describe your English skills as working professional proficiency or full professional proficiency.
Once again, this is a self-evaluation, which means you’re the one deciding what kind of language skills you have.
Remember, you want to be honest with yourself and make sure you choose what seems most appropriate.
Someone may test you in order to prove your professional proficiency (this will often be tested in your job interview.)
If you have working professional proficiency, which is a little bit lower than full professional proficiency, then state that. But if you feel confident communicating in a variety of professional situations, you can say, “I have full professional proficiency.”
At the end of the video, we’ll talk about what you’re trying to achieve with your skills and how you can be more specific when discussing your proficiency level.
Here are the expressions you can use to describe professional proficiency:
- I have working professional proficiency.
- I have full professional proficiency.
How to Talk About Speaking English Fluently
Next, let’s talk about everybody’s favorite topic: speaking fluently.
In general, we all understand what speaking fluently means:
- thinking in English
- not translating from your native language
- speaking automatically
- being able to handle casual and professional situations confidently
- being able to talk about a wide variety of topics and not feeling like your language skills are limited.
While some of your skills may be better than others, we usually just summarize and say, “I speak Spanish fluently,” or “I speak English fluently.”
When I talk about my Spanish skills, I simply state “I speak Spanish fluently,” because, like I said, people generally have an understanding of what “fluently” means.
Of course, there are different levels of fluency. You can be fluent in casual situations, but not in professional situations.
You may feel a little out of place in a more academic, intellectual environment, but feel very confident interacting in everyday situations. It really depends on you!
I’m not going to debate what fluency actually means today because you already know I have a lot of opinions on this topic. (Check out this conversation on the journey to fluency for more ideas.)
But like I said, when I talk about my language skills, I say “I speak Spanish fluently.” If I need to get more specific, I will.
The other thing I’ve noticed while working with so many non-native English speakers is that people are reluctant to say they speak a language fluently.
Many people judge their English fluency against how they speak their native language, but to be quite honest, that’s a different level of language skills, as we’ll discuss next.
How to Describe the Highest Levels of Language Skills
If you’ve managed to get a fantastic accent, it’s very hard to hear that you’re not a native speaker, and you almost never make mistakes, then you can say you have near-native proficiency.
Near-native proficiency is a step above speaking a language fluently, and suggests you are able to read, write, understand, speak the language just as well as a native speaker.
It also suggests that you are culturally fluent and have a deep understanding of cultural references.
Beyond that, if you grew up speaking two languages, then you are bilingual.
If you grew up speaking even more languages, you may be trilingual or multilingual.
We generally use the term “bilingual” if you speak two languages at a native-level, but at times the term is used to describe someone who speaks two languages at a very high level of proficiency.
Personally, I don’t usually use this word to describe my language skills because I don’t have a native-sounding accent in Spanish and I still make a lot of mistakes.
Like I said, non-native speakers often judge themselves harshly! At times, we simply need others to describe our language skills to us.
I’ve had to tell many of my clients that they’re fluent in English. They just didn’t believe it because they’re still critical of their language ability.
It can be hard to accept that you’re fluent if you still have skills you want to improve. Remember, fluency does not equal perfection.
Of course, when you grew up speaking a language, you can say you’re a native speaker.
Here are the expressions we use to describe high levels of proficiency:
- I speak English with near-native proficiency.
- I am bilingual in Spanish and English.
- I am trilingual.
- I am multilingual.
- I am a native English speaker.
- I am a native speaker of English.
How to Describe the Language Skills You Want
Now let’s talk about describing the language skills that you want. Going back to the original question, does it really make sense to say “I want to be an advanced learner”?
Like I said at the beginning, talking about being an advanced learner makes sense in a school situation, but it’s not something we would normally say in everyday life.
That’s why when we say “I want to reach the next level of English,” it doesn’t really mean much to another person.
What do you mean specifically? What kind of skills do you need?
Most of the times when people want to improve their language skills, they say something like, “I want to become more fluent.” We usually understand fluency in terms of spoken fluency.
You could say, “I want to improve my proficiency,” but I feel like that word “proficiency” is a little more complex than necessary and doesn’t sound that natural off of a resume.
You might say, “I want to sound more like a native English speaker” or “I want to sound more natural in English.”
In general, when I describe sounding more natural, I mean having a more American-sounding accent as well as communication skills that help you connect ideas a little more fluidly.
But you can get even more specific:
- I want to speak more automatically.
- I want to speak without thinking in my native language.
- I want to speak without translating.
In addition, I suggest talking about the specific skill you want to work on:
- I want to give better presentations at work.
- I want to feel more confident participating in academic discussions in grad school.
- I want to be able to have more relaxed conversations with other parents of kids at school.
- I want to feel confident interacting with people in just about any situation.
- I want to be able to have great conversations when I’m traveling.
In these examples, we’re describing speaking skills, but you may talk about other language skills:
- I want to read my favorite books in the original language.
- I want to feel confident writing emails.
- I want to be able to write blog posts.
- I want to be able understand my favorite TV shows or movies.
When you can name the specific goal or the specific skill you want to develop, it’s much easier for people to give you suggestions and advice.
This is why when people say, “I want to speak English better,” I always ask them why.
What specifically are you trying to achieve? What kind of situations? What kind of interactions?
The language is going to be different depending on the situation.
Remember: You’re an English speaker, not a learner!
When you use more specific explanations to describe your English skills or your language goals, you sound more like an English speaker, not a learner.
The word “learner” is often used in academic language or school environments. That’s why you’ll hear teachers use the term discussing language skills amongst themselves.
But if you’re speaking English in the workplace, in social situations, or when traveling, you’re not a learner, you’re an English speaker. You’re just a non-native English speaker!
Personally, I try to avoid the term English learner when talking about non-native English speakers because it makes me feel like we’re back in the classroom.
Most of the time we’re interacting in English in real life!
In order to feel more confident about the language skills you actually have, I encourage you to use the language we’ve discussed in the videos in order to describe what specifically you’re able to do with your English ability.
Most people don’t need to achieve near-native proficiency! This is really challenging for most people.
Instead, think about what you can specifically do and what you want to achieve and name it.
Of course, you may have certain situations where people ask you to rank your language skills according to a certain evaluation system or a language proficiency framework.
For example, they may ask you for your TOEFL or IELTS score, or they may ask you to rank yourself according to the Common European Framework or the Interagency Language Roundtable used by the US federal government. (You can take the speaking self-assessment here.)
In this case, follow the instructions.
But in normal life, if you want to sound natural and more like a native English speaker, don’t call yourself a beginner, intermediate, or advanced learner. Name your specific skills!
Do you speak English conversationally? Do you have full professional proficiency in English? Do you have a working knowledge of English?
To summarize my own language skills, here’s what I would say:
- I have a working knowledge of French and Italian because I understand Spanish and Portuguese.
- I speak Portuguese conversationally, but I understand much more than I speak.
- I speak Spanish fluently and can handle all kinds of situations, personal and professional.
I wouldn’t say I have near-native proficiency in Spanish because I feel like I make a lot of mistakes when speaking, and I have definitely found myself in situations where I don’t understand everything.
Like I said, as non-native speakers, we often feel like our skills are below what they actually are!
Now that you have much more language to express yourself, leave a comment and tell me: how would you describe your language skills? Of course, you can talk about languages other than English!
What do you want to improve next? When you share your goals, I can direct you to resources that can help you!
If you think of other terms or expressions you can use to describe your language skills, let me know!
Remember, there are many more ways to talk about your abilities than I’ve described here. If you find a precise way to describe your skills that feels natural to you, use it confidently!
Just for fun, I also encourage you to consider this question: What’s your personality when speaking English?