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Language Proficiency: How much is enough?

May 15, 2014

One of my interpreter friends shared that she sometimes interprets for German speakers who are nearly fluent in English, but requests an interpreter when they deal with their insurance company.  Why?  ‘What they are doing is using their German to double-check their understanding of highly complex insurance concepts in English.  They are also using the interpreter’s understanding of the terms to make sense of them.’  She further explained, ‘This means I really have to maintain both my German and English at the highest level to communicate those concepts.’

Language proficiency is at the heart of interpretation. Whether what is said is highly technical or more casual; in a formal or less formal setting, the ability of the interpreter to listen and comprehend and speak and be understood is key.  Users of interpretation services rightfully ask their language service providers to explain how they determine an interpreters’ language proficiency before they hire them.

Two sets of guidelines are widely used in public and private sectors to define levels of language proficiency:

CyraCom’s language assessment tools align with these scales and the company only hires interpreters whose working languages are at a minimum ILR Speaking Level 3 or ACTFL Superior level.

These guidelines define what speakers can do in the language and this is important because the very complex task of interpretation requires that interpreters use their languages in many different ways. The ability to use language as described in the Level 3/Superior Levelguidelines are a minimum requirement to even potentially perform accurate and complete interpretation in most settings. Below is my distillation of these (lengthy and technical) Level 3/Superior Level descriptions:

Who fits this level?

Individuals who are able to comprehend and speak the language and use it to meet a range of professional needs.

Where can speakers use the language?

Speakers can communicate in both formal and informal conversations discussing both concrete and abstract topics.

What are speakers able to do with the language?

Speakers can effectively explain complex matters in detail, discuss social and professional topics, support an argument and make hypotheses, and perform professional duties and tasks. Cultural references and nuances in meaning of some words may pose challenges, but speakers at this level can easily overcome them.

What does the speaker sound like?

Speakers use the language with ease, fluency and accuracy. They may make sporadic errors in formal speech, but these errors do not interfere with native speakers’ understanding. Speakers at this level may have a noticeable foreign accent.

Reaching this level of language proficiency in two (or three) languages is an enormous achievement and it is just the start to becoming an interpreter.  Fortunately for us, as interpreters, constantly developing our languages is a challenge that we meet happily.



Voiance Language Services provides multilingual support in over 200 languages to business and government. Organizations use Voiance’s telephone interpretation to facilitate communication with customers. Voiance is a subsidiary of CyraCom International, Inc., the 2nd largest provider of Over-the-Phone Interpretation in the United States.