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Functional Language Proficiency: What is it?

Functional Language Proficiency: What is it?

Functional language proficiency: a working definition, parameters, and examples

Functional language proficiency is not a term that you hear everyday, however it’s the crux of what every student learning a language with an identified purpose needs to focus on. Language educators as well must let functional proficiency guide course planning and day to day interactions with students who are learning language for a specific purpose.

Let’s start with a working definition of functional language proficiency:

Functional Proficiency is applied and measurable second language competency in field specific social and professional interactions. It does not require prior general proficiency in the language of study because language is learned and acquired within the context of professional practice, which is what’s most relevant and meaningful for the practitioner-learner. Rather than being linear and time bound, this embedded acquisition approach enhances and anchors the learning within the communication needs of the learner making the whole process holistic, always applicable, and therefore highly effective.  

The key question for assessing functional language proficiency is the following:

At what level can the learner communicate effectively in the second language with stakeholders?

  • The stakeholders (people the learner communicates with) are less focused on what you know and how perfectly you execute every little grammatical nuance in communication; they are only focused on the meaning you can convey as you communicate.
  • Your communication must be relative to your context for using language. This is the field-specific social and professional interactions that necessarily involve communication.

For example:

The professional learning Spanish for professional purposes needs to be able to communicate within his professional range of day to day communications. The nurse isn’t very interested in language that describes clothing, hobbies and restaurant vocabulary, she wants to learn medical Spanish so that she can discuss symptoms, history of the problem, and some solutions. Furthermore, she is less interested in professional talk (like the sorts of conversations she would have with her nurse peers or reporting patient information to a provider), and more interested in learning how to have the various conversations she regularly has with patients.

The patient cares about the meaning being exchanged during communication, not perfection. Of course the patient wants to be given accurate information, but she doesn’t care how perfectly that information is communication. Let’s say we need to communicate the patient that test results are back. Here are a few phrases that communicate the idea – not all of them perfect grammar:

  1. I received your test results yesterday (fine grammar)
  2. I receive your test results yesterday (incorrect grammar)
  3. I have received your test results (fine grammar)

The lower proficiency student may only know the present tense (sentence #2) but meaning still gets conveyed without confusion. Anecdotally, we all know this to be true. Everyone has been in conversations with others who have varying levels of education and varying levels of precision with the English language. Communication still happens even though grammar mistakes may be made on a technical level.

Parameters of language proficiency

When speaking about language abilities, most people categorize language ability in terms of fluency, being “fluent” or being bilingual (or not – as is usually the case). Language professionals refer to the ACTFL standards for proficiency, but these standards are general in nature, and naturally include more language breadth than the average professional needs to be functional in their day to day work with Spanish speakers.

Functional language proficiency is narrow in nature, focusing in on the specific range of vocabulary needed to work responsibly in the language. Vocabulary range is narrow and grammar is minimalist. The most important task is to transfer accurate meaning between stakeholders. Of course transferring meaning is improved as language precision, language depth, and language proficiency range improves, but precision is not required to relay meaning between people.

You may be asking the question… So what?

For the language learner: here are a few steps to help guide your language study.

  1. Identify what you need to communicate on a day to day basis in the language you’re learning
  2. After you’ve established the work you need to get done, now start analyzing what vocabulary you need to communicate what you need to get done.
  3. Once you’ve established your communicative tasks and the related vocabulary, start thinking about what grammar is required to make that happen. Do you need to give instructions? Do you need to talk about the past? Do you need to discuss day to day activities? etc.

For the language teacher: help your students get the biggest return possible on their language learning efforts.

  1. Review steps 1-3 above with them, and help the fill in any gaps that you see
  2. Lighten up on little mistakes – do they really matter? Here is my litmus test: if they impede communication they matter, if messages still get across, they probably don’t matter very much.
  3. Recognize the benefits of a minimalist perspective. Place more value on the easiest way to communicate vs the best way to communicate certain messages.


Rory Foster
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Rory is passionate about the Spanish language, an expert instructor, and specifically energized by the practical use of language in industry & community settings.
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