Foreign language exam results and ability

I’ve been curious lately about the meaning of the results from foreign language exams. I used the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) as the main rubric and found the equivalent levels given by the ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages), and for the following exams: TOEFL iBT (Test of English as a Foreign Language internet-based Test); TOCFL (Test of Chinese as a Foreign Language); and JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test). The CEFR and ACTFL are two proficiency guidelines.




TOCFL level3

JLPT level4


Novice (high)



Intermediate (low, med)

Level 2



Intermediate (mid, high)


Level 3



Intermediate (high), Advanced (med)


Level 4



Advanced (mid, high)


Level 5




1Centro de Lenguas Modernas (UGR), Formación y Gestión de Granada – CEFR, ACTFL comparison.
2TOEFL: For Academic Institutions: Compare Scores – TOEFL iBT, CEFR comparison.
3Steering Committee for the Test of Proficiency – Huayu – TOCFL, CEFR, ACTFL, FSI/ILR comparison.
4Josai International University, Department of International Exchange Studies, English/Japanese Language Program – JPLT, CEFR comparison.

The CEFR, each letter reflects a different language level. Each level has a thorough description about the person is able to do in that language. The ACTFL also has a extensive description about what a person is capable of doing at each proficiency level. The descriptions are rather general. I like this post because it describes the proficiency levels in real-world terms. I especially like the TV show for reference.

I think it is telling that none of the exams test beyond C1 (CEFR) or Advanced High (ACTFL). I think it would take a native speaker some preparation before they would be ready for the level of discourse on “Charlie Rose.” A difference is that the exams are testing for proficiency in listening and reading skills in those languages, but not speaking. Most universities use these exams to determine if the applicant has a good handle on the language to be able to study get by in that language at the university level or beyond. I think most other exams would determine if the applicant’s academic level is adequate.

So, what does this mean to take any of these exams? I would like to think that a passing score at the highest level in the exam means that a person has acquired enough skills in the language to be able to understand an university lecture. These exams are not perfect and do not test for speaking. But I suppose it is a reasonable way to determine one’s proficiency in a language in a format that is easily accessible.


3 thoughts on “Foreign language exam results and ability

  1. I would have thought N5 would be closer to A1 than N4. An A1 level student should:
    “understands simple sentences, instructions and descriptions used in everyday life, but only uses isolated words and expressions, in incomplete sentences, without real grammatical content.”

    The N5 test requires knowledge of around 500-800 words, basic grammar, and listening to simple sentences/descriptions/instructions.

    Here you can see a vocab size for each CEFR level:

    As you see A2 is around 1000-2000 depending on the language, which matches with N4s ~1300-1500.

    I’d probably move N5 to A1 and remove the last extra N1 (so N1 still covers upto C1.)

  2. Having done and passed JLPT, DALF C2 and DELE C2, I can say that JLPT N1 is at most equivalent to B2+ or C1-, definitely not a firm C1. JLPT lacks the writing and speaking components of other certifications such as DALF, DELE, CELI…

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