Measuring human language proficiency

Bernard Spolsky spolsb at
Mon Nov 1 05:27:27 UTC 2004

That is the point.  Beliefs are very important in this area (which I why I
treat beliefs as the second component of language policy (see Spolsky,
Bernard. (2004). Language Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.)
Your question "what do you want to measure?" is critical.
But having spent a decade or more as chair of the English committee for the
Israeli Ministry of Education, and failing on numerous occasion to persuade
a Minister of Education that amateur tests with no calibration are
essentially uninterpretable, I am not surprised at your difficulty.
But your own prejudice against local Englishes is also a questioned belief.
Hope we will have a chance to discuss all this quietly some day (I am off to
the Asia TEFL Conference in Seoul tonight, but via Bangkok rather than HK).

-----Original Message-----
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Subject: Measuring human language proficiency


Thank you for the bibliographical references. I will attempt to explore them
in some detail, as I am very interested in finding a way to demonstrate that
East Asian UEL requirements are wasteful and not achieving their stated
goals. Certainly these are very deeply felt notions about the reality of
East Asia, as I have experienced it. Nevertheless, however well I support
these notions with empirical inference and discursive logic, they are
ultimately received as opinion that move contrary to collectively held
belief that is constantly reaffirmed by eschewing the assumptions or
scientific investigation that never seems to ask the right questions. By
demonstrating that significant 2nd language attrition is taking place among
post-secondary citizens, I believe that I can at least start the ball

When you state that "language scales have not been validated", I am not
entirely sure what you mean. For example, when the Hong Kong government
found it necessary to select a standard scale for measuring English language
proficiency among Hong Kong secondary students, they selected their own
domestically developed HKCEE English language syllabus over the IELTS. My
response was straightforward, "What is it that you want to measure? Hong
Kongers ability to communicate in English with the outside world, or how
effective is the Hong Kong educational system at transmitting recycled HK


On 1 Nov 2004, at 04:35, Bernard Spolsky wrote:

Briefly, no.  At more length, see Spolsky, Bernard. (1995). Measured words:
the development of objective language testing. Oxford: Oxford University
For a programmatic explanation what would be involved in answering the
question, see Bachman, Lyle G. (2004). Building and supporting a case for
test use. Paper presented at the Language Testing Research Colloquium,
Temecula CA.
"Fairly good idea" is not the same as accurate measure. 
The belief in a scale was strongly urged by Thorndike (and of course it
pragmatically adapted by bureaucrats), but language scales have not been
Plurilingual proficiency, as the Common European Framework (Council of
Europe. (2001). Common European framework of reference for languages:
learning, teaching, assessment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) makes
clear is a high complex matter, with variation on a great number of
dimensions.  While it does suggest a scale, it certainly does not try to
define a point at which someone is bilingual.

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