The FSI (Foreign Service Institute) Rating Scale
Most U.S. government agencies use the FSI Absolute Language Proficiency Ratings to measure a prospective employee’s ability to use a foreign language in his work. Once employed, he periodically undergoes the same type of rating as a basis for promotion. The person to be rated is interviewed by one or more trained testers, who are always native speakers. They converse with him for ten to twenty minutes, probing his command of pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. Then they pool their judgments to assign him a rating. The lowest rating is 1, the highest 5, and any rating can be modified by a plus or minus.
Each rating designates a particular degree of mastery of the language for business and social purposes:
- Elementary proficiency. The person is able to satisfy routine travel needs and minimum courtesy requirements.
- Limited working proficiency. The person is able to satisfy routine social demands and limited work requirements.
- Minimum professional proficiency. The person can speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most formal and informal conversations on practical, social, and professional topics.
- Full professional proficiency. The person uses the language fluently and accurately on all levels normally pertinent to professional needs.
- Native or bilingual proficiency. The person has speaking proficiency equivalent to that of an educated native speaker.
How long, one wonders, does it take a person to achieve the minimum 1, and how much longer after that to reach a 2 or a 3?
FSI researchers studied the performance of all their students during a three–year period, noting the ratings they received after various periods of training. Table 1 shows the results for the "easy" languages and for the "hard" languages. Incidentally, the definition of "easy" and "hard" were arrived at by including only Group 1 languages — for the most part the "Romance" languages —under the "easy" languages, while "hard" languages included Groups 2,3, and 4.languages — all other languages — as listed in the second part of the Table below. Whether this is the most valid, or even useful definition of easy and hard to learn languages, depends to a large degree upon whether one feels that language instruction, regardless of learner or teacher preference, must start with each individual learner gradually acquiring an increasing control of the spoken language, before adding written skills, or with the current standard academic approach to avoid language as a spoken skill at first, and work with an eclectic, mixed approach using a written grammar– translation and oral–drill combination, perhaps with a language laboratory, or combinations of film, CD–ROM and/or other equipment. There are advocates on both sides.
"Easy" Languages: (Ratings of FSI students speaking a Group 1 language after specified Periods of training.)
8 weeks (240 hours) 1/1+
16 weeks (480 hours) 2
24 weeks (720 hours) 2+
"Hard" Languages: (Ratings of FSI students speaking a Group 2–4 language after specified Periods of training.)
12 weeks (360 hours) 1/1+
24 weeks (720 hours) 1+ /2
44 weeks (1320 hours) 2/2+ /3
Which Are the "Easy" and "Hard" Languages?
Group 1: French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Swahili
Group 2: Bulgarian, Burmese, Greek, Hindi, Persian, Urdu
Group 3: Amharic, Cambodian, Czech, Finnish, Hebrew, Hungarian, Lao, Polish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Thai, Turkish, Vietnamese
Group 4: Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean
In reality, these time estimates are a little lower than they at first appear; holidays and other lost time reduce them by about 10 percent. Nevertheless, the meaning is clear. If you are a language learner of average ability, and you undertake an "easy" language, it will probably take you about 240 hours to get to the first level of mastery in speaking it, and double that to get to Level 2. If you are slower than average at learning languages, allow 50 percent more time, if faster, 50 percent less.
These figures are based on a particular type of instruction: the FSI intensive course where one studies a language for six hours a day, five days a week, in a class of no more than 10 students, led by an experienced linguist and a well–trained native drillmaster. The school is a language–learning paradise, the students are highly motivated, and optimum results are achieved. Yet these estimates are reasonably valid for people who, like most of us, have no choice but to attend a conventional course that meets forty–five minutes a day or a couple of evenings a week.
Human attention is limited. No one can absorb knowledge steadily for six hours a day, week after week; some of the time in intensive courses is necessarily "wasted" in relaxing, clearing one’s mind, or plain daydreaming. Moreover, things that seem confusing one day sometimes clear up by the next, after they have settled into place in one’s mind. This "incubation" factor favors a non–intensive learning schedule. In short, it is not certain that people who spread their language learning over a longer period necessarily require more total hours than those who concentrate. They may even require fewer.
The overriding message is that anyone can learn a foreign language, but some people are quicker at it than others. Still, language learning is a serious commitment, and if one’s aim is to speak it comfortably (say, 2+ on the FSI scale), this is likely to take the equivalent of six months of full–time study.
If your objective is to master the language fully in speech and writing, then you may have to devote at least a year and a half, most of it spent in the foreign country, to reach this objective. A good plan would be to study the language for three to six months at home, and then go to the foreign country for at least a year, during which time you must speak only the foreign language. At the end of this time, you would understand most people and even television and movies, read almost any written matter without a dictionary, and perhaps write with a modicum of style. Adults who go abroad to live find that after several months of getting adjusted to speaking and understanding in everyday situations, they can then begin to penetrate the language and participate in the life of the country.
Some people are dismayed by time estimates that run to hundreds of hours. They feel that this is more time than they are willing to commit. They should reflect on the fact that one year from today they will be one year older whether they undertake this learning task or not. The only question is, whether on that day, they are going to be well along toward mastering the language they have dreamed of knowing, or whether it will still be only a dream.