Chapter 12: Adult Language Learning

12.3 Gaining proficiency

Learning a language as an adult is a lot of work! It takes a huge amount of effort and practice to construct another grammar in your mind. Many later language learners often feel like they never quite reach the level of fluency they’d like. Given everything we’ve learned about language so far, do you think that notion of “fluency” is maybe a little problematic? Who decides what counts as fluent? What level of proficiency in a later language is enough to count as proficient or fluent?

As we saw in the previous sections, adult language learning is deeply intertwined with the issue of language standards. Recall from Chapter 1 that a standardized variety of a language isn’t any better than other varieties: it’s just the variety that has higher social status, and has more grammar books and dictionaries associated with it. Language teachers usually understand their job to be helping adult learners meet the standard. In fact, the government of Canada publishes standards, known as Benchmarks, for English and French proficiency. (Citizenship and Immigration Canada, 2012; Citoyenneté et Immigration Canada, 2012) These benchmarks define, in a lot of detail, what counts as Basic, Intermediate or Advanced proficiency in listening, speaking, reading and writing the two official languages. Likewise, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages publishes Proficiency Guidelines (ACTFL, 2012) with five levels, the two highest of which are Superior and Distinguished. The value judgment is right there in the name!

As soon as you label some language users as “superior”, you’re automatically implying that some other users are “inferior”, aren’t you? It’s easy to see how the accent prejudices we learned about in Chapter 2 arise. It’s a short leap between perceiving someone as an inferior language user and viewing them as an inferior human.

The notion of fluency is even more complicated for Indigenous languages. On the one hand, many learners want to use their language in a way that is consistent with the traditional, ancestral form. On the other hand, a language that is in regular use inevitably changes over time (see Chapter 10). Megan Lukaniec is working with archival documents to reawaken Wendat, the language of her Nation, the Huron-Wendat. She describes the tension this way:

“In the case of reawakening dormant languages, since there are no speakers to learn from, there is simultaneously a pressure to remain as true as possible to the language as it is found in the archival documentation and a freedom to forge a new path for the language and its emerging speakers.”
(Lukaniec & Palakurthy, 2022, p. 347)

Wesley Leonard, a citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, is likewise working to reawaken the Tribe’s sleeping language myaamia. While his work relies crucially on the archival documentation by non-Indigenous linguists, he points out the irony that the documents themselves represent yet another reenacting of colonial power, arguing, “part of colonialism entails socially dominant groups asserting the right to determine what counts as valid knowledge”. (Leonard, 2020, p. e285) In other words, the definition of fluency or proficiency in myaamia, and many other Indigenous languages, depends on how colonial linguists have documented and defined the grammar of the language.

To add one more dimension to this complicated notion of proficiency, standardizing documents can also be useful in the work of learning and teaching Indigenous languages. Some language-learning programs like the Kanyen’kéha school Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa, use benchmarks like ACTFL’s Proficiency Guidelines or the First Nations Language Benchmarks (Johnson, 2013; Miller, 2004) as goals for learners to work towards.

As we saw above, different learners have different goals and motivations for learning a language as an adult. Maybe your goal is to read scholarly work, to watch a film without subtitles, to have conversations with your relatives, or to pass a test. Maybe standardized benchmarks will help you reach that goal, and maybe they won’t. Whatever your goals are, you’re the one doing the work of learning a new language, so you get to decide what counts as proficient for your purposes. If you’ve learned enough to watch that film or talk to your aunties, then you get to call yourself proficient!

Check your understanding


American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. (2012). ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines 2012.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada. (2012). Canadian Language Benchmarks: English as a Second Language for Adults.

Citoyenneté et Immigration Canada. (2012). Niveaux de compétence linguistique canadiens: Français langue seconde pour adultes.

Czaykowska-Higgins, E., Burton, S., McIvor, O., & Marinakis, A. (2017). Supporting Indigenous language revitalisation through collaborative post-secondary proficiency-building curriculum. In W. Y. Leonard & H. De Korne (Eds.), Language Documentation and Description (Vol. 14, pp. 136–159). EL Publishing.

Davis, J. L. (2017). Resisting rhetorics of language endangerment: Reclamation through Indigenous language survivance. In W. Y. Leonard & H. De Korne (Eds.), Language Documentation and Description (Vol. 14, pp. 37–58). EL Publishing.

Johnson, M. (2013). First Nations Language Assessment Benchmarks (FNLAB).

Leonard, W. Y. (2017). Producing language reclamation by decolonising ‘language.’ In W. Y. Leonard & H. De Korne (Eds.), Language Documentation and Description (Vol. 14, pp. 15–36). EL Publishing.

Leonard, W. Y. (2019, September 19). Indigenous Languages through a Reclamation Lens. Anthropology News.

Leonard, W. Y. (2020). Insights from Native American Studies for theorizing race and racism in linguistics (Response to Charity Hudley, Mallinson, and Bucholtz). Language, 96(4), e281–e291.

Lukaniec, M., & Palakurthy, K. (2022). Additional Language Learning in the Context of Indigenous Language Reclamation. In K. Geeslin, The Routledge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition and Sociolinguistics (1st ed., pp. 341–355). Routledge.

Miller, J. W. (2004). Assessing First Nations language proficiency [EdD Thesis, University of British Columbia].


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Essentials of Linguistics, 2nd edition by Catherine Anderson; Bronwyn Bjorkman; Derek Denis; Julianne Doner; Margaret Grant; Nathan Sanders; and Ai Taniguchi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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