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How to Learn a Language and a Culture

How to Learn a Language and a Culture

Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Proficiency as Progress:
Defining Cross-Cultural Communication Competence

Menu of Learning Guides and Evaluation Instruments — PDF

Communication with formerly inaccessible or ignored cultures or ethnic groups presents new challenges to foreigners like aid and development workers, educators or community health specialists.  Communication with such ethnic groups, especially where cultural practices and ideas are involved, entails a level of reality that technical workers often seem unaware of.  This is called Worldview.


The worldview of a community is the deep-level reference for why things are the way they are and the things are done the way they are done.  Effecting a change in behaviour depends on accessing this primal decision-making level.  This level of access to the decision-making foundations of a community requires awareness of the cultural worldview of a people.

This usually requires mastery of the heart language.  Some crossing of the barrier into this worldview level can sometimes be accomplished with the help of an interpreter who is also a cultural guide.  But the stark reality is that this is usually ineffective, and accounts for the apparent failure of such a high percentage of well-intentioned foreign assistance programs or religious missionary efforts.

The Non-Success Syndrome

The United Nations agencies are notorious for this syndrome.  Some countries' aid programs also have this problem.  Agencies either watch their efforts come to naught or they enforce what they want to happen by sheer force, economic coercion or by goodwill.  This still never addresses the real decision-making commitment level of the community.

Most professionals don't want to be bothered with the time and effort it takes to perform investigation or master the language.  This leads to a high level of dis-satisfaction with what can be accomplished.  One must become aware of the worldview assumptions, at lest to some degree, in order to understand the beliefs and social patterns of the ethnic group.  Without knowing the foundational beliefs, you cannot hope to make sense of some technology or practice based on a different set of worldview assumptions.

It appears mission agencies tend to be more successful in this regard because of
1.      their more personal and relational approach
2.      their usual mastery of local language and culture, and
3.      their usual commitment to anthropological approaches and cross-cultural communication.

Still maintaining progress to higher levels of competence is a difficult matter.

Making Progress

We can plan and evaluate progress through the levels of mastery of the heart language of the people, as well as the understanding of their worldview.  A common reference source for gauging attainment of proficiency in language is a scale developed by the Foreign Service Institute (US).

The FSI scale defines Five Levels of Proficiency.  This scale was also adopted many years ago by the Ameri­can Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages and other international language training agencies. There are several variations of this checklist, recognizng the definitions in the FSI checklist as a standard.  A version of the FSI Checklist appears in the planning manual for language learning, Language Acquisition Made Practical (LAMP).

The Proficiency Evaluation Checklist and the Proficiency Evaluation Instruments published in my web resource set for language and culture learning are built on this international standard.  They follow the same five levels of competence (proficiency) described in the FSI. I have expanded the descriptions of the five levels, and added cultural and social aspects, recognizing that a language entails the Cognitive Worldview of a people who speak that language.


The checklist is designed to measure progress through the five levels of proficiency defined.  This is based on linear progress, and may leave the impression that you go through, say, Level 1, cover all the topics or activities mentioned there, and you have finished Level 1, and now go on into Level 2.  This is valuable, particularly in the early stages of learn­ing, and for self-evaluation.

This means that the checklist is primarily suitable for progress evaluation.  This is useful for the learner to self-check or plan learning activities.  Facilitators and evaluators can also use the checklist to check the learner's progress.  The list also serves to suggest learning situations or topics, for either language or culture learning.

But progress through the levels is only one aspect of language (and cultural) proficiency.  


How do we interpret Language Proficiency Levels? For instance, what does it mean to say someone has attained Level 2 Proficiency in a target language?

A Level number is a range of skills. You do not necessarily finish every item in Level 2 before you go on to Level 3.  If in fact you "finish" Level 2 (in the design of the Language Skills Evaluation instruments), you have passed the boundary into Level 3.  Your personality, profession, experiences and opportunities affect what topics or situations you can handle with what level of proficiency.

There is another set of evaluation instruments provided in this resource set, which deal with the range and balance of skills, rather than linear progress.  It is quite possible that someone may proceed to master what is described in Level 3 on one topic or situation, while still demonstrating a proficiency only in Level 1 on another.

Oral and Literate

This depends on many factors: individual aptitude, opportunity and experience.  The Oral Skills and Literate Skills evaluations will show a balance of total competence, by evaluating not simply specific situations or topics, but the balance of communication skills mastered.

Thus it will show if a learner has high fluency, but low comprehension of the oral language.  A person may have mastered the printed language and be able to write, but have poor social skills in certain situations.

Proficiency as a Range

This balance of high and low will show the average of total communication skills gained in the language and society.  This is what we mean by proficiency evaluation.  The checklist will be of value in this format as a reference for types of topics and activities in the social setting to evaluate.

There may be a problem with the impression we leave from the connotation of language we use.  How do you determine a person has demonstrated "Level 2?" I would say the person demonstrates skills "in level 2," rather than "at level 2." It is similarly misleading to say a person has "finished" Level 2.  I emphasize here that a Level number is a range.

This means you do not necessarily finish every item in Level 2 before you go on to Level 3.  If in fact you "finish" Level 2, you have passed the boundary into Level 3.  Progress in language skills and cultural competence is not just linear.  Breadth of skill and overall facility in the language are factors.


Poor pronunciation may be balanced by a large vocabulary, or a knowledge of proverbs.  Skills are evaluated, not just a basic memorization of phrases on a certain topic.

You will notice that no point values are assigned to the Proficiency Evaluation Checklist.  This is in order to focus on progress, instead of abstract point values.  The Checklist (particularly as described in LAMP), gives the impression that you have a "plus" level between each "number" level.  For purposes of marking progress, this is useful.  But the Proficiency Evaluation skills instruments show a scale with boundaries of 1 point.

Progress versus Points

That is, Level 2 is 1 point above the boundary for Level 1. This is not really Level 2 in practical terms.  How much practical difference is there in 1 point out of a scale of 100 or so? So you can see where the terminology can get ambiguous.

But if we are thinking in terms of progress, then a person who has a total point value falling into that range defined as Level 2, we can say that for administrative purposes the individual has demonstrated skills within the Level 2 range.  As long as we keep in mind this administrative and practical distinction, we can maintain an adequate balance.

Academic Legalism

Obviously someone who is one point above "Level 1" is not going to communi­cate in practical terms any better than someone who is one point below that boundary. But someone in the middle of the Level 2 range, assuming accurate evaluation and equal situational factors, has demonstrated higher skills than someone at the boundary, either one point above or one point below.

A legalistic fixation on raw point scores is unrealistic and unfair at best.  Evaluations should reflect real-life usage in actual interaction with members of the community in their mother tongue.  Personality and relationship skills are a critical part of human interaction.  Raw, abstract academic point values are basically useless and indicators, without the human element.

In an international conference of language learning facilitators, I found that there was a general syndrome that attempted to evaluate language and culture skills on the basis of liner pint values.  This re­mains inadequate in many ways.  We need better ways of evaluating per­sonal attitudes and inter-relationship aspects of communication.  These, however, are more subjective.

Dynamic and Practical

The Learning Activity Guides, Individual Learning Assignments and the progress and proficiency evaluation instruments I have designed attempt to acknowledge the dynamic state of human communication in community.  The program and activity designs are flexible, modular and community-oriented.

They are designed to enable and enhance interaction in the cultural setting through the target language as part of the learning process.  The suggested learning activities provide experience in the social skills needed for ongoing personal progress when no learning program or personnel are available in "real life."

The Progress Principle

If a learner's skills fall into the lower section of the expected level, some factors should be considered.  Normally ongoing usage improves performance.  We would expect that an individual's skill would continue to rise.  Thus a later evaluation should show a higher point value.

What is the principle behind "evaluation" anyway? We must focus on pro­gress.  The primary purpose of a Proficiency Evaluation is to confirm and reward progress, as well as to encourage continuing progress.

The numbers in proficiency levels represent ranges in that progress.  Thus continual progress is the guiding principle underlying any specifics of expectations and evaluations.  Progress is a goal attainable by everyone.

Learning Cultural Competence

Another factor I must emphasize is cultural awareness.  This is an important underlying component of the communication skills we are evaluating.  Companies and sponsoring agencies might hold update seminars periodically, or require a certain amount of cultural reading during a certain period of service.

Cultural awareness is a primary part of communication effectiveness.  The more different the new host culture, the more overt effort that must be given to acquisition and cultural knowledge and skills.  FOr more on cultural acquisition, see my article on Dealienation.

This applies even to another English-speaking culture.  The language may be English.  But the dynamics of the communication are determined by the culture. When a learner demonstrates his or her skill in communicating, the cultural factors can be emphasized in evaluation.

A selection of cultural situations and encounters can be included in a planned focus on aspects of culture.  A cultural informant or mentor can be very valuable, interpreting events observed or discussing topics or situations.  In learning language phrases or texts, the cultural setting should always be explored.  Each situation, no matter how trivial, will reveal important aspects of the cultural worldview underlying social interaction and language forms.

Evaluating Cultural Competence
What are some of the cultural variables you can prepare for and evaluate?
The history and heritage of the people.
The traditional values which affect change.
The traditional stories which define the people and their world view.
Traditional proverbs, when translated into English.
The obligations and roles of each member of the family.
The way you apologize or heal broken relationships in that society.
Traditional beliefs which conflict with Christian principles.
Honor and respect, expectations, punishment and reward.
Author teaching in England, UK, in 1999

See the Worldview Investigation instruments for further systematic suggestions.

Social versus Technical

Awareness of culture and ability to use appropriate social forms can be very high, while technical languages skills may be low.  Perhaps a person needs to fulfill social requirements for greeting politeness, honor and acknowledgement, survival skills relating to food, drink, travel, help, etc.  The skills of interaction in these situations and topics are much more than the technical language considerations.

The living and working situation determines the amount of technical language needed.  A major value of the language is the social identification and cultural orientation gained through the language.  But knowing the culture and communicating in terms of that culture are not negotiable for effective cross-cultural ministry.

Community Competence

Required periods of time in a community setting away from work demands might raise cultural awareness.  An appropriate "culture study" might include a "village" live-in for a stated period of time, with readings, discussions and investigations, as per Getting Acquainted with Your New Home, for those who not already used this resource.

I challenge you to look at the phenomenon of cross-cultural communica­tion in terms of relationship.  Companies and agencies can provide opportunities that foster cultural and social competence, that facilitate the building of relationships.  This is not only helpful, but crucial in "traditional" societies, characterized by concrete relational views of the world.  Worldview learning is essential for people in positions of teaching and social change.  Oral interaction is a much higher value than in western societies.

Further, knowledge and truth in concrete relational societies reside in the oral memory of the community.  For westerners and in a somewhat different way for East Asians, knowledge and truth reside in external written sources of objective fact.  This idea is an artefact and device of these particular cultures, not a human universal.

Increased Effectiveness

I believe that attention to the worldview level of understanding and communication, built on the foundation of relationships and interpersonal communication, will heighten effectiveness and provide its own reward in satisfaction.

I envision the goal as attaining a higher degree of "insideness" in the personal identity of the cross-cultural communicator, moving past the foreignness that so commonly keeps communication at a superficial level.  It is this superficial level, which by necessity has to focus on form, which fails to reach the worldview level of understanding and commitment.  In mechanical and administrative settings, this leads to absurdities and legalisms that often totally negate the intended purpose, because only the mechanics and procedures have transferred, not any purposeful intentionality.

In the religious sphere, this superficial level of communication, focused on form and terminology, is a primary cause of syncretism.  The missionaries have mostly themselves to thank for the great flourishing success of the "Zionist" and Independent churches in Africa.

I emphasize again that cultural awareness is an important component of communication competence.  A worldview seminar is one way to help cross-cultural communicators update their cultural awareness.  For innovators in health or business, this is crucial.  For missionary workers, addressing the deep-culture level of life-commitment decisions, it is indispensable.

Many resource agencies offer such seminars in various countries.  Much is available over the Internet.

I focus on progress in cross-cultural communicative competence — in all its aspects.

We focus on progress. The numbers in Proficiency levels represent ranges in that progress.  Thus "continual progress" is attainable by everyone.

Menu of Learning Guides and Evaluation Instruments — PDF

Also related:
Getting Acquainted with Your New Home
What is Worldview?
Worldview Investigation Questionnaire

Author reading


Written 12 September 2007
Last edited 11 February 2008

Includes some material from a paper originally presented in October 1992 at a Workshop for Entry Orientation Coordinators, facilitated by Dr. Donald Larson in Richmond, Virginia

Also includes an earlier article Evaluation: Levels, Skills and Opportunities, published March 1993 in ENONet Notes, a Newsletter of the Entry Orientation Network, Nairobi, Kenya

Also includes material previously circulated as What Do We Mean by Level 2? An Administrative Interpretation for Proficiency Level Definitions (initially a consultation report for a client in East Africa) in about 1995

Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.
Copyright © 2007 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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