Distinguished | Superior | Advanced | Intermediate | Novice

The following pages present Arabic annotations and samples for the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines 2012 - Speaking. These annotations and samples are intended to help Arabic teachers, learners, and assessment specialists to better understand the generic ACTFL Guidelines and relate them to the teaching and testing of spoken Arabic. The annotations and samples can serve as support materials as teachers design more appropriate tasks for learners.

The speech samples that appear on this website are taken from ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interviews (OPIs) conducted by certified ACTFL OPI testers with native and non-native speakers. The selections help in providing concrete samples that illustrate the Guidelines in very specific performance situations.

When listening to the speech samples and reading the rationales, the following statement should be taken into account:

The ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines 2012 - Speaking describe functional spoken language proficiency from that of a highly articulate, well-educated speaker to that of a person with little or no functional ability to use the language to accomplish linguistic tasks. There are tasks that are unique to each major level as well as a set of other assessment criteria (content/context, text type, accuracy/comprehensibility) associated with each level. A rating for a level is assigned to reflect a speaker's ability to successfully sustain all the assessment criteria for the given level.

ACTFL recognizes that the situation for testing Arabic is a special situation and therefore must be dealt with in a special manner. In the ACTFL test protocol, Arabic is considered to be one language represented by a continuum from all colloquial to all MSA, and a combination of mixes along the continuum. During ACTFL OPI testing, testers accommodate to the variety of language that the test taker is producing and accept Arabic language produced anywhere along the continuum. An ACTFL OPI rating recognizes a speaker's overall functional ability in Arabic.

In order to be rated Superior, a test taker must demonstrate that he/she is able to discuss topics and issues from an abstract perspective, support opinions and hypothesize in cohesive and extended discourse with no pattern of error in basic structures, and deal with a linguistically unfamiliar situation in a way that is culturally and linguistically appropriate. The speaker must demonstrate the ability to perform these tasks in both formal (work, business, professional, university, etc.) and informal (home, family, daily routine) contexts.

Meeting all of the assessment criteria required for a rating of Superior in Arabic can be accomplished by using Arabic from anywhere along the continuum, provided that the language used is linguistically and culturally appropriate to sustain all of the criteria for the Superior level across a variety of topics and issues in both formal and informal contexts.

Given the nature of the topics and issues, the formal context of the level, and the expectations of abstract lexical and syntactic features, the Superior-level sample of language must contain ample evidence of MSA.

Speaking – Distinguished

Speakers at the Distinguished level are able to use language skillfully, and with accuracy, efficiency, and effectiveness. They are educated and articulate users of the language. They can reflect on a wide range of global issues and highly abstract concepts1 in a culturally appropriate manner.2 Distinguished-level speakers can use persuasive and hypothetical discourse for representational purposes, allowing them to advocate a point of view that is not necessarily their own. They can tailor language to a variety of audiences by adapting their speech and register in ways that are culturally authentic.

Speakers at the Distinguished level produce highly sophisticated and tightly organized extended discourse.3 At the same time, they can speak succinctly, often using cultural and historical references to allow them to say less and mean more. At this level, oral discourse typically resembles written discourse.4

A non-native accent, a lack of a native-like economy of expression, a limited control of deeply embedded cultural references, and/or an occasional isolated language error5 may still be present at this level.

Arabic Specific Annotations

1 At this level of proficiency, cognitive and intellectual maturity as well as the scope and depth of knowledge play an essential part in the ability to speak in a manner typical of Distinguished (e.g. the professional domain, abstract and concrete discussion of a wide variety of topics, and use of cultural and literary references). In other words, proficiency is not separate from cognitive and intellectual maturity.

2 Although Arabic has a vast array of "cultures," there are commonalities across the Arabic-speaking world such as the value of the family, role of religion (be it Islam or Christianity), political systems, and a shared literature.

3 Sophisticated, coherent discourse is a function of how well read a speaker is. The majority of intellectual topics are acquired from reading in well-respected publications, hence the tendency to use MSA when discussing such topics.

4 This aspect is especially true of Arabic. A vast proportion of Distinguished speech is dependent of the breadth and depth of reading (and listening, for that matter), which is often written material read out.

5 There should be a distinction between patterned and sporadic errors. The former almost disappear entirely at the Advanced level. Sporadic, infrequent errors may be expected at the higher levels.

Speaking – Superior

Speakers at the Superior level are able to communicate with accuracy and fluency in order to participate fully and effectively in conversations on a variety of topics in formal and informal settings1 from both concrete and abstract perspectives. They discuss their interests and special fields of competence,2 explain complex matters in detail, and provide lengthy and coherent3 narrations, all with ease, fluency,4 and accuracy. They present their opinions on a number of issues of interest to them, such as social and political issues, and provide structured arguments to support these opinions. They are able to construct and develop hypotheses to explore alternative possibilities.

When appropriate, these speakers use extended discourse without unnaturally lengthy hesitation to make their point, even when engaged in abstract elaborations. Such discourse, while coherent, may still be influenced by language patterns5 other than those of the target language.6 Superior-level speakers employ a variety of interactive and discourse strategies, such as turn-taking and separating main ideas from supporting information through the use of syntactic, lexical, and phonetic devices.

Speakers at the Superior level demonstrate no pattern of error in the use of basic structures, although they may make sporadic errors, particularly in low-frequency structures7 and in complex high-frequency structures. Such errors, if they do occur, do not distract the native interlocutor or interfere with communication.

Arabic Specific Annotations

1 In Arabic, formal and informal settings connote possible use of MSA in the former and possible use of colloquial Arabic in the latter, but not necessarily so. If MSA is the dominant variety, the speaker’s speech may be predominantly MSA and vice versa.

2 Testers should ensure that the discussion is not restricted to topics of personal or special fields of competence. Discussing a variety of topics is the key. Superior speakers should also be able to discuss linguistically unfamiliar topics intelligently.

3 At this level, the discourse should not only be cohesive (i.e., characterized by the use of cohesive devices), but also coherent where the ideas are logically or chronologically organized.

4 This is to say that the rate of speech is similar to that of a native speaker.

5 Using language patterns interchangeably between L1 and L2 is an observed phenomenon, not restricted only to patterns from L1 into L2.

6 One example is the use by a Superior speaker whose sentence structure in Arabic is more typical of English sentence structure which uses relative clauses where the object pronoun in the dependent clause that refers back to the subject noun in the main clause is dropped (e.g., المباريات التي حضروا instead of المباريات التي حضروها)

7 Low frequency sporadic structural errors include gender and number agreement as well as the use of the wrong imperfect mood of the verb (e.g., the subjunctive/jussive instead of the indicative –ماذا تدرسوا– and the jussive instead of the subjunctive –تصِفْ لي غرفتك).

Speaking – Advanced

Speakers at the Advanced level engage in conversation in a clearly participatory manner in order to communicate information on autobiographical topics, as well as topics of community, national, or international interest. The topics are handled concretely by means of narration and description in the major times frames of past, present, and future. These speakers can also deal with a social situation with an unexpected complication. The language of Advanced-level speakers is abundant, the oral paragraph being the measure of Advanced-level length and discourse. Advanced-level speakers have sufficient control of basic structures and generic vocabulary to be understood by native speakers of the language, including those unaccustomed to non-native speech.

Advanced High

Speakers at the Advanced High sublevel perform all Advanced-level tasks with linguistic ease, confidence, and competence. They are consistently able to explain in detail and narrate fully1 and accurately in all time frames. In addition, Advanced High speakers handle the tasks pertaining to the Superior level but cannot sustain performance at that level across a variety of topics.2 They may provide a structured argument to support their opinions, and they may construct hypotheses, but patterns of error appear.3 They can discuss some topics abstractly,4 especially those relating to their particular interests and special fields of expertise, but in general, they are more comfortable discussing a variety of topics concretely.

Advanced High speakers may demonstrate a well-developed ability to compensate for an imperfect grasp of some forms or for limitations in vocabulary5 by the confident use of communicative strategies, such as paraphrasing, circumlocution, and illustration.6 They use precise vocabulary and intonation to express meaning and often show great fluency and ease of speech. However, when called on to perform the complex tasks7 associated with the Superior level over a variety of topics,8 their language will at times break down9 or prove inadequate10, or they may avoid the task altogether, for example, by resorting to simplification through the use of description or narration in place of argument or hypothesis.

Advanced Mid

Speakers at the Advanced Mid sublevel are able to handle with ease and confidence a large number of communicative tasks.11 They participate actively in most informal and some formal exchanges on a variety of concrete topics relating to work, school, home, and leisure activities, as well as topics relating to events of current, public,12 and personal interest or individual relevance.

Advanced Mid speakers demonstrate the ability to narrate and describe in the major time frames of past, present, and future by providing a full account, with good control of aspect.13 Narration and description tend to be combined and interwoven to relate relevant and supporting facts in connected, paragraph-length discourse.

Advanced Mid speakers can handle successfully and with relative ease the linguistic challenges presented by a complication or unexpected turn of events that occurs within the context of a routine situation or communicative task with which they are otherwise familiar. Communicative strategies such as circumlocution or rephrasing are often employed for this purpose. The speech of Advanced Mid speakers performing Advanced-level tasks is marked by substantial flow.14 Their vocabulary is fairly extensive although primarily generic in nature, except in the case of a particular area of specialization or interest. Their discourse may still reflect the oral paragraph structure of their own language rather than that of the target language.

Advanced Mid speakers contribute to conversations on a variety of familiar topics, dealt with concretely, with much accuracy, clarity and precision, and they convey their intended message without misrepresentation or confusion. They are readily understood by native speakers unaccustomed to dealing with non-natives. When called on to perform functions or handle topics associated with the Superior level, the quality and/or quantity of their speech will generally decline.15

Advanced Low

Speakers at the Advanced Low sublevel are able to handle a variety of communicative tasks. They are able to participate in most informal and some formal conversations on topics related to school, home, and leisure activities.16 They can also speak about some topics related to employment, current events, and matters of public and community interest.

Advanced Low speakers demonstrate the ability to narrate and describe in the major time frames of past, present, and future in paragraph-length discourse with some control of aspect. In these narrations and descriptions, Advanced Low speakers combine and link sentences into connected discourse of paragraph length, although these narrations and descriptions tend to be handled separately rather than interwoven. They can handle appropriately the essential linguistic challenges presented by a complication or an unexpected turn of events.

Responses produced by Advanced Low speakers are typically not longer than a single paragraph. The speaker’s dominant language may be evident in the use of false cognates, literal translations, or the oral paragraph structure of that language. At times their discourse may be minimal for the level, marked by an irregular flow, and containing noticeable self-correction. More generally, the performance of Advanced Low speakers tends to be uneven.

Advanced Low speech is typically marked by a certain grammatical roughness (e.g., inconsistent control of verb endings), but the overall performance of the Advanced-level tasks is sustained, albeit minimally. The vocabulary of Advanced Low speakers often lacks specificity. Nevertheless, Advanced Low speakers are able to use communicative strategies such as rephrasing and circumlocution.

Advanced Low speakers contribute to the conversation with sufficient accuracy, clarity, and precision to convey their intended message without misrepresentation or confusion. Their speech can be understood by native speakers unaccustomed to dealing with non-natives, even though this may require some repetition or restatement. When attempting to perform functions or handle topics associated with the Superior level, the linguistic quality and quantity of their speech will deteriorate significantly.

Arabic Specific Annotations

1 The qualifier “fully” signifies the ability to narrate in oral paragraphs, that is, speech made up of a good number of sentences cohesively connected with rhetorical devices.

2 The ability to sustain performance of Superior-level tasks most of the time may be quantitatively interpreted as 70-80 percent of the time.

3 The patterns of error that persist up to this level include gender and number agreement as well as the moods of the imperfect (e.g., the indicative, subjunctive, jussive – المضارع المرفوع والمنصوب والمجرور). Sometimes, errors in case are also observed.

4 The ability to discuss topics abstractly in a sustained manner is the hallmark of Superior and Distinguished speakers.

5 These may include, but are not limited to, synonyms, antonyms, and collocations.

6 While the use of these communicative strategies reveals the inability to perform consistently at the Superior level, their use at the Advanced level is a sign of solid Advanced performance.

7 Complex tasks include discussing topics unfamiliar to them, supporting opinion, hypothesizing, and discussing topics abstractly.

8 At this level, discussing multiple topics is needed in order to ensure the richness and breadth of the vocabulary needed for robust Advanced-level performance.

9 A linguistic breakdown means the inability to perform the task as expected.

10 Inadequate performance is different from linguistic breakdown. The output may be correct and to the point, but it is not extensive enough to qualify as a “paragraph.” Or the vocabulary may be all right, but not varied enough.

11 The tasks that can be handled successfully at this level subsume all the global tasks at Advanced and below.

12 Discussing current events (social, political, local) marks the beginning of a speaker's ability to transcend personal topics and deal with topics of public and general interest.

13 In Arabic, this point may be equivalent to the control of the moods of the imperfect verb (i.e., the indicative, subjunctive, and jussive).

14 Advanced Mid speakers may have the feeling that they have full command of the language system, and they flaunt this ability.

15 This decline is marked by a noticeable increase in errors.

16 For example, they can describe a program of study, weekend activities at home, and a trip on a holiday.

Speaking – Intermediate

Speakers at the Intermediate level are distinguished primarily by their ability to create with the language when talking about familiar topics related to their daily life. They are able to recombine learned material in order to express personal meaning. Intermediate level speakers can ask simple questions and can handle a straightforward survival situation. They produce sentence-level language, ranging from discrete sentences to strings of sentences, typically in present time. Intermediate-level speakers are understood by interlocutors who are accustomed to dealing with non-native learners of the language.

Intermediate High

Intermediate High speakers are able to converse with ease and confidence1 when dealing with the routine tasks and social situations of the Intermediate level. They are able to handle successfully uncomplicated tasks and social situations requiring an exchange of basic information related to their work, school, recreation, particular interests, and areas of competence.

Intermediate High speakers can handle a substantial number of tasks associated with the Advanced level, but they are unable to sustain performance of all of these tasks all of the time. Intermediate High speakers can narrate and describe in all major time frames using connected discourse of paragraph length, but not all the time.2 Typically, when Intermediate High speakers attempt to perform Advanced-level tasks, their speech exhibits one or more features of breakdown, such as the failure to carry out fully the narration or description in the appropriate major time frame, an inability to maintain paragraph-length discourse, or a reduction in breadth and appropriateness of vocabulary.

Intermediate High speakers can generally be understood by native speakers unaccustomed to dealing with non-natives, although interference from another language may be evident3 (e.g., use of code-switching, false cognates, literal translations),4 and a pattern of gaps in communication may occur.

Intermediate Mid

Speakers at the Intermediate Mid sublevel are able to handle successfully a variety of uncomplicated communicative tasks in straightforward social situations. Conversation is generally limited to those predictable and concrete exchanges necessary for survival in the target culture. These include personal information related to self, family, home, daily activities, interests and personal preferences, as well as physical and social needs, such as food, shopping, travel, and lodging.

Intermediate Mid speakers tend to function reactively, for example, by responding to direct questions or requests for information. However, they are capable of asking a variety of questions5 when necessary to obtain simple information to satisfy basic needs, such as directions, prices, and services. When called on to perform functions or handle topics at the Advanced level, they provide some information but have difficulty linking ideas, manipulating time and aspect, and using communicative strategies, such as circumlocution.

Intermediate Mid speakers are able to express personal meaning by creating with the language, in part by combining and recombining known elements and conversational input to produce responses typically consisting of sentences and strings of sentences. Their speech may contain pauses, reformulations, and self-corrections as they search for adequate vocabulary and appropriate language forms to express themselves. In spite of the limitations in their vocabulary and/or pronunciation and/or grammar and/or syntax, Intermediate Mid speakers are generally understood by sympathetic interlocutors accustomed to dealing with non-natives.

Overall, Intermediate Mid speakers are at ease when performing Intermediate-level tasks and do so with significant quantity and quality of Intermediate-level language.

Intermediate Low

Speakers at the Intermediate Low sublevel are able to handle successfully a limited number of uncomplicated communicative tasks by creating with the language in straightforward social situations. Conversation is restricted to some of the concrete exchanges and predictable topics necessary for survival in the target-language culture. These topics relate to basic personal information; for example, self and family, some daily activities and personal preferences, and some immediate needs, such as ordering food and making simple purchases. At the Intermediate Low sublevel, speakers are primarily reactive and struggle to answer direct questions or requests for information. They are also able to ask a few appropriate questions. Intermediate Low speakers manage to sustain the functions of the Intermediate level, although just barely.

Intermediate Low speakers express personal meaning by combining and recombining what they know and what they hear from their interlocutors into short statements and discrete sentences. Their responses are often filled with hesitancy and Inaccuracies as they search for appropriate linguistic forms and vocabulary while attempting to give form to the message. Their speech is characterized by frequent pauses, ineffective reformulations and self-corrections. Their pronunciation, vocabulary, and syntax are strongly influenced by their first language. In spite of frequent misunderstandings that may require repetition or rephrasing, Intermediate Low speakers can generally be understood by sympathetic interlocutors, particularly by those accustomed to dealing with non-natives.

Arabic Specific Annotations

1 This is the ability to participate in simple dialogues.

2 Intermediate High speakers can handle Advanced tasks successfully most of the time (i.e., about 70 % of the time).

3 The dominant language manifests itself mainly in sentence structure.

4 For example, dominance of the first language can be manifest in structures such as مع أنا or إثنان يوم.

5 Intermediate speakers should be able to demonstrate ability in asking all kinds of questions, not simply yes/no questions.

Speaking – Novice

Novice-level speakers can communicate short messages on highly predictable, everyday topics that affect them directly. They do so primarily through the use of isolated words and phrases that have been encountered, memorized, and recalled. Novice-level speakers may be difficult to understand even by the most sympathetic interlocutors accustomed to non-native speech.

Novice High

Speakers at the Novice High sublevel are able to handle a variety of tasks pertaining to the Intermediate level, but are unable to sustain performance at that level. They are able to manage successfully a number of uncomplicated communicative tasks in straightforward social situations. Conversation is restricted to a few of the predictable topics necessary for survival in the target language culture, such as basic personal information, basic objects, and a limited number of activities, preferences, and immediate needs. Novice High speakers respond to simple, direct questions or requests for information. They are also able to ask a few formulaic questions.

Novice High speakers are able to express personal meaning by relying heavily on learned phrases or recombinations of these and what they hear from their interlocutor. Their language consists primarily of short and sometimes incomplete sentences in the present,1 and may be hesitant or inaccurate. On the other hand, since their language often consists of expansions of learned material and stock phrases, they may sometimes sound surprisingly fluent and accurate. Pronunciation, vocabulary, and syntax may be strongly influenced by the first language. Frequent misunderstandings may arise but, with repetition or rephrasing, Novice High speakers can generally be understood by sympathetic interlocutors used to nonnatives. When called on to handle a variety of topics and perform functions pertaining to the Intermediate level, a Novice High speaker can sometimes respond in intelligible sentences, but will not be able to sustain sentence-level discourse.

Novice Mid

Speakers at the Novice Mid sublevel communicate minimally by using a number of isolated words and memorized phrases limited by the particular context in which the language has been learned. When responding to direct questions, they may say only two or three words at a time or give an occasional stock answer. They pause frequently as they search for simple vocabulary or attempt to recycle their own and their interlocutor’s words. Novice Mid speakers may be understood with difficulty2 even by sympathetic interlocutors accustomed to dealing with non-natives. When called on to handle topics and perform functions associated with the Intermediate level, they frequently resort to repetition, words from their native language, or silence.

Novice Low

Speakers at the Novice Low sublevel have no real functional ability3 and, because of their pronunciation, may be unintelligible. Given adequate time and familiar cues, they may be able to exchange greetings, give their identity, and name a number of familiar objects from their immediate environment. They are unable to perform functions or handle topics pertaining to the Intermediate level, and cannot therefore participate in a true conversational exchange.

Arabic Specific Annotations

1 This statement may be partially correct. Unlike Romance languages, the Arabic imperfect verb (i.e. present tense) is more complicated than the past tense morphologically and syntactically. The imperfect verb has 14 conjugations, each with a prefix and a suffix that change with number and person. In addition, it has three moods, two of which are loosely equivalent to the indicative and subjunctive. On the other hand, the past tense has only suffixes that indicate number and person.

2 Much of the difficulty to understand NM speakers comes from the heavy influence of their L1 phonological system.

3 This means that they are unable to perform any tasks associated with higher levels.