Dear linguophile friend! In this post we’ll examine the matter of language certificates: because learning language is a laudable activity but certifying how much you’ve learned is even better.
You may need an official certificate for study: countless universities and institutions required them. Or for work: so many companies discard potential new hires because they have no language diploma proving their skills. But you can also plan to take a language exam as a way to motivate you to study more and better. 😀
Alas, unlike men, not all language certificates are created equal: some are useful, some are truly compulsory in this day and age; and, why lie, some certificates are rubbish.
As someone who has spent his life learning languages first, then getting fancy pieces of paper proving I did it right, I have the impertinence of believing I could give you a few tips:
- What does the market require,
- what languages to focus on,
- how to prepare for such exams without making costly and time-consuming mistakes (I’ve done them for you. You’re welcome).
Without further ado, let’s begin. 👓
Who needs these qualifications?
You may be in either of these situations:
- You’ve just obtained a BA and you want to start a MA abroad;
- the MA is already in your hands and now you feel that the only thing you need, to take the world by storm, is proof of language proficiency;
- you want to work in your own country in a role that requires fluency in one or more languages, 🇹🇿 🇬🇧 🇫🇷
- you’re applying for a well-paid vacancy in an international organization but you have just found out you have to send them two official language certificates.
Well, my friend, in all these cases, you definitely need a language certificate. A question I often get: do both public institutions and private companies require them? And the answer is: in both cases, they very often require them, yes. Maybe slightly less in private companies, but I wouldn’t put any bet there. 🤨
About the value of language certificates in the private sector, we can spend years splitting hairs, but to make it simple, there are strong arguments for obtaining language certificates in any case:
- Jobs are scarce, competition is fierce: one in a thousand lands the job; 😓
- recruiters delegate a good chunk of recruiting to machines. Filtering candidates in a database so that only those having a language certificate go forth, is a matter of two seconds;
- small and medium-sized businesses might neither have the time, money or skills to test your language skills on-site, hence they only accept candidates with an official language diploma in their pockets.
Public administrations also demand language certificates, even in a stricter fashion than private businesses. 🏦 Many states, in Europe and beyond, recruit a large number of foreign workers for a variety of jobs; not to mention obtaining citizenship, which is more often than not linked to the possession of language certificates.
Such is the situation in every country I lived and dealt with. The list is too long to put it here, but I guess I have made my point: having a language certificate or two can open uncountable doors. 🚪
What is, in practice, a language diploma
There may be variations, but roughly, a language certificate works like this: you take an exam –> you pass it –> a few months later you receive a fancy parchment stating “Sam achieved this level in this language in this date”. As simple as that. 📜
Now, how can one express one’s results? Obviously, we can’t simply write: “Sam is fluent” or “Sam is OK in writing but not so much in speaking”. What does it mean to be fluent, anyway? Delivering a Nobel laureate speech in Stockholm, or ordering tea and scones in a Cornish eatery? We needed to find an agreement. 🤝
That is why we created the CEFRL or Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: six levels to express one’s fluency. You may have seen them already: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2, going from the most basic to top mastery. This ritzy system started in Europe but it’s been gaining popularity across the globe in all languages. 🌎
Fair. But how do we actually measure such levels? And what truly means to speak a language? We devised tests, composed of different exercises, to assess the candidate’s skills in four main domains:
- Written Comprehension (you read something and you get it),
- Oral Comprehension (you listen to someone talking and you understand),
- Written Production (you’re capable of writing coherent stuff),
- Oral Production (you’re able to convey what you mean speaking).
We agreed that to be able to say I speak Spanish, you must prove your abilities in these four domains.
There are a million ways to articulate exams, but roughly, there are:
- The main institution, setting guidelines and managing the whole enterprise;
- local exam centres, handling the logistics and practical part of exams; 🏫
- a widespread acceptance of said language certificate.
The main institution (Cambridge Assessment English, Alliance Française, Instituto Cervantes, etc.) defines exam structure, how exams are administered and corrected, how many sessions per year, etc. The local centres have some wiggle room, but eventually, they have to comply with what the main body requires.
The reputation of a language certificate is everything. Everything. If you’re thinking of obtaining one no one has ever heard of, think again. 🤔
Sometimes, exams take place in one day, sometimes on different days. 📅 You may have an exam centre down the street or on the opposite corner of your continent. Sometimes you are notified of the result a few days later, sometimes months later.
And now, let’s see some of the most prestigious language certificates.
Language Certificates: English
If English is your mother tongue, don’t really bother reading this chapter. Rather, you may be interested in the brief guide about language qualifications for teachers of English as a Foreign Language.
Otherwise, keep reading!
About English, multiples are the options in terms of certifying entities, types of exams, levels, validities, fields. Thus, before targeting an exam, think about a few factors:
- What’s your purpose?
- When would you need such language certificate?
- How much do you know of that language? 🤔
- How much time and energy can you devote to the task?
Let’s suppose you already know your purpose: an MBA in the USA, an internship in an Irish hospital or a job in an NGO in Bruxelles. My suggestion is: consult directly with the organization of your interest. DO NOT just check its website: write, call, go there in person, obtain a 120% sure confirmation. 👌
I speak from my own experience. Websites can be outdated or hacked: the last thing you want is to spend months on getting a qualification that would turn to be useless.
In universities, the most sought-after qualifications are:
- in the USA: TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language)
- in the UK and Ireland: IELTS (International English Language System)
Something to bear in mind is that they are both valid for two years. Ouch. Well, the assumption is that if you stop practising, your English will be rusty before you know it. It’s unfortunate but plausible. 😶
Nowadays, you also have American universities that accept the IELTS and British universities that are fine with the TOEFL. The langscape is varied: that’s why it’s always best to countercheck when the need for a language certificate arises.
But then, in the academy as well as in business, there’s another suite of qualifications, the most recognized worldwide: it’s the Cambridge Assessment English: this is where the famous PET (Preliminary English Test), First (level B2) and others come from. 📋
Truly, the array of certificates they offer is impressive: general English, business English, technical English, English for Healthcare professionals, English for children and teens, English for teachers of ESL, etc.
What are the advantages of Cambridge Assessment English qualifications?
- with such a varied portfolio, you can find the language certificate that best suits your needs ✅
- they are by far the most widely accepted, in Manchester as in Kuala Lumpur ✅
- it’s easy to find exam preparation material ✅
- there’s always an exam centre at hand, wherever you live ✅
- they do not expire ✅
Enjoy your English certification 😉
Language Certificates: Mandarin Chinese
The king of Mandarin Chinese certifications is the HSK (Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì).
It’s a suite of qualifications, going from HSK1 to HSK6: the first is the most basic level, the latter gives you bragging right for life, as it is the highest level achievable. What an achievement to get there. ⛰️
Should you decide to study in China, it’s one of these language certificates that you need. An awful lot of companies outside China require them too, as proof of your fluency in this language.
Its validity is a bit tricky. The HSK certificate itself does not expire, but if you intend to study in China at a high level, then you have to get it two years upfront, top. 🗓️
China’s Ministry of Education promote worldwide the teaching of English through the Confucius Institutes, now set up in all major cities. They also handle the HSK exams.
In smaller cities, the Confucius Institutes reach agreements with local private centres to provide similar services. In other words, if you want to get your Chinese certificate, you don’t need to fly to Beijing.
HSK1 Standard Course, textbook and workbook, by the Beijing Language & Culture University Press: the better tool out there to train yourself for the first exam of the Confucius Institute.
Language Certificates: Dutch
For Dutch, two are the existing language certificates.
The first is NT2, which full name is Staatsexamen Nederlands Als Tweede Taal: organised in The Netherlands by the Dienst Uitvoering Onderwijs, it provides exams for the B1 level (Programme 1) and the B2 (Programme 2).
If you obtain the B1, you will be exempt from proving your Dutch proficiency when applying for a residence permit or citizenship. The B2 Dutch certificate, on the other hand, will grant you access to Dutch university. 🎓
The issue is that, alas, at the moment you can only take the exam in The Netherlands, but with low-cost flights in place, nowadays travelling to the other side of Europe is often cheaper than moving a hundred km by car in your very country.
Colloquial Dutch by Bruce Donaldson: the best method to learn Dutch from scratch, for English native self-teachers.
Nederlands in actie: methode NT2 voor hoogopgeleide anderstaligen, by De Boer, Van der Kamp and Lijmbach: a must-study if you want to prepare for the exam. It contains bits of language, but its general orientation is toward the exam specifically.
The second Dutch certificate is the CNaVT o Certificaat Nederlands als Vreemde Taal.
Exams take place in Flanders (Belgium), organised by the Catholic University of Leuven, following the advice of the Nederlandse Taalunie, the Vatican City of the Dutch language. 🇧🇪
Five tests are offered: A2, B1, B2 and C1. They’re four, but B2 is available in two versions:
- one for those who want to study in a Dutch-speaking university,
- one for those who need to prove their skills in a work environment.
The language certificates they issue are valid in both countries (and internationally). Exam sessions are normally held once or twice a year.
Besides, with the CNaVT you can spare the language tests required by the immigration authorities, already with the B1 and B2 certificates. If you get the C1, in Flanders you have the doors open to teaching.
Language Certificates: Hebrew
Hebrew does not have many language certificates, or rather, those you can get outside of Israel and with somewhat international validity. 🕎
The easiest to take, from an organisational point of view, is that of the ECL Consortium. There are four levels:
Sessions are held once or twice a year. Beware: the ECL Consortium is located at the Foreign Language Centre of the University of Pécs, Hungary. The Magyar country has always been home to some extraordinary polyglots.
Logistics is somewhat thorny. You have two possibilities:
- Go to Budapest and take the exam there. You have to travel a few hours, but in Hungary’s capital you’re sure you’ll be able to take your Hebrew exam; plus, you can take two extra days and visit such a vibrant city. 🇭🇺
- If you want to take the exam in a country other than Hungary, you have to reach the ECL Consortium and ask. They are kind and reply fast, though they can’t always guarantee you’ll have it easy to sit your Hebrew exam: they will try to check with a centre they have agreements with, close to your domicile, to take the written part, then maybe having the oral part of it by videoconference.
The price is variable: it depends on the session, on where you eventually take the exam, etc. Again, you have to check with them. ☎️
There is NO material to prepare for this exam. You can download one mock exam, that’s all. If you feel like exploring the possibility of taking the exam, though, this is a valid starting point:
Modern Hebrew for Beginners, by Esther Raizen for the University of Texas: I find it appropriate to learn to write Hebrew as well as to practice with plenty of exercises.
The University of Texas is a powerhouse in the Hebrew-teaching linguosphere. It is best used with this other textbook:
Colloquial Hebrew, by Zippi Lyttleton: also good. If I had to find a flaw, I’d point to the minor emphasis given here to formal Hebrew (as you may have guessed by the Colloquial of the title). Just like the one above, it’s good to start from 0 and achieve a B1.
Language Certificates: Finnish
The YKI diploma, aka Yleinen Kielitutkinto, is the best tool for certifying your level of Finnish: it is managed by the University of Jyväskylä and all six levels of the CEFRL are there, from A1 to C2.
You can take the exams all over Finland, from the Åland Islands to Inari, a village of six hundred inhabitants in the heart of Lapland. 🦌 Exams are normally four times a year: but guess what? The best you can do is to check with the exam centre of your choice. ☎️ Why? Well, intermediate levels, for example, tend to have many candidates and places sell out quickly.
The website of the Finnish National Agency for Education is a good starting point for getting familiar with the YKI, its structure and how to get ready for it.
Generally, the level required to acquire citizenship is B1: however, the Finnish authorities have been working on this recently, so you better check twice about this when you decide to walk this path.
Meanwhile, be B1 or B2, the best thing you can do from now is to learn Finnish as best as you can, so that in a later stage you will just have to get used to the exam format. 🇫🇮
However, should you want to become a civil servant, you need the Civil Service Language Proficiency Certificate. It’s a diploma stating your proficiency in Finnish, in three levels:
Which to aim for? It depends on what the public administration of your interest decides, besides your, err, current Finnish fluency.
Number 1 and 2 can be taken all over Finland; the third one, though, is only available in Helsinki. At the moment, applying for citizenship is possible even with the first. However, if Finnish citizenship is what you’re after, be aware you can also resort to Swedish.
Would I bother with Swedish? If I had a good command already, I would. 🇸🇪 If I had to start from zero, I would lean towards Finnish: it’s way more distant from English than Swedish, granted, but life is grime in Finland without knowing, well, Finnish.
As with Hebrew, there are no materials to prepare for the Civil Service Language Proficiency Certificates, but if you want to learn Finnish, you’ll like these two books:
Complete Finnish by Teach Yourself: authoritative to begin a Finnish-learning journey.
Finnish Tutor: Grammar and Vocabulary Workbook, by Hodder & Stoughton: excellent to increment your vocab and consolidate grammar. Spoiler alert: Finnish grammar requires attentive study.
Language Certificates: Conclusions
I hope this post on some of the most valuable language certificates has helped you. Now, all you have to do is to weigh up possibilities, do the maths and get down to the nitty-gritty. 🧮
How are you going to strengthen your educational and working profile?
If language certificates interest you but now you’re more looking for inspiration to start learning a new language, take a look down here:
At this point, allow me to ask you a small favour.
It costs me an awful lot to gather this info, put it together in a readable format and publish it. If you have found this post useful, would you mind sharing it? For you, it’s a matter of a second, but for me, it’d be very helpful. Thank you. 🙏
And thank you also for the time taken to read this. See ya soon 😉
Your personal language consultant,