Language proficiency means knowledge of a target language (i.e. the language you want to learn) that enables you to communicate, that is, to express yourself and understand others. Proficiency consists of various skill sets, such as speaking or signing, writing, using gestures, listening and reading. When you are asked if you have ”basic, ”good” or ”advanced” knowledge of a language, then this usually refers to your level of proficiency.


Linguistics is knowledge about the target language, and is about investigating and making discoveries about the target language as a system. It means understanding linguistic structures and reflecting on how similar or different the language is to other languages you know or are familiar with. It means finding patterns and being able to describe, compare and analyze linguistic phenomena. When you discover a new language from a linguistic perspective, this often enriches your understanding of the languages you already know. Linguistics is a broad area of study, including grammar, the psychology of language, sociolinguistics and historical linguistics.

Getting to know new cultures and societies

Knowledge of things like literature in your target language, as well as the music, food, political history and cultural developments where the language is spoken are all important in order to use a language successfully. It means being aware of politeness phenomena in your target language and culture, and knowing how to adapt to them, it means understanding and making jokes, knowing how colours are divided along the spectrum, what wars have left the deepest scars and what idioms, phrases or expressions can be used in what contexts. It’s about both cultural awareness and an in-depth understanding of the cultures where your target language is spoken. Such knowledge enables you to use your language in a nuanced, efficient and insightful way, and it’s a basic prerequisite for communicative competence.

Translation and interpretation

Knowing how to translate and interpret is probably the most advanced and demanding level of ”knowing” a language. This places great demands on all aspects described above, including everything from speaking fluently while using the right gestures to extensive knowledge of the cultures and societies where the source and target languages are spoken. Being someone’s voice, or translating a culturally conditioned sense of anxiety, is a personally and professionally challenging task even reaching beyond the aspects covered above. Very few people learn to truly master these skills.

/Christine Ericsdotter Nordgren, August 2016. Translation: Albin Hillert