When they hear that you speak a foreign language, people commonly ask, “How well do you speak it?” If you ask what they mean, they might try to pin it down by asking, “Do you have an accent?” or “Do you make grammar mistakes?”
Roberto Ray Agudo, who teaches Spanish and Portuguese at Dartmouth, recently published a piece in the New York Times (July 14, 2018) with the title “Everybody Has an Accent”. When you stop to think, that’s obviously true. Even if you are a native speaker, you have some accent or other shaped by the region you come from, your social class, your education, etc. Agudo puts it well: “To say that someone does not have an accent is as believable as saying that someone does not have any facial features.”
But that’s not what people mean. They are asking if native speakers of the language can tell you are not one of them. Like in some spy story, where the agent speaks so “perfectly” that nobody ever suspects.
That might be a way of telling whether somebody qualifies for a highly improbable secret mission. In a more realistic context, however, the question of how well somebody speaks a foreign language surely ought to mean something else. A better way of thinking about it would be to ask: What kind of things can you do using this language? Agudo covers this in a few broad strokes: “How large and how varied is the person’s vocabulary? Can she participate in most daily interactions? How much detail can he provide when retelling something? Can she hold her own in an argument?”
Questions like those go to the concept of language “proficiency”. To measure proficiency, language educators have developed scales over the past fifty or sixty years. In the USA, the most important scale is probably the ILR (Interagency Language Roundtable), developed by an organization of the Federal government. ACTFL (American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages) has a scale derived from the ILR, with added gradations. And more recently the CEF (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages has come into use among countries in the European Union. (Links to information about all these are given below.)
None of these scales is principally concerned with foreign speakers making grammar errors, still less with having an accent. They are all about what a speaker can accomplish, and how well. This is good news for ambitious language learners who want to say, “I speak it very well!”
With vanishingly few exceptions, a foreigner will stand out as “having an accent,” even if very slight. And nearly every foreigner will occasionally trip up in grammar. But with the right background and lots of hard studies, a foreigner could actually surpass most native speakers in their ability to explain a complex idea, to debate an issue, to make a point clearly and convincingly.
In terms of language proficiency: You can’t join ‘em, but you might beat ‘em!