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Language requirements for studying abroad

If you are moving to another country to attend university, you may be taking your studies in a second language. If this is the case, you will be required to prove your competence in this language.

Being proficient in the language that you will be studying in is crucial for your academic success, as well as your social communication during your studies. We look at some of the well known language tests that assess your language skills with academia in mind.

English language

Perhaps the most widely adopted language in the academic world is English, with many universities offering courses taught in English to appeal to international students.

For students who will be taking a degree taught in English, there are several English language tests that are widely used by universities to assess English proficiency. These include the IELTS Academic, TOEFL iBT and Pearson PTE Academic.

IELTS Academic

The IELTS Academic is an English language proficiency test designed specifically for assessing English language skills that are relevant for students attending higher education and academia. The test comprises four sections, which are Listening, Reading, Writing and Speaking.

The IELTS Academic test can be taken in official test centers, where you will be given the option of taking the test on a computer or on paper, with both tests being the same. In countries where official test centers are not yet present, a student may take the IELTS Academic test online, but you should check if your university accepts this. Additionally, practice IELTS exams are available online from the IELTS website.


The TOEFL iBT, like the IELTS Academic test, is a test for prospective students to measure proficiency in English language skills in Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing, in a way that matches how these skills will be applied at university.

The TOEFL iBT test can be taken in test centers around the world, the full list being available here, or can be taken online. Test preparation material is available on the ETS website for you to prepare for your examination.

Pearson PTE Academic

The PTE Academic test is a computer based exam that measures your English speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills for attending university. Tests are taken at Pearson test centers, whilst the PTE Academic Online test is available for those that can’t reach a test center. Sample questions are available online to help students prepare for their test.

You may not be required to take an English language proficiency test if you hold an award such as a GCSE in English or an International Baccalaureate.

Common European Framework of Reference for Languages

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) are guidelines that help to establish language proficiency of learners into comparable levels across different European languages. Under these guidelines, a learner may be classed as A (Basic user of a language), B (Independent user of a language) or C (Proficient user). These levels may be subdivided to provide a more detailed description of a user’s language skills, so a beginner may be classed as A1, whilst an expert would be classed as C2.

The CEFR is useful for international students as some university courses may require a student to show a certain level of language skills based upon the CEFR guidelines.

French Language

If you are attending university and your studies are delivered in French language, and French is not your first language, there are French language proficiency tests that you may be required to take to show that you have a sufficient command of the language for your studies.


These are the DILF, DELF and DALF tests. The DILF (diplôme initial de langue française), issued by the French Ministry of Education, is the introductory level test, and corresponds to level A of the CEFR.

The DELF (Diplôme d’Etudes en Langue Française) spans the levels A and B of the CEFR, and shows a more advanced level of French than a DILF test.

The DALF (Diplôme Approfondi de Langue Française) corresponds to the level C of the CEFR, and shows an advanced level of French language skills.

Depending on the requirements of your university, if you will be learning in the French language, you may be required to have passed either the DELF or DALF exams.

Spanish Language

If you are going to study your degree in Spanish, and you are not a native Spanish speaker, there are two main Spanish language proficiency tests to consider to prove your levels of Spanish are suitable for academic purposes.


The first of these is the DELE (The Diplomas de Español Como Lengua Extranjera), which is issued by the Instituto Cervantes, a language body of the Spanish government. Established in 1986, the DELE is perhaps the most widely recognized and the test most widely accepted by Spanish speaking universities. There are DELE exams that cover from A1 to C2 levels according to CEFR, so all levels of Spanish proficiency are covered. The test is carried out on paper in testing centers, and once successfully issued, the DELE is valid indefinitely. DELE is paper based, and can be taken in testing centers in over 100 countries.


A more recent certification of Spanish proficiency is the SIELE (Servicio Internacional de Evaluación de la Lengua Española). The SIELE differs from DELE in that it is a one size fits all exam, whereas you will take a specific DELE test for each level of proficiency. The SIELE test covers CEFR levels from A1 – C1 and is valid for 5 years once issued. SIELE is computer based, and can be taken in your choice of 500 testing centers.

What language requirements do you need to meet?

The most important thing to check when applying to study abroad in a second language is to check the requirements set by your university. Requirements may change between courses and between universities, and some language tests may not be recognised by your university.

Language requirements for your courses will be published as part of the entry requirements for your chosen course.

Pathway courses

For students who need additional help with their language skills for studying abroad, something to consider is pathway/foundation courses. The purpose of these courses is to prepare the student for attending university, bringing both the students academic skills and language proficiency up to the required level to begin their studies.

Language support from your student services

If you have started at university and find that you need help with your language skills, or you are going to start university soon and you have decided that you wish to improve your language skills, the student support services at your university are likely to provide academic language skills courses.

For example, the University of Sheffield in the UK offers free weekly part-time classes running throughout the academic year designed to help students with their English language skills. Making use of these services, especially if they are free, help you to quickly improve your language skills and also show that you are willing and determined to help yourself get the most out of your studies.

In conclusion

It is crucial if you are planning to study abroad in a second language that you consider how well equipped you are for learning and communicating in a second language. Most universities will demand that you can demonstrate your language proficiency as part of your application using one of the popular language tests. Pathway courses and student support services are both good options for boosting your language skills, helping you to get the most from your time at university.