Mastery vs. Proficiency vs. Familiarity – When to Use Each

When describing someone’s ability to do something, or level of knowledge, it’s important to be clear. We don’t want to underestimate anyone, as well as we don’t want to overestimate them, and give the audience the wrong impression.

“Mastery”, Proficiency” and “Familiarity” mean different things. Let’s learn more about them!

Mastery vs. Proficiency vs. Familiarity

“Mastery” and “Proficiency” are words that indicate the subject possesses a high level of skill and ability in a certain field or activity. “Familiarity”, on the other hand, indicates some knowledge, but not at a high skill level. People with “Familiarity” with a subject know a bit, but not perfectly.

Mastery vs. Proficiency vs. Familiarity

Let’s understand each word separately, to gain a better understanding of them. But before we do that, let’s look at some examples:

  • Although Eddie was familiar with Spanish, he was not proficient in it.
  • Samantha was proficient in Spanish, to the point of speaking fluently.
  • As a native speaker, Fernando had a mastery of Spanish.

All three sentences relate to the same topic: someone’s ability to speak a language. In a scale, you can see that Eddie has some “Familiarity” (which means some knowledge), but not to the point of “Proficiency”.

Samantha, on the other hand, is proficient: this means she’s fluent in the language and fully able to communicate.

However, Samantha’s ability is not as impressive as Fernando’s, a native speaker who can be considered to have “Mastery” in his language.

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Mastery

“Mastery” indicates that the subject has complete control, as well as full knowledge, of a subject. They are very skilled in it, to the point they’re able to teach it to someone else about it, if need be. Someone might be “Proficient” in something, but still not have “Mastery”.

Take a look at good examples of “Mastery” in a sentence:

  1. All candidates for the job must have a mastery of English.
  2. A mastery of Java was necessary for the job.
  3. Paul was on his way to mastering another programming language.
  4. The coach was impressed with Keanna’s mastery with the sword.
  5. Reynaldo achieved a complete mastery of Latin.
  6. Her mastery of the situation was quite impressive.

Someone that has “Mastery” is at the highest level in that particular field or activity. It’s an attribute for a few people that should be assigned with care: someone might be very good at something, impressive even, but still not be considered to have “Mastery” of it.

Anyone who possesses a “Mastery” level is at the to of their field.

Proficiency

To have “Proficiency” means to have skill and experience in doing something. Frequently, the word “Proficiency” is used to indicate someone’s ability to communicate in a language well, but that’s not the only use for it. However, to be “Proficient” is a little below having “Mastery”.

This is what the word “Proficiency” looks like in a sentence:

  1. Fred was proficient in Spanish, capable of reading and writing quite well.
  2. Wendy’s goal was to achieve proficiency in Python.
  3. Jenny was proficient in guitar, and about to gain proficiency in keyboard playing.
  4. Mike was a proficient swimmer, which is why he joined his school swim team.
  5. Chelsea was able to write with proficiency, and her content was really impressive.

Having “Proficiency” in a field, language or sport means the subject is very good at performing those tasks, but aren’t necessarily able to teach it (like a “master” would).

It means they function at a very high level for that particular field of activity. It also means that if they keep up the good work, they’ll likely gain “Mastery” of it.

Familiarity

“Familiarity” indicates that a person has good knowledge of something, and knows it quite well. It doesn’t make them an expert or a master of it, but it’s knowledge enough that could impress or be shared.

The level indicated by “Familiarity” could relate, for example, to a hobby: something a person loves, but not necessarily does for a living.

This is how “Familiarity” should be used in a sentence:

  1. Although Albert was familiar with coding, he was no master at it.
  2. Thea was familiar with Portuguese, but couldn’t speak it very well.
  3. Seeing as the only requirement for the job was a familiarity with algebra, Mark decided to apply.
  4. In order to understand the book, you need to be familiar with the concept of evolution.
  5. She only had basic familiarity with working in retail, but still took a shot at it.

Someone who has “Familiarity” with a subject knows enough about it to be comfortable with the topic. If they continue to pursue it, the next step would be “Proficiency”. And if they keep pushing, next would come “Mastery”.

Which Is Used the Most?

“Mastery”, “Proficiency” and “Familiarity” are words that indicate different levels of knowledge and expertise about a subject or a field. Do you think they would be used with the same frequency, in people’s daily lives?

The graph below, from Google Ngram Viewer, shows the usage of those three words, and it’s an interesting discovery.

Mastery vs. Proficiency vs. Familiarity usage

As of now, it seems “Familiarity” is used more frequently than “Mastery”. “Proficiency” appears as the least used of them.

However, take a closer look. This rank has changed many times over the years, presenting different words at the top.

Could it be because sometimes a word gets more momentum than the others and the momentum fades and another word stands out? Could it be people’s interest and position in regards to subjects also change and fade?

It’s hard to tell. But those constant changes don’t allow us to assume which of “Mastery”, “Proficiency” or “Familiarity” is the all time favorites in this rank.

Final Thoughts

How good are you at an activity? This is what you must think about, when choosing between these words. If you’re an expert, able to teach it, you have “Mastery”. If you know plenty, you are “Proficient”. If you know some, and are comfortable with the subject, you have “Familiarity”.

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