What is the difference between mastery, proficiency and familiarity? I know they all refer to the level of understanding or skill in something.

I've seen the words in these contexts:

mastery: in WOW, a mage has arcane mastery, fire mastery or frost mastery

proficiency: the proficiency of English / Spanish / French

familiarity: have a basic familiarity of the newest computer techniques

  • yep, i saw some people use the short form "btw" as between. Corrected them as they seem better. – Sheldon Feb 29 '12 at 12:15

The three words can be used to show a progression in knowledge and expertise. Let's say we are talking about driving a vehicle:

Familiarity implies a modest amount of experience. Some teenagers might be familiar with the controls of a car (i.e., they know difference between the brake pedal and the gas pedal, they know how to steer and use turn signals, etc.). They may even have some driving experience, but by no means would they be considered experts - not if they are merely familiar with driving.

Proficiency implies a sufficient level of expertise, to the point where the individual is trusted to do some sort of task. Some areas might have some sort of exam required, where people can demonstrate their proficiencies. In other words, you must demonstrate your driving proficiency before you can obtain a driver's license.

Mastery implies a level of expertise beyond proficiency. An instructor at a driving school may have mastery of the skill - not only is the instructor a good driver, but they can teach other people about the hazards of driving, safe driving habits, etc. They might also have had experience practicing, say, manuevering out of a skid.

The three words need not always be used in such a progresssion, but, when used together, proficiency always implies more expertise than familiarity, and mastery typically carries more clout than proficiency.

Put another way, if I was posting a job ad for a programming firm:

Must be familiar with C++ would mean that the person should have at least seen the language, and maybe even have written a few small programs in it.

Must be proficient in C++ would mean that the applicant should be ready to code with little to no special training, and should be very comfortable programming in that language, based on past experience.

Must be a master of C++ would imply that the programmer should be adept even with all the advanced features of the language, and would be a good candidate to mentor other programmers.

  • 3
    +1 because you've correctly arranged the three terms in ascending order of competence, but I'm not sure I'd expect any job ad to say the company was looking for a master of C++. Sounds like real "geek-speak" to me! – FumbleFingers Feb 29 '12 at 15:47
  • @FumbleFingers: perhaps I worded it awkwardly, in an attempt to stay in line with my "Must be..." trilogy. But something like "Mastery of Java" is not unheard of in a job description. – J.R. Feb 29 '12 at 17:43
  • I certainly agree "mastery of xxx" is less geeky than "a master of xxx". And I do realise you had little choice in how to phrase your final sentence, given the overall structure of the answer. I wasn't intending to be critical - simply pointing out for any other readers that they should be careful not to assume all three expressions fit comfortably in the same "register". – FumbleFingers Feb 29 '12 at 17:59
  • @FumbleFingers: I didn't take it as critical; I took it as decidedly witty. – J.R. Feb 29 '12 at 18:01
  • How would "working knowledge" fit into this schema? – Crowder Nov 23 '16 at 16:14

"Mastery" is a word to show that you have grasped the whole concept or idea comprehensively, and is quite a professional and skilled person on the subject.

"Proficiency" is used to describe your level of comprehension and skill. "Mastery" could be your proficiency, or you could be a mere novice yet.

"Familiarity" is more general, and does not necessarily include "proficiency", but it can. It is used to describe how well you know a subject. It can be used to describe "proficiency", but it isn't necessarily so all the time.

  • Also note that "mastery" might imply more than being very good at something. It might mean an actual title that has certain conditions to be allowed to wear it, such as in martial arts or a "master craftsman" which not just anybody is allowed to call him/herself. – Hackworth Feb 29 '12 at 12:30

I would like to point out that Mastery is COMMAND of a subject and is independent of skill. Usually one gains command of a subject or object by practicing skill with it or gaining knowledge and the wisdom to apply said knowledge. But there are other paths to mastery of something that may exclude even a modest level of skill at it.

As an example you might have mastery of spoken language including song and prose, but lack the skill to actually speak(due to a difference in the brain compared to others, or an alteration of speech organs).

Mastery is more about the relationship between a subject/object and the combination of your command and understanding of it. This is why those who cannot do teach.

To have both mastery and prodigous skill of a subject/object is fairy rare it is not unheard of as such people will be in the news of such a subject/object.

Meanwhile Mastery and Talent are usually an unheard of combination as one requires understanding of their innate ability(which does not require thought about it) which invariably and rapidly removes all talent and most skill of the subject/object. But a talented person would be perceived as having "mastery." But mastery is a conscious thing on the part of the person, while talent is the other side of the coin.

In that case something would only be mastery or talent (only one side of the coin is visible at a time to the observer). Though of course looking at the coin from its side instead of the faces would reveal that kind of duality though such a person would be exceedingly special, or fantastically common if you think about thoroughly what "jack-of-all-trades" actually is.

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