“Are we there yet?”
On any journey, it’s human nature to want to know where we’re going, and how long it will take us to get there.
That’s why we use maps. That’s why our roadsides are practically littered with signposts, milestones, and other landmarks that serve to tell us where we are, which way to go, and what lies ahead of us.
Language learning, as a mental journey, is no different. Though there are no physical roadsigns and distance markers, we look for intangible guideposts to orient ourselves along the learning path.
In our introductory article, entitled “How Do You Prove Your Language Level?”, we looked at several of these theoretical guideposts — various frameworks and tests that you can use to test your language proficiency and prove it to others.
Let’s take an in-depth look at perhaps the most widely used proficiency framework in the world: the CEFR.
What is the CEFR?
The full name of the framework is The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.
Commonly referred to as the CEFR or CEF, it is a language proficiency framework developed by the Council of Europe (CoE), an international human rights organization with 47 member states (and 6 observer states) centered primarily on the European continent.
According to the Council of Europe’s full text of the framework, the central function of the CEFR is as follows:
“The Common European Framework provides a common basis for the elaboration of language syllabuses, curriculum guidelines, examinations, textbooks, etc. across Europe. It describes in a comprehensive way what language learners have to learn to do in order to use a language for communication and what knowledge and skills they have to develop so as to be able to act effectively.” (p. 10)
Since its inception in the latter decades of the twentieth century, the framework has enjoyed widespread popularity, and is currently recognized by institutions, language teachers, and language learners worldwide.
Though the CEFR was built with Europe and European languages in mind, it is adaptable to any language and/or language learning context. As an example of this adaptability, top Japanese academics have developed a Japan-specific version of the CEFR, known as the CEFR-J.
How the CEFR Describes Language Proficiency
In developing the CEFR, the CoE took what it calls an “action-oriented approach” to describing language proficiency.
Put simply, this means that the CEFR evaluates learners according to their ability to act, or complete tasks, in a wide variety of scenarios and circumstances.
These actions are codified within the framework and its associated scales as CEFR descriptors.
More specifically, these are referred to as “Can-Do” descriptors, as the large bulk of descriptors are written as statements that describe what a learner can do.
Here are a few examples of “Can-Do” descriptors, taken from the CEFR Global Scale (examined in further detail below):
- “Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.”
- “Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment).”
These descriptors are not free-standing descriptions of language ability. Any and every descriptor finds its home at the theoretical intersection of two points: a specific CEFR level, and a specific CEFR scale.
What Are the CEFR Levels?
The central features of the Common European Framework are its language proficiency levels, which permit language skill to be ranked in a hierarchy (the CEFR scales). In the literature, these are also referred to as Common Reference Levels.
According to the Council of Europe:
“The Framework […] defines levels of proficiency which allow learners’ progress to be measured at each stage of learning and on a life-long basis.” (p.10)
In total, there are 6 main language fluency levels (with 3 officially-recognized “+” levels), that are organized alphanumerically (A-C, 1-2). These are:
- A – Basic User
- A1 – Breakthrough
- A2 – Waystage
- (A2+ – Strong Waystage)
- B – Independent User
- B1– Threshold
- (B1+ – Strong Threshold)
- B2 – Vantage
- (B2+ – Strong Vantage)
- B1– Threshold
- C – Proficient User
- C1 – Effective Operational Proficiency
- C2 – Mastery
What Are the CEFR Scales?
The Common European Framework — and the six levels that make up that framework — is intended to be points of reference against which language skill can be measured.
Exactly what skill (or skills) is being measured in a given situation is determined by which CEFR scale is being used, and the intended purpose of that scale.
These scales are referred to in the official CEFR literature as “Illustrative Scales of Descriptors”. Though the actual number of these scales (and functions thereof) recognized by the CoE is quite large, we will focus here solely on what are known as user-oriented scales, which denote “what the learner can do” at a given, specific language level (p. 37).
For the purpose of this article, we will divide these scales into three categories, going from the most broad description of language skill to the most narrow, or skill-specific:
- Global Scale
- Overall Skills
- Narrow Skills
There is a single global scale, meant to provide the most general view of language capacities at each CEFR level. The descriptors in each individual level typically refer to each of the four major language skills (Speaking, Listening, Reading and Writing).
While the Global Scale provides a birds-eye view of all four major skills at each level, the “Overall” scales refer to a learner’s general mastery of one specific skill out of the four.
Example Overall scales include:
- Overall Oral Production
- Overall Written Production
- Overall Reading Comprehension
- Overall Listening Comprehension
There are also scales that subdivide an individual major skill into more “narrow” capacities and abilities.
Instead of simply evaluating a learner’s overall speaking ability (“Overall Oral Production”, as above), the CEFR provides scales that can evaluate his or her skill at “Addressing Audiences”, at making “Public Announcements”, and even at delivering different types of “Sustained Monologues”. Similar narrow illustrative scales are available for the other three major skills as well.
When acquainting yourself with the CEFR, it is important to consider several key aspects of the system, including:
- Lower Limits of the Framework
- Upper Limits of the Framework
- Level Progression
- Vertical vs. Horizontal Dimensions of the Framework
Lower Limits of the Framework
A1 does not represent complete lack of knowledge (“zero-beginner” level) in a language.
In fact, there are a range of tasks that one can be able to do (“‘real life’ tasks of a tourist nature” (p. 40)) that can be developed before A1, including making simple purchases, asking/telling time of day, basic greetings, filling out simple forms, etc.
The range of experience prior to A1 is unofficially referred to as A0.
Upper Limits of the Framework
On the opposite end of the scale, it must be said that C2 is not native-speaker-level language proficiency.
According to the CoE:
“Level C2, whilst it has been termed ‘Mastery’, is not intended to imply native-speaker or near native-speaker competence. What is intended is to characterise the degree of precision, appropriateness and ease with the language which typifies the speech of those who have been highly successful learners.” (p. 45)
Outside (non-CoE) arguments have attempted to pinpoint exactly where native fluency falls in relation to the CEFR framework. Some consider C2 to be above the level of an uneducated native speaker, while others consider it to be below the level of an educated native speaker.
Though the CEFR scales are divided neatly into six discrete levels, this does not imply that it takes equal amounts of learning time to “complete” each level.
That is, to reach level B2 from B1 will not take the same amount of time as it took to reach A2 from A1. Similarly, the time spent at A1 proficiency is not intended to represent one-sixth of the total learning time to reach C2.
In reality, as skills increase, the range of language one must be familiar with also increases — as do the tasks and activities the language is used for.
Vertical vs. Horizontal Dimensions of the Framework
While the progression from A1 to C2 represents the “vertical” dimension of the framework, there is also a “horizontal dimension”, which accounts for variation between individual learners.
No two B2-certified individuals, for example, will have the same exact strengths, weaknesses, and learning needs going forward. They will, of course, have the necessary capabilities to meet the can-do descriptors, but beyond that, one could have deeper capabilities in one specific skill area (like reading for information) , while the other has deeper capabilities in a separate area (like addressing audiences).
How to Prove Your Language Skills with the CEFR
If you wish to prove your language skills with the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, you have two options:
- Formal Assessment
- Informal Assessment
The most common form of official (or certified) language proficiency assessment using the CEFR are the many CEFR-based proficiency exams available today worldwide.
These tests are specifically designed to determine where a learner’s language skills fall within a given scale that, in turn, lies within the framework.
Through successfully passing these exams, a learner can certify that he or she is capable of using the target language up to a specific level. A given CEFR language certificate, can, in turn, be used as proof of language ability in a wide range of professional contexts.
CEFR tests are available for many languages. Since the framework originated in Europe, the majority of Europe’s official languages have associated standardized tests that offer language certificates.
CEFR exams for non-European languages do exist, though they are less common. If you are looking to take an exam in one of these languages, consult your search engine of choice.
Here is a non-comprehensive list of major CEFR exams, alongside the language(s) they test:
- Cambridge English (English)
- DELF/DALF (French)
- Goethe-Zertifikat (German)
- DELE (Spanish)
- CELI (Italian)
- Swedex (Swedish)
- CCE (Czech)
- ECL Language Exam (Available in Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, English, French, German, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, and Spanish)
Informal assessment resources for the CEFR come in two main forms: the CEFR Self-Assessment Grid and assessment by a teacher or tutor.
CEFR Self-Assessment Grid
For those of you who are not looking for official certification of their language skills, but would still like to know where their target skills lie within the framework, the Council of Europe has provided yet another scale, known as the Self-Assessment Grid.
This grid, officially available in 32 languages, is designed to allow anyone to evaluate his or her own language skills using the CEFR.
In particular, the Self-Assessment Grid divides language proficiency into three broad skills (Understanding, Speaking, and Writing), and five narrow skills (Listening, Reading; Spoken Interaction, Spoken Production; and Writing, respectively). As in all other CEFR scales, proficiency in these skills is ranked along the six alphanumeric levels.
Assessment by Teacher or Tutor
As a result of the widespread use of the CEFR over the last several decades, many language professionals are familiar with the skill demarcations provided by the framework (particularly on the Global Scale).
In most cases, a teacher or tutor who is knowledgable about the Common European Framework will be able to use it to judge your language ability. If you choose to be evaluated in this way, remain aware that such informal judgements are highly subjective, and can vary from instructor to instructor.
The CEFR framework is an excellent roadmap to take along with you on your language learning journey.
The combination of action-based descriptors, discrete proficiency levels, and dozens of associated illustrative scales results in a proficiency-proving tool that is hard to beat.
In addition, its widespread professional and institutional support means that you can have your language skills objectively evaluated and recognized the world over.
Even if standardized tests and certificates are not necessary or appealing for you, you can take advantage of the ample self-assessment resources to get a more accurate grasp of what, exactly, you’re capable of doing in your target language.
Take a look now. Grab the Self-Assessment Grid or the Global Scale and read through all of the levels and descriptors.
After a few minutes, I can guarantee that you’ll be able to point to a level and say:
“There I am!”