If you never stop questioning yourself whether you can brag to all your friends about knowing the language X or not yet, you probably want to refer to CEFR language levels table. For this and many other reasons, CEFR is something that every language learner should be familiar with.
In this post, I’m going to talk about what this CEFR beast is, how you can pinpoint your language proficiency to its A, B and C levels and how you can actually prove it when needed.
What is CEFR?
The genuine and official definition of CEFR is the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.
That sounds cool. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t say much. At least to me.
To put it differently, CEFR is what helps you to determine how good your language skills are no matter what language you’re learning. Depending on what you can (or cannot) do in your target language, CEFR assesses your proficiency according to its levels, from A1 to C2. And since CEFR is a common assessment framework, every time you refer to your CEFR language level people can quickly evaluate your language abilities.
And it is clearly better than that vague “ugh, you know, I speak some French”.
Also, CEFR is often used in the context of language tests, so many language learners came to believe that it stands in the same row with IELTS, TOEFL, DELE and so on. However, it’s not the case at all.
CEFR is not a language test itself; it’s rather a skeleton. It’s a labeling system to which these tests refer when defining the results and assessing a proficiency level of every single learner. And it works with ma-a-a-any languages and language tests!
What languages can be assessed by CEFR?
Common European Framework is called common European for a reason.
CEFR was planned to work with a vast number of European languages. And it does. The only remark is that it currently expanded far beyond European borders and began to include languages like Japanese and Chinese. Even Esperanto has made its way in the system.
Overall, CEFR supports tests in 40 languages, so I’m just tearing them off from the official website:
Arabic, Albanian, Armenian, Basque, Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Esperanto, Estonian, Finnish, French, Friulian, Galician, Georgian, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Moldovan, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Serbian (Iekavian version), Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish and Ukrainian.
If you spot your target language on this list (and there’s a 99.9% chance that you did) – well, you will have to deal with CEFR. If not now, than maybe in the near future.
And it isn’t bad. :)
How does CEFR assess you language proficiency?
I long believed that there’re just 4 language skills:
- Listening (passive skill)
- Reading (another passive skill)
- Speaking (active skill)
- Writing (one more active skill)
God, I was mistaken!
The creators of the Common European Framework managed to complicate the situation by introducing six language skills. Ready?
Instead of employing the usual active/passive skill system, CEFR works on three absolutely different levels:
Reception is your ability to understand the input. It can be someone shouting in your ear with a Quebecois accent (I hope you’ll never have to experience that). Or it can be the silent Le Monde that you’re reading during your morning cup of coffee with croissants in Paris.
It corresponds to listening and reading parts on the majority of language tests.
This is something that includes not only the knowledge of the language at hand (know-what-to-say) but also the knowledge of pragmatics (know-how-to-say). It’s about being polite, appropriate and abiding by the Code…whatever it happens to be.
On tests, you demonstrate this ability when writing a letter to an imaginary authority and then politely conversing with an interviewer.
Interaction was all about using an appropriate type of language; Production, on the other hand, is more about expressing yourself in a clear and comprehensible manner. This is where you probably want to show off your grammar, pronunciation and spelling skills, my friend.
Here, you’re likely to write an essay and defend your opinion in the discussion with an interviewer.
Your performance at each task counts. The better you do, the higher CEFR level you get. And there’s a lot to say about these levels themselves.
What are the six CEFR language levels?
Language proficiency levels can be called basic, intermediate and proficient. But language abilities vary so vastly that these primary labels are not descriptive enough to be precise. For this reason, CEFR introduced its ABC system.
In this system, A1 and A2 correspond to very basic language skills. Then, B1 and B2 introduce more sophisticated knowledge of a target language. Finally, C1 and C2 serve as indicators of high proficiency and fluency in this language.
And since language proficiency is something really vague, subjective and highly depending of your self-esteem, CEFR offers short descriptors for each level.
A1 level: a newbie
A1 is at the bottom of the CEFR language levels hierarchy.
At this level, you’re not too occupied with grammar and stuff. You simply concentrate on exchanging the basic information, like introducing yourself, or leading effective small talk around “where are you from” and “do you have a dog“. You can understand certain things as well, but your interlocutor will probably have to slow down by like 3 times and use a very-simple-words.
It is also the level that would be required for you if you wish to immigrate to Germany with a spouse visa.
A2 level: a newbie lvl2
I don’t know where the things start to really improve but it’s certainly not on the A2 level.
Nevertheless, at this level, you have actually expanded your vocabulary to the point where you depart from simple pointing and naming things to more direct information exchange. It can be asking and giving direction (I’m being really original here), telling about your family and politely indicating to a corner shop vendor that his tomatoes are too expensive. And all this is again in a simple language.
Not all CEFR language levels have a point of reference in a real word, especially when you’re still on the basic proficiency level. So I dont know any institution that would actually ask you for the proof of your A2 proficiency, sorry.
B1 level: the required minimum
When you’re at B1, you start feeling the progress.
You’re not perfect, not even good, but at least you are independent to go about your business in your target language. Your vocabulary is wide enough to meet all your needs when dealing with familiar matters and points of personal interests (whether it’s at work, at home or in a local restaurant). Your speech starts to resemble the one of a sane and cognitively developed person, since from now on you can express your desires, give reasons and explain your ideas. Plus, you begin to understand the natives much better (if they don’t have a heavy accent, of course).
Another point of reference for this level is Austrian immigration. Once evolved to the B1 level in German, you’d be able to apply for citizenship in this European country.
B2 level: the sweet spot
On B2 level you actually get this feeling of freedom when speaking a foreign language.
Here, you can read and understand complex things…like your morning newspaper or the book of your favorite childhood writer translated in your target language. You become more at ease with spontaneous speech, since words no more get stuck in your brain as before. On CEFR B2 level you actually start reasoning and give logical and coherent explanations to things. And, yeah, you have to know how to write everything down.
Something between B2 and C1 is usually required to get admitted to a university in a foreign country. The more proficient you are the better, but the requirements vary from country to country. Hungarian universities, for example, usually request B2 certificates. Colleges in Germany ask for C1.
C1 language level, or what you really want to put in your resume
To show your proficiency at the C level, you usually have to read and understand something that you’d never read for pleasure. Environmental problems. Hunger in East Timor. Education for bilingual children.
The point is, that at C1 you are familiar with the vocabulary that is out of your personal circle of interests. Even if you don’t give a **** about the economic situation in EU, you have to have an opinion about it and know how to defend it before the savant public. Same things are expected from you in writing. At C1, you should be at ease with every single aspect of your target language whether you’re using it for personal, academical or professional purposes.
And the mere fact that the C1 level is sought by German universities should tell you the same thing.
C2 language level, or fluency and mastery
CEFR C2 level is the top of the proficiency scale. Perhaps, only native speakers can use the language better than you.
You don’t run into the problem of not understanding something anymore (or maybe only in the case when some technical terms are used). Your language proficiency allows you to do cool things: summarize ideas and construct strong arguments. But what is more important, the language at this point is a faithful tool that you’ve mastered completely.
With the C2, all doors are open whether you seek career opportunities, higher education or immigration. The problem is that when you achieve the C2 level, you usually already have all these awesome things.
How do you get certified with CEFR?
You don’t even have to take an exam to get an idea abour your language level – thanks to comprehensible CEFR self-assessment tables. But what if it’s time to prove that you actually have this C1 in German, for example?
Why would you need to prove your language proficiency level?
The proof of your language skills is often required to get a better job, receive a higher quality education and, you know, just live in a better place.
In the modern world you merely can get anything at all without pointing someone at the corresponding paper with a stamp on it. Especially, when you’re trying to establish your status in a new environment. So language certificate can be a real asset.
Often, though, your current level and the level you need for your ultimate purpose differ quite a bit. For example, I needed a B2-C1 in French to take university courses in this language while I could merely declare having an A2. If it’s the case, well, you don’t have another choice rather than keep working on your skills until they match one of required CEFR language levels. You won’t get your citizenship approved if you have the B1 instead of the B2. This is how the system works.
Similarly, when filling up your resume you cannot simply claim to speak a language on the B2 level according to your own estimations. Especially, if the language knowledge is not just a bonus point but a job requirement. In this case, you want to prove it by demonstrating a language certificate that is widely recognized.
So…you have to take a test!
Choosing and taking a language test
CEFR is not a certification itself and not even a test. It’s just a framework within which these language tests function. Moreover, it’s not the only framework and not all language tests work with CEFR.
So the actual certification would vary depending on what test and in what language you’re taking. For example, you may need to take a DELE exam to prove your Spanish skills, or DEFL/DALF exam to get a certificate in French. Consequently, you’ll get DELF or DELE diplomas that pinpoints your language skills to a corresponding level of the Common European Framework of Reference for languages. In general, all TELC, ECL and Unicert tests work within the CEFR framework.
What can go wrong?
The problems start when you take one test and your institution doesn’t accept your certification because they need another one.
For example, I took DELF B2 to prove my French language proficiency for college. And did I find out? That they don’t accept DELF and approve TFI only (Test du Francais International) administered by ETS (the major trouble-maker and the author of TOEFL and TOEIC that are – guess what – not CEFR). So I actually had to take a placement test in the university itself – twice – and only then I got a permission to take French courses.
The moral: consult your institution of what test and certifications they accept.
What can go wrong? v.2
The second problem with CEFR language levels is that you have to choose what test you’re taking: A2, or B1, or C1 or whatever. And it’s easy to overestimate your abilities and fail it, especially when you’re aiming high. And the statistics say that more than a half of DELF B2 test takers do exactly this thing: fail.
If you fail, you don’t get any certificate. This really differs from various international tests like IELTS in which they simply assign you a level. It may be lower or higher than your ultimate goal but at least you get a damn certificate. With CEFR, they won’t even bother.
The moral: be realistic – or prepare better.
Other small problems with CEFR language levels
While the initials claim it to be “common” and “European“, CEFR is still far from being omnipresent and widely accepted.
Some language tests do not fully correspond to CEFR
For instance, if you’re taking the Polish language test you find out that you have only three options: B1, B2 or C2. Other three language levels do exist in Egzaminy Certyfikatowe z Języka Polskiego jako Obcego but they do not correspond to CEFR standards of A1, A2, and C1. As a result, you most surely can take these exams but your certificate will be out of the common point of reference.
You’d run at the same problem with some Swedish, Norwegian and Japanese language tests.
The Chinese problem
The situation with the Chinese language is even more complicated. The only standardized language test in China is HSK (Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎosh) and it has six proficiency levels, same as CEFR. However, CEFR refused to accept Chinese claim that these levels completely match CEFR ones. The actual state of affair is that the highest “C2” level of the HSK exam corresponds to the intermediate B2 CEFR level. And it’s two levels down the scale.
The good news is that, in China, HSK is widely recognized and accepted. And it is more likely that you’d have to present your tests results in China rather than somewhere in Europe. So your chances to get turned down are unsignificant.
Is CEFR the only proficiency scale?
As I have already mentioned, CEFR is not the only language assessment framework. But, it’s the major one. Moreover, in the most of the cases, you’d have to deal with CEFR and nothing else. Why?
Because in the most of the cases you’d actually learn European languages.
Just think about it. CEFR language levels cover 7 out of 10 most widely spoken languages in the world. Maybe only Hindi, Bengali, and Malay have no connection to the Common European Framework whatsoever… plus Mandarin is hanging there on the border. Otherwise, Spanish, French, German, Russian, Portuguese, Arabic… CEFR got you covered!
If your target language is not on the list, you’ll have two options. Either you deal with a private test assessment scale (like CU-TFL, or the Chulalongkorn University Proficiency Test of Thai as a Foreign Language). Or you take a test assessed by another proficiency scale.
ILR, ACTFL and CEFR language levels
Yes, there’re other broad language assessment scales other than CEFR:
Let’s take one of my favorites: ILR – Interagency Language Roundtable, for example. As you can guess from the “interagency” part, that’s something serious. And it is indeed serious since ILR is a professional assessment scale for those who wish to work for the US government or military agencies.
ILR is regulated by the Foreign Service Institute in the US, and, apparently, these guys deal with more than a hundred world languages. If you have heard of FSI, it probably was in the context of their famous study on how many hours you need to learn a language. In this study, they refer to the “professional working proficiency” level as an ultimate goal of language training. And what this vague definition describes is actually level 3 of ILR scale or C1 level of CEFR.
There are multiple tables aiming to compare CEFR language levels with those of IRL and ACTFL scales. So it’s really up to you what system to use as a reference for your language skills.
The main point is that knowing your proficiency level allows you to work on your language skills more deliberately. And, yeah, it also opens many doors!