Have you ever felt inferior with your language learning abilities? This can happen in two ways: First, you may start interacting with students or native speakers who seem really ahead of you in the language. The other thing is that you may become obsessed with is the Common European Framework for Reference for Languages (CEFR). It is simply a way to describe one’s ability in a particular language. It’s an international standard, used both in and beyond Europe. It ranks language ability on a scale from A1 (beginners) all the way through to C2 (masters of a particular language).
In some cases, the CEFR may raise your level of ambition to improve your language skills. Other times, it can frustrate you by making you feel that you are substandard in terms of the pace you are learning your new language.
How Does the CEFR Work?
This next section was researched by italki’s Ms. Help in her article: Understanding Language Levels: Use Them to Improve Your Fluency.
“The CEFR was created as a way to measure, assess language ability, in such a way as to aid in teaching. Introduced in 1989, it has since become the ‘go to’ standard for grading language proficiency in Europe and is becoming more popular all around the world.
The CEFR divides speakers into six different language levels – categories based on their proficiency with a particular language. There are 3 ‘level groups’ – A (Basic Users), B (Independent Users) and C (Proficient Users). Each of these groups are divided into 2 actual levels, 1 and 2. Each level has specific standards as to what such a user is capable of in terms of speaking, listening, writing and reading.
Let’s look at each level individually:
A1 level speakers should be able to speak, read and write basic phrases and everyday expressions. An A1 speaker could introduce themselves, and both ask and answer simple questions. They can engage in basic, simple conversations, though the people they speak to may need to speak slowly and clearly, and offer help as needed.
A2 level speakers can communicate well about simple, everyday issues and can exchange routine information. They could discuss common events such as work, shopping and personal or family relationships. They can describe their environment and discuss what is going on at the moment. Most people would consider an A2 level user to ‘speak the language’.
B1 level speakers can conduct conversations clearly, so long as they limit themselves to familiar topics. For example, they can discuss school, work and what they do in their leisure time, and can respond to situations likely to arise when living in or travelling through a country where this language is spoken. They can describe their experiences and ambitions, and can write about familiar topics in a way that can be easily understood.
B2 (Vantage/Upper Intermediate)
A B2 level speaker of a language should comprehend most of a complex text, whether it be concrete, abstract. They can comprehend technical information relating to their specialty. They can fluently and spontaneously interact with native speakers without difficulty. They can write in detail both descriptively and analytically.
C1 (Advanced/Effective Operational Proficiency)
A C1 speaker can understand long and complicated communications, and understand implied ideas. They can use the language well, shifting between social, professional and academic conversations easily. They can write in a complex yet clear and well-organised manner on a wide variety of subjects.
C2 speakers are masters of the language in question, and can understand almost anything they hear or read. They can summarise and present information from both spoken and text sources. C2 users are capable of the ‘fine shades of meaning’ that denote a truly fluent user of the language. They are rarely daunted linguistically, even in very complex situations, even when interacting with other non-native speakers.”
Now that you know what the levels mean, use them as a reference but don’t let the levels take over your life. Remember the following when you’re learning a new language:
Make your own goals
You are different than anyone else, especially in learning a new language. You may be intermediate in one way and proficient in another. The levels don’t take into account individual ways of learning. The levels are more like a finish line at a race, but learning a language is more like the journey to get to the finish line. Here are some useful things you can do other than merely going by the CEFR.
For example, if you want to learn your new language’s greetings, write down that goal, give yourself a date to complete this goal and then keep track of how much you accomplish--for your own sake, not for the sake of the CEFR. Even if you’re in an ESL class, you can still set your own goals and not wait for the teacher to set them for you. And if you don’t make the goal that you set for yourself, don’t beat yourself up over it (don’t be nasty to yourself with negative thoughts, like “I’ll never learn this” or “I should just quit.”
1. When you don’t reach a goal, just start over again. Take a little break if you need to. But don’t give up together. For example, if you’ve been learning your new language’s greetings, stop learning new ones and practice the ones you’ve already studied. Practicing what you’ve learned is even more important than adding new material to your repertoire (a set of skills that you have in your own “mind library”.) Did you ever learn to play the piano? If so, then you know how long it takes to get it right.
2. Lower your expectations. Give yourself less “homework” or more time to accomplish your goal. And every time you do learn something, don’t look it up and compare yourself to the CEFR which is mostly a general evaluation and not based on your individual goals.
The Real Way People Learn
Most students expect that learning a new language is linear (in a straight line). But it’s not. It goes up and down. “This means is that as you get better, it gets harder and harder to improve,” says Luca Lampariello, author of 3 Reasons why you’re still an intermediate level language learner. He explains that when you start learning a language, “you’re essentially starting from a blank slate.” But as you learn, it becomes harder to see progress. After you’re a beginner you realize how much more you have to learn. And it can be very frustrating. That’s totally normal. “The key is simply to be prepared for it,” says Lampariello.
So the CEFR does not take into account the middle or plateau (a time of no obvious change after a lot of effort) stages. The CEFR could lead you to think that you move from one stage right to another. And we now know that isn’t true. As we said, learning a language is an up-and-down process which isn’t reflected in the CEFR levels. And the sad thing is that when you’re in an inbetween stage in your learning process, looking at certain levels can discourage you. You may think you know less than you do. On the other hand, trying to place yourself on the CEFR may lead you to believe you know more than you think, giving you false confidence.
What do I tell Students?
Hardly a month passes that a student doesn’t ask how he is doing--or at what level he/she is. The fact is that this question is mostly asked by students in the “middle” or intermediate levels. Beginning or elementary students know they’re beginners. Proficient students know they’re at the top of learning the language.
For students who do ask me how they’re doing, I tell them they’re in the middle--they’ve learned a lot but they still have a lot to learn. I try to stay away from the official levels of CFER, which seems to arouse more anxiety and disappointment than clarity.
With learning a language (as with anything else) there’s a lot of competition among students. It’s hard for students to accept the advice that you should only compete with yourself. But this works better, whether it involves the CFER or not: In studying a language, there will always be someone better than you and there will always be someone who knows less than you do.
Ilene Springer is a long-time italki tutor in English. She teaches intermediate, upper-intermediate and upper-level students, including advanced and proficient. She has been a writer for national magazines, such as Cosmopolitan and author of The Diary of an American Expatriate. Please visit her website at Chocolate.English.eu