The CEFR is the standard by which most employers and universities throughout Europe (and increasingly beyond the EU) measure language levels. Beyond simple employability, there are many practical reasons to understand where you stand on the European language scale. It can even help you to improve your overall fluency or to work towards a particular CEFR certification.



What is the CEFR?


The Common European Framework for Reference for Languages (CEFR or simply ‘European language levels) is simply a way to describe one’s ability in a particular language. It is an international standard, used both in and beyond Europe. It ranks language ability on a scale from A1 (beginners) all the way through to C” (masters of a particular language).


The CEFR was created to 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.



Understanding CEFR Language Levels


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 individually:



  • A1 (Breakthrough/Beginner)


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 (Waystage/Elementary)


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 (Threshold/Intermediate)


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 (Mastery/Proficiency)


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.



How important is the CEFR in the language learning field, and what are its limitations?


The CEFR has certainly been controversial. It can be used with more than 40 different languages (and more every year), including sign language. It is definitely ‘the standard’ language assessment tool in Europe, but it has its flaws. For example, many feel that the ‘C’ level is poorly defined, or should be split into ‘C’ and ‘D levels. Others feel that it fails to calibrate a user’s understanding of socio-cultural norms.



Why is it important to be certified on the CEFR European language scale?


Simply put, it makes you much more employable. Having a B or C level CEFR certification on your CV or résumé assures employers that you speak the language well enough to do public-facing jobs and to interact with your co-workers easily. Many universities also require CEFR certification in their primary language in order for you to be accepted as a student.



The Global Scale


Cambridge University has produced a guide to understanding your CEFR level on a global scale that might be very helpful. You can download it for free here.



Practical Tips


Mini-goals to help you reach A2 on the European language scale


All of us start at A1 in any language, but it is important to move up to A2 as soon as possible. At the A2 level you can have rudimentary conversations in your new language, which is an absolute turning point in learning a language. There are many ways to ‘keep the train moving’ when it comes to improving your language proficiency. The key seems to be to keep striving, and to set small, achievable goals.


  • You might deliberately prepare yourself to handle a new situation in your chosen language, and then seek that situation out.
  • You might decide to learn the names for all of the utensils in your kitchen today.
  • You might decide to learn to use 3 new idioms well this week.
  • You might identify a sound or phoneme you have difficulty pronouncing, and decide to get it right over the next 3 days.
  • You might commit to having at least three long conversations about topics you DON’T understand particularly well before the end of the week.


The point is that fluency is not ‘one big skill’, but thousands of tiny ones. If you pick them off one at a time, your progress towards A2 (and eventual fluency) will seem much easier to achieve.



What about self-testing?


It never hurts to test your own fluency, and get a feel for how well you are currently using a language. Testing yourself to determine where you stand on the European Language Levels can give you a sense of your current abilities, and show you what you not to achieve to improve them.


Services like italki offer free and easy online self-testing. Of course, this is not the same as certification, and you can’t put it on your CV. Just the same, it is a great tool for discovering where you are on the scale, which will in turn show you what you need to do to work your way up!



How can italki help me improve my European language level?


A service like italki can be a great resource, well beyond the free self-testing they provide. It lets you book time with native speakers, trained tutors and even certified language teachers to have real world conversations. In terms of the best way to pick up the beginnings of a language quickly, or ‘polishing the rough edges’ to achieve real fluency, nothing comes close to having actual conversations with actual, native speakers.


Better still, you can do it all from the comfort of your own home, and internet café, or almost anywhere else you feel comfortable. You can set your own schedule, and learn at the pace most comfortable for you.


If you are ready to learn English yourself or boost your ability to ‘true’ fluency, this is definitely the place to start. If you’d like to explore other languages, or would like to know more about italki as an organisation, you should start here, at our Home Page.




Hero image by Christian Battaglia on Unsplash