I have been a language teacher (offline and online) for more than ten years. Students generally come to me knowing that they want to study a language, and why they want to study it. That's a very good start. However, they often don’t know which level they want to reach, or what the levels mean at all. It’s not uncommon for me to receive a message from a new student that reads “I need to take a B2 or C1 level test,” but the student is unclear of how to pass the exam.
Perhaps you are one of these students. If this is the case, this article will help you discover which level you should strive for, depending on your personal goals.
The CERF scale
Everyone has heard of this system of letters and numbers, A2, B1, B2…. However, few people actually know what they mean. This relatively new way of defining language levels was implemented in 2001 when the Common European Reference Framework for Languages (CERF) was released. The CERF is a very tedious 273 page document published by the Council of Europe, whose reading I do not recommend! It is important to remember that this way of describing levels was intended to be used for European languages in Europe. Nowadays, it’s the de facto framework used for non-European languages as well, such as Mandarin Chinese. However, this was not its original intention. While different systems for assessing language skills do exist, such as a twelve level scale created and used in Canada, the CERF scale has become one of the most familiar.
It is comprised of six levels, A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2. This document, which is part of the CERF, defines each of the six levels. Now, is it just me, or is this really difficult to understand if you are not a language teaching professional? Let me try and put it in a way that is more understandable.
Let’s start with level A, which is is described as the basic level.
When you reach A1, which hopefully happens fairly quickly, you are still quite limited in your target language. You can complete simple language tasks such as filling out a form, speaking with a cashier, or writing a postcard. In fact, these are examples of common exercises in the French DELF A1 Exam. So, unless you are a first grader, it is unlikely that A1 or an A1 certificate would be your final goal. Actually, I believe that even first graders should aim higher than A1.
A2 is a little more interesting. According to a common definition, an A2 level speaker should be able to function in the country of their target language, as long as the speaker does not encounter any problems. Put more concretely, this means that you would be able to go to a restaurant, order and pay, but if there was an error on the bill, you might not be able to argue with the waiter. Similarly, at this level, you would be able to go to a train station and buy a train ticket. However, if you happened to buy the wrong ticket by mistake, this would be hard to explain to the ticket taker.
Level A2 is a good goal for those who are learning a language in order to visit a country on holidays, or for another similar purpose.
The next step is level B, which is called the independent level.
Interestingly enough, what is now known as B1 was first described in 1976 by Daniel Coste. He called it “the threshold level.” For him, everything that came before B1 could be categorized as a kind of “preliminary study” and students only became able to actually use the language upon reaching B1. Of course, this idea is completely outdated, since modern methods recommend speaking from day one and engaging with the language as soon as possible. Nevertheless, Coste’s description of the B1/threshold level remains very accurate and useful.
A level B1 speaker is able to function in their target language, even if there are problems. So, if there is a billing error at an restaurant? Now, you'll be able to complain about it. That mess with the train ticket? Well, now you can understand what is going on and explain your situation. B1 is the first level in which you will actually be able to have a conversation in your target language that lasts more than a few sentences. B1 is the empowering level. You really start to feel that you can use the language successfully when you reach this point.
A number of countries actually request that you reach level B1 in their language before you can apply for citizenship. This makes sense, since it’s the minimum level that will allow you to function in the country without needing help.
B1 is also a good first goal if you are learning a language in order to communicate with important people in your private life, such as in-laws.
B2 Upper Intermediate
Now we’re talking. While your B1 level allows you to communication quite successfully, you can’t help but feel that you are struggling to speak, and probably abusing the patience and nerves of the natives that you are speaking to. Good news! Once you reach B2, this is over. Native speakers will actually be happy to talk to you.
B2 is defined as the level at which you can use the language in a variety of situations without any undue tension. It’s actually quite comfortable to be a B2 speaker: your grammar is next to perfect, your vocabulary range is great, and your lovely accent doesn’t get in the way of communication. If you plan to hit on your latest crush in their native language, you should definitely aim for B2.
Other interesting uses of a B2 level include studying in your target language (many universities require foreign students to pass a B2 exam before enrolling), working at a variety of jobs and reading without too much effort. Most content written in your target language should be accessible to you, as long as it is not too in-depth or too technical.
The fact that you can read this article now suggests that you have at least a B2 level in English!
Now, let’s move on to level C. This is also known as the proficiency level.
If you have reached level C1, your language skills are sufficient enough to do practically anything you want in your target language. This includes attending long, technical conferences, studying a PhD and working in fields that require very specific, high level language skills, such as a medicine or academics. Basically, you are able to read any type of document that you would also understand in your native language. Therefore, if you can’t understand medical content in your native tongue, you should forget about reading a medical publication in your target one.
At this level, you are also able to write in-depth articles in your field of expertise. I can write this article about language learning in English because I am a language teacher and a proficient non-native English speaker with a C1+ level.
C1 tests and degrees are very difficult. I enjoy training C1 students because it is always a challenge; not just for them, but also for me. I recommend aiming for C1 only if it is a requirement that you can’t avoid. For example, some universities require you pass a C1 test before starting a PhD programme.
At this level, the language no longer holds any secrets for you. You know everything. You can understand every bit of text or speech, regardless of how long, complicated or technical it is. You can also understand much of the unstated and implied cultural references that the language contains as well. In fact, the overwhelming majority of natives do not have a C2 level in their own language, which makes it almost impossible for them to attain a C2 level in a foreign one. But frankly, you don’t need it.
Full disclosure, I have never trained any students for a DALF C2, nor met anyone who has taken the DALF C2 test. I actually wonder why this degree even exists. I could probably pass it, given that I have spent about 25 years studying French, my native language, and given that I obtained a master’s degree in French teaching. However, it would take some serious preparation to master the specific exercises and it is totally pointless. I deeply believe that no one should aim for C2, unless it is an absolute goal in their life.
How long does it take?
The time necessary for each level is not linear. For example, if you reached an A1 in 60-80 hours (a common number for a reasonably easy language), do not expect to reach C2 in 6 x 60-80 hours.
In fact, each level requires about twice the amount of work that you put into the previous one. So, if it took you about 140 hours to reach A2, you will need another 140 hours to reach B1, which adds up to 280 hours in total. You will then need an additional 280 hours to reach B2, so that’s 560 in total. If you would now like to aim for B2, you’ll then have to invest 560 more hours, 1120 in total. For C1 you’ll need to double that again, which means 2240 in total. As for C2, it takes literally forever. So now you understand that if you need to pass a proficiency test, whether it’s B2 or C1 actually makes a huge difference.
Below is a rough visualisation of the effort needed to reach each level:
Please keep in mind that these numbers are only a rough estimate. They will change drastically depending on which language you’re learning, how, when and how often you study, what your native language is, which other languages you speak, your age, your profession and/or your personal situation, etc.
Furthermore, I can't guarantee that you will ever reach level C2, even if you spend 5,000 hours studying the language. After all, very few people speak their native language at a C2 level. In the event that you don't have a C2 level in your first language, odds are that you will never reach this level in a foreign one. However, I hope that this article has convinced you that you absolutely don't need to speak your target language at a C2 level.
I want to speak “like a native speaker”
Many language learners want to speak their target language “like a native speaker.” So let's take a moment to examine what level native speakers have according to the CERFL?
Well, it's actually pretty diverse. I would say that native speakers have a level that ranges from under B1 to C2. While some native speakers with very poor literacy skills might be unable to make it through a B1 exam in their own language, a university professor or doctorate student would be able pass the C2 exam without any problems. In western countries, the majority of people tend to have a level somewhere between B2 and C1.
I want to speak “fluently”
Another tricky word is fluency. The goal of many language learners is to speak their target language fluently. It's a very honourable goal, and I congratulate everyone who has ever reached fluency in a second language, including myself. The catch? It is common for people to disagree about what fluency actually means. Some people will reach level A2 and consider that they have attained fluency. Others will only consider that they are fluent when they reach C1. You are of course welcome to make up your own definition.
As for my definition, I would say that fluency means that you have a B2 level, although in many cases, B1 can be enough. As previously explained, B is the intermediate level, which will allow you to function in the country of your target language without having any major communication problems. B2 will let you do this much more effortlessly than B1.
Do people actually have these kinds of levels in real life?
Actually, no. This article is an academic description of theoretical levels, for which you will rarely find “pure” examples in real life. Levels rarely describe the experience of the learner very well. It is very possible to speak at a B2 level, while only being able to read at a A2 level or lower. For example, when I mentioned earlier that some natives have a level below B1, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t fluent. Of course they are fluent in their native language and they certainly don’t struggle to speak like a B1 non-native speaker would. Instead, it’s that their vocabulary is limited and their literacy skills (reading and/or writing) are simply too low to pass the B1 exam.
Therefore, it is sometimes more accurate to describe your foreign language skills by referring to several levels of the CERF scale. For example, if you use the Europass curriculum vitae, you will have to describe your language abilities by identifying a separate level for each competence: reading, writing, listening and speaking.
I hope this article has helped you understand what these levels mean and which level is the right goal for you. Please feel free to ask me any questions in the discussion below. I’m looking forward to hearing from you!