If you are familiar with the world of foreign language learning, you’ll have no doubt come across labels like A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 or C2. You’ll find them on course textbooks, visa application documents and job descriptions. When you sign up for classes you may be assigned to a group based on this classification.
For those of a poetic disposition, being given a letter and number can be alienating. But, for better or for worse, this is how the world is organised. So it’s not a bad thing to understand what all these boxes mean.
Grammar, Communication, Activity
The A1-C2 classification comes from the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), a Council of Europe initiative that began in the 1990s and became widely adopted in the early 2000s. The goal was to find agreed equivalence between all the different diplomas being offered in different countries. That ambition begged the question: what it is to be competent in a second language and how should competence be assessed? The result was a paradigm shift.
Traditionally, language learning in school had been focused on grammatical exactitude: the ability not to make mistakes. But scoring well in written tests wasn’t a great preparation for real-life experience and gradually there’d been a shift towards teaching communicative skills: listening and reading (receptive skills) and talking and writing (productive skills).
The CEFR took this logic one stage and put the ability to complete tasks at the heart of teaching. Can you order a pizza? Can you hold your own in a heated argument? These would be the new benchmarks of activity-centred assessment.
Many in the academic world were wary of a change seen as part of a much wider transformation of education into a consumer product. But if the CEFR has achieved widespread acceptance, it’s no doubt because it corresponds to many learners’ wishes. Activity-centred teaching, learning and assessment has become the new norm.
Am I an A1 or a C2?
Within the CEFR, language competency is defined by what we are capable of doing. A1 is the lowest level and C2 the highest and there’s a self-assessment grid that can help you establish your level (you can click on the picture to get a downloadable version):
The self-assessment grid is just the tip of the iceberg. Teams of researchers have dug deeper to create a complete inventory of what it is to learn a second language. The level of detail is often quite astonishing. To take just one example, when Facilitating communication in delicate situations and disagreements (one of the Mediating benchmarks), a C1 speaker:
Can demonstrate sensitivity to different viewpoints, using repetition and paraphrase to demonstrate a detailed understanding of each party’s requirements for an agreement. Can formulate a diplomatic request to each side in a disagreement to determine what is central to their position, and what they may be willing to give up under certain circumstances. Can use persuasive language to suggest that parties in disagreement shift towards a new position.Common European Framework of Reference for Languages – Companion Volume (2020)
whereas a B2 speaker:
Can elicit possible solutions from parties in disagreement in order to help them to reach consensus, formulating open-ended, neutral questions to minimise embarrassment or offence. Can help the parties in a disagreement better understand each other by restating and reframing their positions more clearly and by prioritising needs and goals. Can formulate a clear and accurate summary of what has been agreed and what is expected from each of the parties. Can, by asking questions, identify areas of common ground and invite each side to highlight possible solutions. Can outline the main points in a disagreement with reasonable precision and explain the positions of the parties involved. Can summarise the statements made by the two sides, highlighting areas of agreement and obstacles to agreement.Common European Framework of Reference for Languages – Companion Volume (2020)
And so on. The documents of the CEFR are freely available online and make for interesting reading for those who want to go further into it:
Common European Framework of Reference for Languages – The founding document
CEFR Companion Volume – A 2020 update
Inventaire linguistique des contenus clé des niveaux du CECRL – an inventory specific to the French language
How is this useful to us as learners?
The work done by the Council of Europe is primarily directed towards teachers: it’s not something you have to know about. That said, it can be helpful as a learner to know where you are and where you want to get to. The Alliance Française estimates this is the number of hours of study required to move from one level to another:
In practice your skills are likely to be uneven because different learning activities develop different competences. For example watching French TV is great for improving your aural comprehension, but is unlikely to help you speak the language. This sample spider chart maps the abilities of an example multi-lingual learner:
Being uneven is just fine. The important thing is for your map to mirror your objectives. By reflecting on these issues, you can optimise the time you spend studying a language, favourising activities that will develop the skills you are interested in. Once you’ve established yourself an achievable study plan, you should find yourself feeling more serene about your language learning project.