A Breakdown of All 6 CEFR Levels from AI to C2 (and Placement Test Info)

Language ability is difficult to quantify and standardize.

If you hear someone bragging that they’re “slightly fluent in German,” what does that even mean?

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) comes in here. It allows us to quantify and standardize language proficiency tests worldwide.

In this post, we’ll cover the what the CEFR is, its six levels, why it’s important for language learners, ways to get certified and more.

Contents

What Is the CEFR?

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) is a standard used to express language proficiency in Europe.

It was created by the Council of Europe—the continent’s oldest intergovernmental body—composed of 48 member states.

In 2001, the Council published a framework of six language proficiency levels after years of research and study: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2.

Each CEFR level comes with a specific set of indicators, so the higher your letter and number, the higher your proficiency. To know your level in a language, you have to take a test from a recognized institution (more on this below).

Beyond the benefits of official certification—such as approval for working or studying abroad—the CEFR gives language learners standard proficiency levels they can set goals to achieve.

The CEFR Levels

At all levels, the CEFR involves all four linguistic skillswriting, listening, speaking and reading. So a person can be at different levels in different language skills.

For example, you might be a B2 in reading but only a B1 in speaking.

The descriptions for each level are for “communicative competence”—how well you can understand and be understood by others. It’s not really about vocabulary size or grammar knowledge, although these are also important.

In general, the levels can be grouped by letter to explain how the learner uses their target language:

CEFR LevelDescriptionProficiency Level
A1 & A2Basic UserBeginner to Low Intermediate
B1 & B2Independent UserIntermediate to Low Advanced
C1 & C2Proficient UserAdvanced to Fluent

Within each CEFR level, there are corresponding “can-do” statements for the three primary skills:

  • Understanding (listening and reading comprehension)
  • Speaking (spoken interaction and production)
  • Writing

Below are the general indicators of the six reference levels of the CEFR.

A1: The “Breakthrough” Level

Before A1, you’d be at “A0,” meaning you have no experience with the target language.

Getting to A1 means you’ve become familiar with fundamental expressions and phrases, such as “hello,” “goodbye,” “good morning” and “thank you.”

As an A1 language learner, you’re expected to be able to introduce yourself and ask and answer basic questions, like:

Where do you live?

What is the name of your school?

How old are you?

At this level, you can carry out very basic “first meeting” conversations when the person you’re talking with speaks clearly and slowly. As long as they repeat and enunciate words when necessary and don’t use slang, idioms or colloquial expressions.

A2: The “Waystage” Level

At A2, you can go deeper into “first meeting” conversations.

This stage is still about basic and routine exchanges of information, but you can discuss slightly more personal information, asking and answering questions such as:

What is your father’s job?

What are your hobbies?

What is your job?

You can now say more about your background—albeit in very simple terms—and typically with similar assistance from your conversation partner as in level A1.

B1: The “Threshold” Level

At this stage, you can now figure out the main points of a sentence or other input. You likely won’t understand every word the other person says, but you understand what’s being discussed.

You can also communicate your thoughts and intentions, such as reasons, opinions and plans.

Your output may not always be grammatically correct, but native speakers will understand what you’re talking about and respond appropriately.

B2: The “Vantage” Level

At level B2, there’s now some degree of spontaneity in communication. The strain of understanding and being understood slowly begins to fade, especially regarding familiar topics.

As you get more practice, you’ll be able to naturally get into new topics because that’s where the interaction leads, and not because that’s what you planned and rehearsed in your head.

You can also handle increasingly complex topics, even abstract and technical ones. For example, not only can you give your opinions, but you can also discuss the advantages and disadvantages of options and choices.

C1: The “Competency” Level

At C1, you communicate easily and flexibly, using well-structured sentences and paragraphs. You can organize your thoughts without consciously searching for specific words or expressions. The language begins to “flow” through you.

You can also recognize implied meanings and use idiomatic and colloquial expressions to add layers and texture to your communication.

At this stage, you can confidently hold your own with native speakers, whether in a social, professional or academic setting.

C2: The “Mastery” Level

This is the stage where you understand practically everything thrown your way.

You can easily restructure, repackage and summarize information. You can communicate correctly in any manner, whether written or spoken.

You can distinguish different shades of meaning. And because of that, your communication is often really on point, even in complex scenarios.

At level C2, you can say or express exactly what you want.

To get an idea of how people might speak at this level along with tools to help you as a learner, you can check out a language learning program such as FluentU.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

You can try FluentU for free for 2 weeks. Check out the website or download the iOS app or Android app.

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CEFR Placement Tests for 10 Languages to Measure Your Proficiency

Now that you know what the CEFR is, let’s look at the exams you can take for each language to get certified.

French: DELF, DALF

Here are the two primary CEFR placement exams for French:

  • DELF: Diplôme d’études en langue française (Diploma of French-language studies)
  • DALF: Diplôme approfondi de langue française (Advanced diploma in French language)

Let’s look at some of their characteristics:

  • No prerequisites. Anyone who wants to take the DELF or DALF exams can. You don’t need to go to a certain school, read a particular text or meet any other prerequisites.
  • Registration is face-to-face. Registration must be done in person at the examination center. At this time, there’s no remote alternative—not even online. You can find approved examination centers in France and elsewhere in the world. Be sure to check the calendar for the available exam dates in your area. (If you’re taking the test outside France, you must select your local examination center first.)
  • Unlimited retakes. There are no limits on how many times you can take these exams. You can retake them as many times as you need to pass.
  • Your diploma never expires. You hold the diploma for life once you’ve passed the DELF or DALF. You never need to retake the exams or do anything to renew the validity of your results.
  • The DALF exams cover CEFR levels C1 & C2, picking up where the DELF exams leave off. These are the highest levels of proficiency described by the CEFR framework.
  • DALF is for adults only. Unlike many of the DELF exams, the DALF tests are designed to be taken by adult learners.

The Alliance Française is the leading international organization promoting the French language and culture, with 800+ centers worldwide in 130 countries.

To pass, you must get at least 50 out of 100 points, with no section score lower than 5 out of 25.

German: Goethe-Zertifikat, TestDaF

There are two German proficiency exams, the Goethe-Zertifikat and the Test Deutsch als Fremdsprache (TestDaF).

The Goethe Zertifikat A1 is often used to prove language ability when applying for a spousal visa, while the TestDaFmay be required by a German company interested in bringing you on board.

1. Goethe-Zertifikat (A1 – C2)

The Goethe-Zertifikat (Goethe Certificate) used to be called the “Zertifikat Deutsch.” The Goethe-Institut, which has 160 centers worldwide and the HQ in Munich, adopted the new name around May 2013.

Here’s what you need to know about it:

  • Levels correspond with the CEFR. Each Goethe-Zertifikat corresponds to a level of the CEFR. You can use this German-language self-assessment tool to get an idea of which Goethe-Zertifikat test you should take.
  • Age limits. Goethe-Zertifikat levels A1 through B1 can be administered to both young people and adults. However, the B2 through C2 levels are for adults only.
  • Accessibility resources. Test prep resources include practice materials for those with low vision or other special testing needs.

2. TestDaFTest Deutsch als Fremdsprache (B2 to C1)

Here’s what you need to know about the TestDAF (Test of German as a Foreign Language):

  • Skills, not levels. TestDaF is a single exam that assesses your CEFR level from B2 to C1, based on the skills you demonstrate with listening, speaking and writing modalities. To find out if you’re ready to take the TestDaF exam, try this brief skills check.
  • Test locally. You don’t need to travel to Germany to take the TestDaF—you can probably do it much closer to home, no matter where else you live.
  • Go to school or go pro. TestDaF is used for foreign students who wish to study in German undergraduate or graduate programs. All undergraduate and graduate schools in Germany accept the TestDaF as proof of your German proficiency. Although its primary focus is academic, TestDaF can also assess your readiness for German-language career opportunities. (An alternative exam for business professionals is the adaptive Goethe-Test Pro.)
  • TestDaF is forever. Once you’ve passed the TestDaF, you will not need to renew it or retake it. Your TestDaF certificate will never expire. And you can take the TestDaF exam as often as you’d like to achieve your desired score.

Spanish: DELE, SIELE

There are two Spanish proficiency exams: the DELE and SIELE.

1. DELEDiplomas de Español como Lengua Extranjera (A1 to C2)

Here’s what you need to know about the DELE (Diplomas of Spanish as a Foreign Language):

  • All varieties of Spanish offered. The DELE accommodates all varieties of Spanish, especially starting at the B1 level. So whichever style of Spanish you learned, you can have it fairly tested through the DELE exam.
  • Direct correspondence to the CEFR. The six DELE test levels are matched directly to the six proficiency levels defined by the CEFR. Use this handy assessment grid to see which of the six DELE exams would suit you best.
  • Unconditional registration. There used to be several requirements for taking the DELE. For example, candidates could not be native Spanish speakers or have had Spanish as a primary language. This all changed in November 2015. Now, anyone who wants to can register for the DELE exams—including native Spanish speakers.
  • Test for any purpose. Both schools and employers use the test to assess Spanish-language proficiency, so it benefits both students and workers.
  • No expiration date. The DELE certification never expires and is recognized throughout the world.
  • DELE exams are still taken on paper. They’re administered in over a thousand test centers worldwide, in over 100 countries. If you’re taking the test in Spain, you can register online. However, you must register in person at the test center if you’re taking it in another country.
  • Allow 12 weeks for delivery of test results. Exam results are sent to candidates via email three months after the exam date. Instituto Cervantes grades the exams, and candidates can also see their certification through a secure online portal.

The Instituto Cervantes (Cervantes Institute) was created in Spain in 1991. It has over 50 centers worldwide, with the HQ in Madrid.

To pass the DELE, you must pass each subsection of your exam (reading, listening, writing and speaking).

Here are some free resources to help you prepare for the DELE:

2. SIELE: Servicio Internacional de Evaluación de la Lengua Española

Introduced in 2015, the SIELE (International Evaluation Service for the Spanish Language) is similar to the DELE—with the significant difference that the SIELE is administered on a computer.

While SIELE assesses candidates based on the six CEFR proficiency levels, it uses one adaptive test.

Skills are tested in five different categories (each explained below with a video summary):

Listening comprehension

Reading comprehension

Written expression & interaction

Spoken expression & interaction

Here’s what else you need to know:

  • Online registration. Registration is online, no matter where you take the test. Like the DELE, the SIELE is administered in official examination centers around the globe. You’ll receive your results electronically within three weeks—as opposed to the three-month waiting period for results from the traditional DELE.
  • All varieties of Spanish offered. From the beginning, the SIELE was designed to cover all types of Spanish, regardless of which variety the candidate speaks.
  • Choosing your SIELE Exam. You can go gourmet with the SIELE Global Exam which uses all assessment modalities (reading, writing, speaking and listening). Or try the à la carte model with the Independent Modalities (S1 through S4). The S1 through S4 tests measure your performance in various combinations of the assessment modalities. There’s even a newer S5 option that covers Written Expression & Interaction and Spoken Expression & Interaction. Depending on why you’re taking the SIELE exam, just one of these combinations might cover every skill set you need.
  • Don’t forget to renew. Unlike the DELE—which is permanently valid—the SIELE certification you earn will need to be renewed every five years.

You can use these free resources to practice for the SIELE exam:

English: TOEFL​, TOEIC​, IELTS​​

There are three major CEFR placement tests for the English language:

  • TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). The TOEFL exam is intended for the evaluation of non-native speakers. It corresponds to the CEFR levels, starting with the Speaking and Writing components of level A2.
  • TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication). The TOEIC assesses the English-language skills of speakers who use English to communicate with people from many countries. Like the TOEFL, scores on the TOEIC use the CEFR levels.
  • IELTS (International English Language Testing System). IELTS is accepted largely by academic institutions in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK, plus a few thousand schools in the United States. It’s also used for visa and immigration purposes in Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Its scoring doesn’t match directly with the CEFR levels, but reference materials are available to help you understand the correlation of IELTS scores to the CEFR.

Cambridge English certifies English learners and has for over 100 years. Over 20,000 organizations recognize their seal of approval.

Cambridge English, working closely with the Council of Europe, participated in developing the CEFR levels.

Their available exams test the four core language competencies and include:

You can check out this page on their website to find a Cambridge English exam center.

Italian: CILS, CELI

There are two major Italian proficiency exams: the CILS and the CELI. There are many online resources you can use to prepare.

1. CILS (Certificazione di Italiano come Lingua Straniera)

The CILS (Certification of Italian as a Foreign Language) exam is administered at the Università per Stranieri di Siena (Foreigners University in Siena).

Corresponding roughly to the CEFR levels, it’s accepted by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and helps visitors gain admittance to Italian universities:

  • CILS A1 = CEFR A1
  • CILS A2 = CEFR A2
  • CILS Uno = CEFR B1
  • CILS Due = CEFR B2
  • CILS Tre = CEFR C1
  • CILS Quattro = CEFR C2

2. CELI (Certificato di Conoscenza della Lingua Italiana)

The CELI (Certificate of Knowledge of the Italian Language) is administered by the Università per Stranieri di Perugia (Foreigners University in Perugia).

Like the CILS exam, it’s considered an official qualification by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and can be used to qualify for study in Italian institutes of higher education.

The Italian Ministry of Education and Research also accepts the CELI.

You can take the CELI exam at test centers throughout the world. Like the CILS, it matches up to CEFR levels:

  • CELI Impatto = CEFR A1
  • CELI 1 = CEFR A2
  • CELI 2 = CEFR B1
  • CELI 3 = CEFR B2
  • CELI 4 = CEFR C1
  • CELI 5 = CEFR C2

Here’s a list of the schools that can administer the CELI exam.

Depending on the level, exams may be composed of reading, writing, listening, speaking and/or grammar sections.

Russian: TRKI/​TORFL

The TRKI—or, Тест по русскому языку как иностранному—corresponds to the CEFR as follows:

  • CEFR A1 = TRKI/TORFL Elementary
  • CEFR A2 = TRKI/TORFL Preliminary
  • CEFR B1 = TRKI/TORFL 1st Certificate
  • CEFR B2 = TRKI/TORFL 2nd Certificate
  • CEFR C1 = TRKI/TORFL 3rd Certificate
  • CEFR C2 = TRKI/TORFL 4th Certificate

The exam is known in English as TORFL, or “Test of Russian as a Foreign Language.”

(European) Portuguese: CAPLE

The CAPLE or Centro de Avaliacao de Portugues Lingua Estrangeira (Center for the Evaluation of Portuguese as a Foreign Language) administers a series of five tests corresponding to the CEFR A2–C2 levels:

  • CEFR A2 = CIPLE (Initial Certificate of Portuguese as a Foreign Language)
  • CEFR B1 = DEPLE (Elementary Diploma of Portuguese as a Foreign Language)
  • CEFR B2 = DIPLE (Intermediate Diploma of Portuguese as a Foreign Language)
  • CEFR C1 = DAPLE (Advanced Diploma of Portuguese as a Foreign Language)
  • CEFR C2 = DUPLE (University Diploma of Portuguese as a Foreign Language)

Japanese: JLPT

Japanese speakers can test their fluency with the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).

Following the Japan Foundation standard, the JLPT uses six levels of “can-do” statements to correspond to the CEFR standards. If you want to test yourself first, try this online self-evaluation.

There are five levels, with Level N5 being the lowest and N1 being the highest:

  • JLPT N5
  • JLPT N4
  • JLPT N3
  • JLPT N2
  • JLPT N1

Korean: TOPIK​

The TOPIK (Test of Proficiency in Korean) exam basically mirrors the CEFR standards:

  • TOPIK I = CEFR Levels A1-A2
  • TOPIK II = CEFR Levels B1-C2

TOPIK results can be used for secondary school admissions in Korea. The test is also used for immigration purposes and is a qualifying factor for career opportunities (including teaching).

Chinese: HSK

The HSK Exam (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi) from the Confucius Institute—known in English as the “Chinese Proficiency Test” or the “Chinese Standard Exam”—doesn’t correspond precisely to CEFR standards.

However, the Hanban agency—which administers the test—has tried to make it as similar as possible, with levels starting at HSK Level 1.

There used to be only six HSK levels, but as of November 2022, there are now nine. However, the HSK Level 7-9 is one test, rather than three individual tests.

The levels are roughly as follows:

  • HSK Level 1 (Beginner)
  • HSK Level 2 (Beginner)
  • HSK Level 3 (Beginner)
  • HSK Level 4 (Intermediate)
  • HSK Level 5 (Intermediate)
  • HSK Level 6 (Intermediate)
  • HSK Level 7-9 (Advanced)

Why Should Language Learners Care About the CEFR?

It’s recognized globally

In a word: ubiquity. The CEFR has been adopted and recognized all across Europe and beyond.

Many standardized tests (like the TOEFL, TOEIC and IELTS) have used the linguistic competency descriptions provided in the framework and even have equivalency guides.

For example, a TOEFL score of 110-120 would be equivalent to CEFR’s C1.

Even non-European countries have begun aligning their standardized test scores to the European framework.

Studying abroad

CEFR language placement tests can qualify you to study as a foreign exchange student at overseas secondary schools.

No matter where you come from or how long you studied, the results of these standardized tests will reassure the admissions officers at your chosen school that you have the linguistic chops to keep up with their programs.

Working in another country

If working overseas appeals to you, taking a CEFR placement test could be the ticket to winning your dream job.

Many businesses use CEFR as a standard to measure language proficiency.

If you meet the business’s standards via standardized testing and have the other needed qualifications for the job, you could be well on your way to a rewarding career in the foreign country of your choice.

Assessing your learning level

Sometimes, figuring out how fluent or proficient you are isn’t easy.

You might breeze through the daily news reports in Le Monde (The World) but you’re hard-pressed to get through a contemporary novel.

CEFR placement tests can help you assess your language levels realistically, measuring your performance in several different skill sets.

These tests will give you an objective evaluation of your language skills—so you can see where you need to improve and get a better idea of how to focus your efforts.

Once you have the official report from your CEFR placement tests, you can use tools like language learning trackers to keep yourself on target.

 

Now you know the different levels of the CEFR and some recognized institutions that can certify your linguistic ability.

Now you just need to start studying! 

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