The Unabbreviated Guide to the CEFR: The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages

At your cafe table, you hear somebody nearby bragging.

“Oh me, I’m slightly fluent in German.”

You were minding your own business. Taking pictures of your latte, hoping that one of the pictures is worthy of your prestigious Instagram account.

You try to ignore that braggart and take a sip from your rapidly cooling cup.

But you’re a little bit jealous.

Then you start wondering:

“Well, what does that even mean? What do they mean by slightly fluent?”

“Does that mean they can only be slightly understood by native German speakers?”

“Hey, what am I doing sniffing in other people’s business?”

Your questions really reflect the basic problems with describing or measuring linguistic ability.

First, it’s very hard to quantify what we’re talking about, and second, we don’t even have a standard of quantifying how good one is in a language.

Well, at least that was all true before the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) entered the picture. Thanks to the CEFR, we now have a standard, a yardstick—or “meterstick,” if you will—that we can use to gauge language ability.

But what is the CEFR, exactly? And what does it have to do with you as a language learner?

In this article we’ll break down the bureaucracy and shine some light on everything you need to know about the CEFR, including a description of the different levels and a look at some institutions where you can take CEFR-compliant proficiency exams.

There’s a lot to cover so let’s begin.

The Unabbreviated Guide to the CEFR: The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages

What in the World Is the CEFR?

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. Ooooh. Sounds so cold and official, doesn’t it?

The CEFR is the brainchild of the Council of Europe. The Council of Europe, not to be confused with the European Union, is the continent’s oldest intergovernmental body. It’s presently composed of 48 member states and is headquartered in Strasbourg, France. One of the council’s aims is to promote Europe’s cultural identity and diversity.

The Council of Europe, together with stakeholders, leading language teaching institutions and subject matter experts, sought to create a standard way of describing language proficiency. In 2001, after years of research and study, the Council published a framework that now serves as a recognized standard. They came up with six proficiency levels, each with a specific set of indicators.

The CEFR proficiency levels are A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2. The higher the number and the letter, the higher your proficiency. To know your CEFR level in a language, you simply have to take a test from a recognized institution. Later on, we’ll talk about what exactly these levels mean, so if a person says she’s a B2 in French, for example, you’ll know exactly what she’s talking about.

Why Should a Language Learner Understand How the CEFR Works?

In a word: ubiquity. The CEFR has been adopted and recognized all across Europe and beyond. Many of the standardized tests like the TOEFL, TOEIC and IELTS have made use of the linguistic competency descriptions provided in the framework, and actually have equivalent scores in the CEFR. 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. For example, the HSK Chinese proficiency test states that their scores between HSK 1 and HSK 6 correspond to CEFR’s ratings from A1 to C2.

More than a mere badge of honor or a legitimate bragging right, your CEFR test results can be used to prove your competency in the language. For example, when looking for jobs overseas, some companies might require you possess certain language skills to qualify. In the performance of your duties, you might need to speak a foreign language well enough to understand and be understood by your colleagues. What’s the point of being a brilliant engineer if you can’t tell your boss, “Umm, dude, the bridge isn’t straight” in French?

Another common scenario: if you want to pursue advanced studies in Europe, they’ll want to make sure that you can follow the lectures and possess the linguistic competence to complete all the requirements. So a CEFR certification might be required by the university admissions office.

Let’s now look at the six levels and what linguistic abilities they entail.

The Different CEFR Reference Levels

First of all, we need to understand that the CEFR involves various linguistic skills: writing, listening, speaking and reading. So a person might be at different levels for the different language areas. For example, you might be considered a B2 in reading, but only a B1 in speaking.

The descriptions for each level are for “communicative competence”—how well you’re able to understand and be understood by others. So here we’re not talking about just vocabulary size. The CEFR levels are directed really at how well you’re able to get your point across and achieve your communicative goal.

As mentioned before, there are three broad levels, A, B and C, with each level further subdivided into two.

Generally, here are the marks and indicators for the different reference levels:

A1 and A2 (Basic)

A1 – “Breakthrough”

At “A0,” you have no prior experience with the target language. Getting to “A1” means you have become familiar with some very basic expressions and phrases. For English learners, this would be phrases like Hi, Bye, Good morning and Goodbye.

In this first level, 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 A1, you can carry on very basic “first meeting” conversations as long as the person you’re talking with is willing to help and speaks very clearly and slowly, taking the time to repeat and enunciate the words individually as necessary, without using any slang, idioms or colloquial expressions.

A2 – “Waystage”

In this level, you’re able to go deeper into the “first meeting” conversations and will now be able to ask and answer questions like:

  • What is your father’s job?
  • What are your hobbies?
  • What is your job?

This stage is still about the basic and routine exchange of information, but you’re now slowly able to go into more personal information beyond your name and age. You can now say more about your background, albeit still in very simple terms.

B1 and B2 (Independent)

B1 – “Threshold”

This is the minimum level that travelers and tourists would want to reach in order to competently navigate a foreign land. In this stage, you’re now able to figure out the main points of a sentence or other input. You may still not understand every word the other guy is saying, but now you have an educated grasp of what’s being talked about.

You’re also able to communicate with native speakers about your thoughts and intentions. You can give reasons, opinions and plans. Your output may not always be grammatically sound, but native speakers listening to you will get the gist of what you’re talking about and respond appropriately.

B2 – “Vantage”

In this second level of “B,” there’s now some degree of spontaneity in your communication, and the strain of understanding and being understood slowly begins to fade. As you get plenty of practice, you’re able to get into new topics because that’s where the interaction naturally leads to, not because you planned and rehearsed them in your head.

You’re also able to handle increasingly complex topics, even abstract and technical ones. For example, not only can you give your own opinions, but now you can also go deeper into the discussion by mentioning the advantages and disadvantages of options and choices.

C1 and C2 (Proficient)

C1 – “Effective Operational Proficiency”

When you get into the “C” territory, you’re really able to start playing with the language.

You communicate with ease and flexibility, using well-structured sentences and paragraphs. You’re able to organize your thoughts without consciously searching for specific words or expressions. They begin to simply “flow” through you.

You also recognize implied meaning and use idiomatic and colloquial expressions, which add layers and texture to your communication.

At this stage, you’re able to hold your own with native speakers, whether you’re in a social, professional or academic setting.

C2 – “Mastery”

This is the stage where you understand practically everything thrown your way. You easily restructure, repackage and summarize information. You can express in another manner any form of communication, 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 this stage, you’re able to say or express exactly what you want to.

You now might be asking yourself, “So how do I find out what level I’m at?”

You take a test.

Where? That depends on the language you’re studying.

Where Can I Get “Certified”?

Different languages have different certifying and testing institutions. Here are some prominent ones for five of the most commonly spoken languages in Europe.

French (Alliance Française)

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

The university or company you’re applying for might require you to take the DELF—Diplôme d’Études en Langue Française (Diploma in French Language Studies) or the DALF—Diplôme Approfondi en Langue Française (Advanced Diploma in French Language). The DELF tests for A1 to B2 proficiency, while the DALF, the more advanced of the two, tests for C1 and C2.

They both test the four language skills: listening, reading, writing, speaking. Each section has 25 points, for a total of 100 points. In order to pass, you must get at least 50 out of 100, with no section scored lower than 5 out of 25. That means if you score a “4” or lower for any of the sections, you won’t pass, even if you get excellent grades for all the other remaining sections.

German (Goethe Institut)

Founded in 1951 and headquartered in Munich, Germany, the Goethe Institut is the leading advocate of the German language and culture. The nonprofit organization, named after the poet and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, has about 160 centers worldwide.

Like the Alliance Française, it offers German language education and testing for anyone who wants to have their German certified. The exams correspond to the six levels laid out by the CEFR.

So for example, if you take the “Goethe Zertifikat A1” (an exam often used as proof of language ability when applying for a spousal visa), you’re expected to be familiar with the most common German expressions, as well as conduct very basic German interactions as outlined in the CEFR.

You can earn a Goethe Zertifikat for all levels between A1 and C2.

Another way of proving your linguistic competence is by taking the TestDaF. This is an exam which covers B2-C1 material and which is recognized by practically all German educational and research institutions. Companies may also require it for employment.

The TestDaF gauges your different language skills separately. You’ll be tested on Reading Comprehension (60 minutes), Listening Comprehension (40 minutes), Writing (60 minutes) and Speaking (35 minutes). If you pass the exam, you’ll be given a grade of either TDN 3 (CEFR: B2), TDN 4 (CEFR: strong B2 to C1) or TDN 5 (CEFR: strong C1). The higher the number, the better. Failing the TestDaF means your skills are still Unter TDN 3″ (Under TDN 3).

Spanish (Instituto de Cervantes)

The Instituto de Cervantes, like the previous two institutions, aims to promote language and culture around the world. It was created in Spain in 1991 through a law which also gave its marching orders to bolster the study and use of the Spanish language, and to engage in activities that promote Spanish culture.

Headquartered in Madrid, the Instituto Cervantes does its good work in over 50 centers around the world.

If you’re interested in Spanish, you can enroll in the classes they offer for different levels. If you want to be certified in Spanish, you’ll have to take the DELE or the Diplomas de Español como Lengua Extranjera (Diplomas of Spanish as a Foreign Language).

You can pick from any of the six DELE test levels, which correspond to the standards set forth in the CEFR. The difficulty and duration of the examination depends on the level you’re gunning for, but expect to be tested on your reading, listening, writing and speaking. In order to pass the DELE, you’ll have to pass each of its subsections. So for example, you may have near perfect reading skills, but if you fall below the standard in speaking, you’ll still fail the exam.

The test results take about three months because they still have to be validated by the University of Salamanca. But the good news is that test results never expire and are perpetually valid.

Italian (Università per Stranieri di Perugia)

Established in 1921, the Università per Stranieri di Perugia (University for Foreigners in Perugia) is the oldest of its kind—a university dedicated to the study of Italian language and culture, welcoming foreign students the world over. The school’s motto, “Ambassador of Italy in the World,” reflects its mission of spreading the beautiful Italian language and culture internationally.

The university therefore has the duty to design and conduct the examinations to test and certify a person’s competence in Italian. The certificate is called CELI or Certificato di Conoscenza della Lingua Italiana (Certificate of Knowledge of the Italian Language).

There are six CELI exams, again corresponding to the CEFR: CELI Impatto (A1), CELI 1 (A2), CELI 2 (B1), CELI 3 (B2), CELI 4 (C1) and CELI 5 (C2).

The most difficult is CELI 5, which is composed of Reading Comprehension (20%), Writing (30%), Grammar (10%), Listening Comprehension (15%), Speaking (25%). The whole CELI 5 exam can be completed in just under five hours. In comparison, the CELI 1 can be finished in two and half hours.

English (Cambridge English)

For over a hundred years, Cambridge English has been providing training and certifications to English language learners around the world. Their seal of approval is recognized by over 20,000 organizations. Their exams align with CEFR levels.

More than align, actually. Cambridge English, working closely with the Council of Europe, were competent partners and participants in the development of the CEFR levels themselves. So know that with Cambridge English, you’re in expert hands.

Their most popular assessment is the FCE (First Certificate in English) which is equivalent to B2. You can choose whether to take the paper-based or computer-based exam, both of which take three and a half hours.

The next exams in the totem pole are the CAE (Certificate in Advanced English) and CPE (Certificate of Proficiency in English) which correspond to the C1 and C2 levels of the CEFR, respectively. Like all of the exams mentioned here, they test the four core language competencies: listening, reading, writing and speaking.

Now you hopefully understand what the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages is all about. You know the different levels and what they mean in actual practice, and know some of the recognized institutions that can certify your linguistic ability. Now you just need to start studying!

Good luck!

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