Wish you could actually see your French improving?
Then you need to get familiar with these four little letters:
If you’ve been in the French language learning world for long, then you’ve probably heard of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).
Oh là là isn’t that a mouthful!?
For those who aren’t too familiar with it, here’s the quick pitch.
What Is the CEFR?
The CEFR is the standardized system for measuring language proficiency across Europe. Consisting of six reference levels, it’s one of the best tools to help both you fabulous learners and your lovely teachers know how strong your French is.
The reference levels are divided into three groups, with two levels per group:
- Basic User (A1 and A2)
- Independent User (B1 and B2)
- Proficient User (C1 and C2)
For each of the six levels, skills are broken down into three categories:
- Understanding (listening and reading)
- Speaking (spoken interaction and spoken production)
I know this is a lot to take in, so if you’re in need of a laugh at this point, I wouldn’t blame you!
When you’re assessed at a specific level, it’s generally a combination of these three categories. If you’re interested in learning more about skills required by level, check out this handy DIY table and try to figure out where you belong.
Once you’re confident you’ve completed all the steps necessary for a given level, take the assessment test for that particular level. For levels A1-B2, you’ll take the DELF exam. And for levels C1 and C2, it’s the DALF exam. Passing these tests can be particularly useful in both professional and academic contexts, not to mention they’re a great study motivator to keep you on track. If that sounds good to you, find out more about the tests or locate an exam center near you.
My CEFR French Level Success Story
Moi, I spent part of my summer trying to improve my CEFR level during an immersion program in the south of France. Two weeks and a lot of study later (okay and a lot of rosé, too), I nearly jumped for joy during my final evaluation when I found out that all my work had paid off and I’d actually improved quite significantly.
So how did I do it? Is that type of quick learning something that I think can only be achieved at an immersion program in Provence? Absolutely not! In fact, if you’re ready to take the plunge with your own at-home immersion, here are some great resources to get you started.
That being said, I do think the type of immersion that I did provides a great framework for learning how to study French, which is an art form in itself. Above all, it requires tackling this beautiful and sometimes infuriating language from all angles: in the classroom, in the real world, in your social life.
But that’s not all there is to it. Beyond the locations, it’s the diversity of what you study that will really move you into the awesome progress category. Remember those skills categories we just talked about above? This is where they come into play.
Take Your French to the Next CEFR Level
As you study French and work to balance all the parts of your study, it’s important not to lose sight of the big picture. But when I talk about the big picture, what does that even mean? Consider, for a moment, that your French is like Julia Child’s famous boeuf bourguignon (Can you tell it’s almost dinner time here?). I can tell you from experience that this is not the simplest of beef stews.
There are a variety of ingredients, many of which need their own special preparation before they can be added to the main stew. But if you get lazy and start adding ingredients without preparing them properly, the dish is simply not going to be as good. It’s the same thing with your French practice. If you neglect certain skills, your overall level of French likely won’t be as good as it otherwise could be.
We’re going to review these six skills below in more detail, but here they are so you know what I’m talking about:
- Understanding — Listening
- Understanding — Reading
You will then use these skills to create a manageable routine. To really progress, you need to practice each skill every single week. I know it seems like a lot, but I think you’ll find that it’s worth it once you begin to see how quickly your language skills improve.
Start by taking a good hard look at your life and decide how many hours a week of French study is reasonable for you. If you don’t know where you’ll find the time, watch this video and then revisit your plan. Make French study your rock or pebbles; it needs to come before the sand in your life. That said, since we also tend to overestimate what we can do in the short-term, consider starting smaller. You can always increase the hours in future weeks.
Whatever number of weekly hours you decide on, use the percentages below to block that time on your calendar and stick to it. If you’re visual, color-code each skill and make sure you’re seeing all six colors every week. Try not overthink it and just get started. I promise it’s really much easier than you think.
You can always make adjustments as you go, and be sure to stay flexible when something unexpected comes up. (When this happens, the best thing you can do is to never miss two days in a row.)
So let’s review the skills now in detail.
How to Boost 6 Essential French Skills and Graduate to the Next CEFR Level
All together, these are the skills that should make up your regular French practice. While they’re each important for making you into a balanced student, some require more weekly study time than others.
To help you create your perfect study routine, I’ve broken out each of the skills below and provided suggestions and resources for practicing each of them. In addition, there are recommended weekly time commitment percentages. While these are only guidelines, they should be a useful starting point for you.
If you want to combine the techniques below with tutoring from a qualified teacher, check out coLanguage. They offer flexible one-on-one lessons over Skype that are already set up to align with the CEFR standards, so they can definitely help you work on your level.
The great thing about grammar is just how easy it is to practice at home. To make the most of your study time, try to go through a handful of exercises each time you sit down to study grammar. That way you won’t just be staring at charts of conjugations and sentence constructions, but will be actively putting your skills to work.
Start with the topics you’re most familiar with, and work out from there. The resources below provide some great exercises at a variety of levels, so you should be able to find something suited to your exact ability.
If you decide to practice concepts you’re less familiar with, start by reviewing them in more detail so you’ll be successful when you do the exercises. To do this, I recommend taking a look at About.com. When I’ve forgotten something important, or maybe didn’t even know it in the first place, I find it’s a great resource for that quick burst of information that I’m looking for.
Weekly time commitment: 20%
- Interactive activities by Carmen Vera Pérez — Interactive French grammar exercises organized by level and category; all in French.
- ortholud.com — French grammar exercises, plus spelling, conjugation, dictation, vocabulary, reading and games.
- La Conjugaison — Verb conjugator, grammar exercises, French dictionary and thesaurus, FLE rubrics and more.
Just like grammar, pronunciation is easy to practice on your own with a variety of exercises that will help you better understand the various sounds of the French language.
For each pronunciation practice, try to focus on mastering a particular sound. You can start by just listening to the exercises, but then also try to repeat aloud what you’re hearing so you can familiarize yourself with how each sound is correctly said.
If you’re looking for something slightly more complex, work on the exercises that combine multiple skills or require you to do things like create liaisons. You can also record yourself speaking and play it play it back to see how your pronunciation is coming along.
Weekly time commitment: 10%
- Phonétique — Listening exercises for isolated vowel and consonant sounds.
- AlphaLire — Incredibly helpful charts with audio and related exercises for the different sounds in French.
- Les sons français — Learn the French sounds in ten step-by-step lessons.
3. Understanding — Listening
Being able to properly understand spoken French is so important, but can often be really challenging because no two people speak exactly alike. That’s why you need to start exposing yourself to as many different French voices as possible. By doing that, you’ll become acclimated to not only regional accents, but also to more subtle shifts in pacing and intonation that you might otherwise miss.
News clips provide great practice, and the resources below will give you the latest news. To start, I’d encourage you to listen to a news story (without the script, if one is provided) and just start noting all the important points as you’re listening. Once you’ve finished, listen to the report a second time and see if you can catch anything else.
Now, try to figure out the basics of the story—could you explain to someone else the who, what, when, where and why of the story? If there’s a script, now’s the time to take a peek and see what you missed. Looking for more formal exercises at your exact level? Try TV5MONDE (below) for a wide selection of exercises just for listening comprehension.
Weekly time commitment: 20%
- RFI Savoirs — 77 audios about French life and culture for French language learners, and more.
- TV5MONDE — Listening exercises (and more) from public French TV channel TV5MONDE.
- France 2 — News in French (video) from channel 2.
- France 3 — News in French (video) from channel 3.
- French Today — For more structured listening practice, French Today’s lessons and audiobooks offer hours of material for different levels and needs. They focus on teaching practical French (French the way it’s actually spoken), and with their lessons, you’ll be able to learn new vocabulary and grammar while improving your listening at the same time.
4. Understanding — Reading
Continually improving your reading comprehension means always looking for new and interesting material. For this, I suggest turning to one of France’s many newspapers.
Each time you sit down to practice your reading comprehension, try reading through an article (or portion of an article, depending on your level and its length). While you’re reading, go ahead and underline the words you don’t know. Once you’ve made it to the end, go back and try to figure out what those words meant. If you can’t figure it out, now’s the time to look them up.
Just like you did for the listening comprehension, work on figuring out the who, what, when, where and why of the story. Now for extra credit, write a summary recapping what you just learned.
Weekly time commitment: 20%
When it comes to seriously improving your French, nothing can replace having a regular conversation with a native speaker. While this might seem like a challenge depending on where you live, I promise that it’s possible, as long as you have an Internet connection and a little motivation.
If you’ve never tried one, conversation exchanges are a super fun way to practice your French while also helping someone who is trying to learn English. One of the most amazing global resources that I’ve found for locating conversation partners is Conversation Exchange. Just sign up and you’ll have access to Francophones from all over the world just dying to learn English and help you learn French. You can schedule conversations in person or over Skype or other video services, and off you go!
Try to have one or two conversations a week to greatly improve your French. Keep the conversations going for at least an hour, divided evenly between both languages. If you’d like, you can also come up with some specific topics in advance, or at least choose something you’d like to practice (like incorporating the subjunctive, or telling a story). If you’d like your conversation partner to correct your mistakes, ask them to. Depending on where you live, you might also find local events through sites like Meetup or your local Alliance Française.
In need of a few expressions to liven up your conversations? Check these out!
Weekly time commitment: 20%
While for some people writing is slightly less important than the other categories, don’t underestimate the value of putting pen to paper. I cannot even count the number of times I knew exactly what to say in a conversation, only to realize that when I tried to write out nearly the same thing, half of it was spelled wrong. Those darn accent marks!
If you’re looking for a great resource for getting feedback on your writing, Lang-8 is your website. Once you sign up, you can submit posts in French for native speakers to correct and give back to you. And in return, all you have to do is correct the writing of someone trying to learn English. Talk about the ultimate linguistic karma! To keep up the learning, try to submit a short (~150 words) post every week.
Another fabulous way to practice your writing is with a good old-fashioned pen pal. Just search on Conversation Exchange to find your new friend, and let the letter writing begin. Write each letter half in English and half in French, or write one letter entirely in French and the next in English if you find it’s more helpful for both of you.
Either way, try to stick with at least one letter each week. To make it even more useful, offer to correct your penpal’s English if he or she will correct your French. And remember, your topics don’t always need to be fancy. As long as you’re writing about things that are important to you, there’s no doubt the work will be useful for your study.
Weekly time commitment: 10%
- Lang-8 — Exchange community where native speakers correct your writing.
- Conversation Exchange — Site for finding a french pen pal.
- WordReference.com — Excellent French/English dictionary, which includes forums with native French speakers.
- Larousse — French/French dictionary; push yourself to start using this French-only dictionary to help level up.
A Final Thought
Just as grades are useful for showing us our progress and understanding, CEFR levels can help us understand and improve our weaknesses with the French language. But they are not everything. The thing about learning a language and using it regularly is that sometimes it comes out of our mouths sounding amazing, and other times we feel less eloquent than a toddler.
I think it’s just the nature of the brain. Even when I speak English, I have days when I can present my thoughts clearly, and other days when things come out a bit murky.
So I guess what I’m trying to say is to use the CEFR levels as a guide, because they can be incredibly useful for that purpose, but don’t worry if you don’t feel like your level is the perfect representation of where you’re at every single day. Because at the end of the day, all that matters is that you keep at it and enjoy the language.
With that, I bid you bon courage!
Jamie Walters is a freelance writer and the owner of Pure Paris, a travel planning company that provides personalized daily itineraries to help travelers see Paris like a local. Originally from Seattle, she and her husband now live in Paris, where they have immersed themselves in la vie Parisienne.
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