How Language Skill Levels Are Classified by Different Systems

Classifications may seem kind of stuffy.

Nerdy, even.

But they’re super important.

They’re used to distinguish between different animal species.

They’re used to organize libraries so you can find your favorite book easily.

Heck, they’re even used to declare your relationship status on social media.

But classification doesn’t need to be some boring means of grouping similar things together. In fact, it can actually be fun, helpful and a real game changer. Especially if what you’re classifying is your language skills.

There are many classification systems that group together characteristics of certain levels of language learner. Like proficiency tests, these classification systems aim to give you an approximation of your skill level.

While most of these require a formal exam to get an official score, you can generally guess your level based on category descriptions. Not only is this fun, it’s instant gratification—it’s tremendously satisfying to have a clear idea of where your language skills rank according to a universal standard.

So it’s time to get class(ification)y with your language learning!

What Language Level Classifications Can Do for You

  • Understanding language level classifications gives you a way to describe your language proficiency. When speaking to other language learners, it can be hard to describe your skill level. Properly describing your language level is even more essential when applying for jobs that require a foreign language or trying to earn side money from your language skills.

“Beginner,” “intermediate” and “advanced” seem overly vague, and everyone will understand them differently. However, if you know levels as described by common standards, you’ll much more easily be able to convey what level you’re presently at.

  • Additionally, understanding established language levels will give you a way to understand your level of proficiency. Without guidelines, it can be difficult to guess what level you might be at. You could easily overestimate or underestimate your skills.

However, familiarizing yourself with common classifications will give you a more realistic idea of your skill level, which can help you select materials, like language learning websites and language textbooks, that are appropriate for you.

  • Finally, knowing more about level classifications will help give you direction for what you need to work on. By looking at your level and the next level up, you can see what additional skills you’ll need to level up. This gives you a clear idea of what you should work on next. A good resource to bring your skills to the next level is a program such as FluentU.

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4 Language Level Classification Systems for Savvy Learners

American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) Proficiency Guidelines

The ACTFL is an organization of language educators dedicated to improving language education. Its proficiency guidelines are designed as a clear way to classify language skills. ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines are divided between four different skills. Under ACTFL guidelines, you may very well have different levels for different skills.

To assess your skill level, you can look through each set of guidelines in the document linked above. Each level lists clear criteria for speaking, writing, listening and reading. You’ll undoubtedly notice some traits listed under each skill that clearly correspond to your own proficiency level.

Here’s a brief description of the levels:



At this level you may be able to greet people, introduce yourself or count in your target language. In reading and listening, you may also recognize a handful of words. However, you can’t do much else.


When speaking or writing, you offer only brief responses, often only a few words, and must pause frequently to consider your responses.

When reading or listening, you can pick out a few phrases.


You can ask and answer simple questions based mostly on memorized phrases.

When reading or listening, you can understand key words and phrases.



At this level, you can communicate in a limited number of straightforward situations. You can share personal information, order food and communicate other basic survival information. Your responses often show hesitation.

When speaking, there will be frequent misunderstandings.


You can handle simple, straightforward communication. You do best with very predictable conversations and contexts and may struggle with topics that are less familiar.

At this level, you can also combine words and phrases to form meaning rather than relying on memorized scripts.


You can communicate about routine, common topics. You can occasionally handle advanced tasks.



You can communicate on common topics like school, work and hobbies.

You can discuss all time frames. However, your responses are usually limited to a paragraph.

You have several grammatical issues but can usually communicate with native speakers (albeit with some difficulty).


At this level, you can communicate with ease and flow.

While your vocabulary is usually limited to generic terms, it’s relatively substantial.


You can communicate with ease and can discuss any time frame.

While you can often discuss things as well as superior learners, there are some topics you can’t discuss.

You often still have grammar and vocabulary limitations but are usually skilled at compensating for these issues.


You can communicate accurately. A few sporadic errors may still occur, but the overall meaning remains clear.

You can speak or write comfortably on a wide variety of topics.


At this level, you’re very skilled and errors are minimal.

You’re highly articulate and can communicate abstract concepts in speech or writing. You’re also able to communicate comfortably in formal or informal settings.

Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR, CEF or CEFRL)

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (which can be abbreviated CEFR, CEF or CEFRL) was developed by the Council of Europe as a method for assessing skill levels in languages across Europe. However, the framework is increasingly used outside of Europe as well.

To use the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages to your advantage, you can read through its “Can Do” statements that describe key skills (provided on page 26-27 of the document or page 35-36 of the PDF). If you answer “yes,” you may be at that level.

Keep reading the “Can Do” statements for the next level up until you answer “no” in order to determine your level.

Here’s a brief description of the levels:

A – Basic user

A1 – Breakthrough or beginner

You’re comfortable with everyday expressions.

A2 – Waystage or elementary

You’re comfortable discussing routine information and basic topics like shopping, work, etc.

B – Independent user

B1 – Threshold or intermediate

You’re able to understand main points in conversations related to common things like work, hobbies, etc. You can also communicate most basic information you would need to in a travel setting.

B2 – Vantage or upper intermediate 

You can understand some more complex, abstract topics. You can also interact comfortably with native speakers.

C – Proficient user

C1 – Effective operational proficiency or advanced

You can express yourself without having to pause frequently. You also understand longer, more complex phrases and can use your language skills in professional, academic or social situations.

C2 – Mastery or proficiency

You can communicate easily and spontaneously and can summarize information. You can also easily understand nearly anything you encounter.

Canadian Language Benchmarks (CLB)

Canadian Language Benchmarks are primarily used to assess the French and English skills of prospective immigrants to Canada. However, the helpful category breakdowns and self-assessment can help you get a better idea of what level you’re at in any language.

Canadian Language Benchmarks features 12 numbered levels divided between three stages. Like with the ACTFL Guidelines, under this classification system, you may very well be at different levels for reading, speaking, writing and listening.

Unlike with the other classification systems on this list, the levels aren’t named or sub-divided into standard levels.

To assess your level based on these standards, all you have to do is review “Can Do Statements.” When you click on the page for a specific level, you’ll see four icons that correspond to the four skills—each one will take you to a PDF with Can Do Statements and examples with images. If you find you answer “yes” to all the statements on the first level, try moving on to the second level. Once you can no longer say “yes,” you’ll know your level.

Depending on your level of proficiency, you may want to try estimating a better starting point. If you feel like you’re already at a moderately good level of communication and understanding (or higher) you may want to start around Level 5 or 6 and gauge things from there.

Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) Scale

ILR is a federal organization that focuses on language-related issues. It provides a scale to judge proficiency level. The scale is divided between six basic levels, though additional subdivision is made to indicate particularly advanced skills within each level. The scale has separate classifications for reading, writing, listening and speaking.

You can look at the scale to guess your level, but ILR also provides free self-assessment for speaking, reading and listening. You score yourself by answering basic yes or no questions about your skills.

Here are the basic categories:

0 – No Proficiency

At the lowest level of this classification, you have no proficiency. Higher levels have memorized some words or phrases.

1 – Elementary Proficiency

You can read and write simple text. You can also understand and use survival phrases and hold very basic conversations with native speakers.

2 – Limited Working Proficiency

You can get the gist of text, though you might not know all the words. You can also write basic material, but you might have to rephrase things to make up for limited vocabulary. Additionally, you can engage in limited social or work-related conversations.

3 – General Professional Proficiency

You can understand written material, even on unfamiliar topics. You can also write formally or informally on a wide variety of topics. While you may still have some errors, you can hold conversations and communicate professionally.

4 – Advanced Professional Proficiency

In reading and listening, you can understand nuance. In writing and speaking, mistakes are rare.

5 – Functionally Native Proficiency

At this level, you’re similarly proficient to a well-educated native speaker in all areas.


Whether you’re looking to describe your language level, boost your skills or simply have a nerdy good time, look no further than these language level classification systems! 

And One More Thing...

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With FluentU, you'll learn real languages—as they're spoken by native speakers. FluentU has a wide variety of videos as you can see here:

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You can learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU's "learn mode." Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.

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