Do you remember that “Kids in the Hall” skit about the shopkeeper who speaks no English?
If you don’t, feel free to take a peek. I’ll wait.
Oh, good! You’re back.
You can imagine the frustration of the young man who just wanted to buy a pair of shoes, only to be told—quite eloquently—that his would-be interlocutor didn’t understand a word he said.
While such an articulate expression of ignorance is rare, it’s not uncommon for language learners to feel chagrined when trying to describe our fluency.
Fortunately, there’s no need to stay in the morass of uncertainty.
Thanks to the efforts of the Council of Europe, we can now attain a standardized measure of our proficiency in a host of languages—in Europe and beyond.
So let’s see how you can use these tests as motivation to grow your fluency and get results!
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CEFR: A Standard for Standardized Tests
Great moments in linguistic history: How it all began
So, just what is the CEFR? How did it come about?
Nearly thirty years ago, the Council of Europe decided to create an official framework for measuring language proficiency. Developed throughout the 1990s, the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) laid out standards for language proficiency at six different levels, based upon an individual’s skills in four areas of communication: listening, reading, speaking and writing.
The culmination of decades of linguistic research, the CEFR created a standard to be used not only for language education, but also to help language learners—and their teachers and employers—better gauge levels of fluency.
In many ways, the languages we speak are like an invisible road, connecting us with others who speak them. It’s no coincidence that the release of the CEFR coincided with the formation of the European Union (EU) at the turn of the 21st century. Since EU leaders wanted to ensure that people, products and money could move freely through member states, the Council of Europe needed a way to build a solid linguistic infrastructure in a multi-lingual environment.
The standardization of CEFR placement tests means that their results give a clear picture of how well someone can communicate in a given language. Thanks to the CEFR, a school in Berlin can accept students from Rome, knowing that they can interact effectively with German-based teachers and students. The Grenoble Institute of Technology can confidently hire a professor from London, since his CEFR placement test shows that he can communicate in near-native French. Rolls-Royce of Derby can welcome an engineer from Barcelona, understanding that she’ll have no problem discussing designs in English with her team.
The CEFR levels: A six-pack of proficiency
The CEFR is broken down into a half-dozen levels, giving just enough granularity to equate a learner’s skills with specific capabilities in a language. The six CEFR proficiency classifications can be understood as follows:
||Approximate Proficiency Level
|A1 & A1
||Beginner to Low Intermediate
|B1 & B2
||Intermediate to Low Advanced
|C1 & C2
||Advanced to Fluent
Within each CEFR level, there are corresponding “can-do” statements for the three primary skill-sets involved in language use: understanding (listening and reading comprehension), speaking (spoken interaction and production) and writing.
Finding Your Place: How CEFR Placement Tests Benefit You
And now, for the question of the ages: How can the CEFR help you in your quest to study or work overseas—or simply to become a better language learner?
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 of study.
Sometimes, CEFR placement tests are used to measure the language proficiency of teachers who wish to educate the youth of another country. Even if you plan to teach your native language, you still need to communicate effectively with your students.
If you’re an academic who wants to perform research at a university in a different country, CEFR placement tests can demonstrate that you have the language proficiency needed to work smoothly with other researchers while conducting complex experiments or evaluating statistical data.
Working in another country
If takin’ care of business and workin’ overseas appeals to you, taking a CEFR placement test could be just the ticket to winning your dream job.
CEFR is used by many businesses as a standard to measure language proficiency. If you meet the business’s standards via standardized testing, and you have the other needed qualifications for the job in question, you could be well on your way to a rewarding career in the foreign country of your choice.
Assessing your learning level
Sometimes, when you’ve been studying another language for a long time, it’s difficult to figure out just how fluent or proficient you are.
You might breeze through the daily news reports in “Le Monde”… but be hard-pressed to get through a contemporary novel. Or you may be able to sing along like a native to all your Fanta 4 albums, but struggle to remember word genders or conjugate verbs.
Yes, language learning is a complicated and multifaceted business. Relying solely on unofficial self-assessments to determine your proficiency level can leave you frustrated and confused. Using the CEFR self-assessment grids for the languages you’re studying can be a good launching point—but these grids can’t give you the same objective measurement as a placement test.
CEFR placement tests can help you assess your language levels realistically, measuring your performance in several different skill sets (such as listening and reading comprehension or writing).
Even if you don’t achieve your intended level at first, don’t despair. 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 employ tools like language learning trackers to keep yourself on target.
You can also use FluentU as a handy tool to study for future tests and continue advancing your studies. Like the CEFR, FluentU’s materials are divided into six levels that you can use to self-assess and learn level-appropriately.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
With FluentU, you hear languages in real-world contexts—the way that native speakers actually use them. Just a quick look will give you an idea of the variety of FluentU videos on offer:
FluentU really takes the grunt work out of learning languages, leaving you with nothing but engaging, effective and efficient learning. It’s already hand-picked the best videos for you and organized them by level and topic. All you have to do is choose any video that strikes your fancy to get started!
Each word in the interactive captions comes with a definition, audio, image, example sentences and more.
Access a complete interactive transcript of every video under the Dialogue tab, and easily review words and phrases from the video under Vocab.
You can use FluentU’s unique adaptive quizzes to learn the vocabulary and phrases from the video through fun questions and exercises. Just swipe left or right to see more examples of the word you're studying.
The program even keeps track of what you’re learning and tells you exactly when it’s time for review, giving you a 100% personalized experience.
Start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes store or Google Play store.
16 Super CEFR Placement Tests That Speak for Themselves
CEFR placement tests can be extremely useful, whether you’re planning on studying abroad, working overseas or just trying to get a grip on your true proficiency in a foreign language.
Below, we’ll look primarily at six tests that evaluate your mastery of three of the most widely-spoken European languages. While you can’t take them for free, you can prepare for them without breaking the bank. Then, we’ll briefly look at more tests that expand further through Europe and beyond.
We’ll lead you directly to a host of free online resources for savvy learners who want to familiarize themselves with the nitty-gritty of these important tests… so, when testing day comes, you’ll feel fully prepared—and confident about showing off your skills.
The two primary CEFR placement exams for French are the DELF and the DALF. Let’s look at some of their characteristics.
- No prerequisites: Everyone is welcome. Anyone who wishes to do so can take the DELF or DALF exams; you don’t need to go to a certain school, read a particular text or meet any other prerequisites.
- Registration: 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 both within 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 of France, you’ll need to select your local examination center first.)
- Retakes: Try, try again. There are no limits on the number of times you can take these exams. You can retake them as many times as you need to pass.
- Diploma: No expiration date. Once you’ve passed the DELF or DALF, you hold the diploma for life. You never need to take the exams again or do anything to renew the validity of your results.
Test information sources: Alliance Française & CIEP
The Alliance Française (French Alliance) is the official French-language educational organization that offers preparation for both the DELF and the DALF tests.
Detailed information on the tests themselves is available from an organization known as CIEP (Centre international d’études pédagogiques, the International Center for Pedagogical Studies).
The DELF exams, which span CEFR levels A1 to B2, come in five different versions. These are based upon several factors, including the learner’s age, background and purpose for taking the test.
Here’s a breakdown of the main types of DELF exams and the CEFR levels they cover:
||Age Range (years)
||A1.1 to A2
||Primary school students
||7 to 12
||A1 to B2
||Middle school & high school students
||12 to 17
||A1 to B2
||Foreign students of French
||12 to 17
|DELF tout public
||A1 to B2
||A1 to B2
||Adult job candidates
*The DELF junior and DELF scolaire exams are identical in content. However, the DELF scolaire (DELF for Schools) is administered by educational institutions that have an agreement with their local French embassy.
Free online resources to prepare for the DELF exams
Sample papers are broken down into the different skill categories:
- Compréhension de l’oral (listening)
- Compréhension des écrits (reading)
- Production écrite (writing)
Many of these samples can be downloaded and printed. The corresponding audio files can either be downloaded or played in your browser.
The main page for the DELF junior/scolaire prep includes the audio files for the oral comprehension parts of the exam.
These test prep materials for the DELF junior/scolaire exams will give you a good idea of what to expect:
At the beginning of each packet is a summary of the total number of points each section of the exam is worth, as well as the length of time available to complete it.
There’s an answer key at the end of each set of test prep materials.
DELF tout public
Designed to be taken by adults, the DELF tout public tests the French language knowledge of those outside France.
The Sample Papers page contains the questions, answer keys, audio files and spoken interaction guides for the DELF tout public at each level.
Also known as the Diplôme d’études en langue française, option professionnelle (Diploma in French Language Studies, Professional Option), the DELF Pro is geared toward those who wish to work in France, or who are trying to advance in a French-speaking workplace.
Both sample exercises and the corresponding answer keys are available for each level of the DELF Pro:
Here are a couple things that apply to the DALF specifically.
- Top-drawer design for upper-level learning. Picking up where the DELF exams leave off, the DALF exams cover CEFR levels C1 & C2. These are the highest levels of proficiency described by the CEFR framework.
- For adults only. Unlike many of the DELF exams, the DALF tests are designed to be taken by adult learners.
Free online resources to prepare for the DALF exams
DALF (C1 & C2)
Like the prep materials for the DELF Junior/Scolaire exams, the DALF sample papers include a breakdown of the test scoring and section durations.
At the C1 level, the answer keys and audio transcriptions are included in the same booklets.
Since responses at the C2 level are essentially free-form, answer keys are not included. (C2-level audio transcriptions are linked separately.)
The links to the audio files themselves are on the main DALF sample papers page on the CIEP site.
The Goethe-Zertifikat used to be called the “Zertifikat Deutsch.” The Goethe-Institut adopted the new name around May 2013.
Here’s what you need to know about it.
- For young and old(er). 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.
Test information source: Goethe-Institut (HQ in Munich, with offices worldwide)
Free online resources to prepare for the Goethe-Zertifikat exams
- Skills, not levels. TestDaF is a single exam that assesses your CEFR level from B2 to C1, based upon the skill 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.
- 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-language 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 take it again. Your TestDaF certificate will never expire. And you can take the TestDaF exam as many times as you’d like to achieve your desired score.
Test information source: TestDaF-Institut (Bochum, Germany)
Free online resources to prepare for the TestDaF exam
These practice tests include sample questions, an answer key and a “hints and tips” guide.
Based on the organization of the CEFR levels, sample tests are broken down into Reading Comprehension, Listening Comprehension, Writing and Oral Expression—just like the real exams.
(Please note: There appears to be no TestDaF Model: Set 01 on the TestDaF-Institut website.)
- Spanish in all flavors. 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-dandy 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 wishes can register for the DELE exams—including native Spanish speakers.
The test is used by both schools and employers to assess Spanish-language proficiency, so it benefits both students and workers in a Spanish-language environment.
- No expiration date. The DELE certification never expires, and is recognized throughout the world.
- Test results: Allow 12 weeks for delivery. Exam results are sent to candidates via email three months after the exam date. The exams are graded by Instituto de Cervantes, and candidates can also see their certification through a secure online portal.
Test information source: Instituto de Cervantes
Free online resources to prepare for the DELE exam
- A test for the 21st century. Introduced in 2015, the SIELE 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 levels of proficiency, it does so using one adaptive test. Skills are tested in five different categories (each explained below with its own video summary):
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.
- Don’t panic—it’s pan-Hispanic. From the beginning, the SIELE was designed to cover all types of Spanish, regardless of which variety the candidate speaks.
- Choosing your SIELE Exam: Four-course meal or à la carte. Go gourmet with the SIELE Global Exam that uses all assessment modalities (reading, writing, speaking and listening) to test your Spanish-language mastery… or try the à la carte model, with the Independent Modalities (S1 through S4) exams. The S1 through S4 tests measure your performance in various combinations of the assessment modalities:
||Reading Compression + Listening Comprehension
||Reading Comprehension + Written Expression & Interaction
||Listening Comprehension + Spoken Expression & Interaction
||Spoken Expression & Interaction
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 to test.
- Flexible scheduling. Although you need to take the SIELE at a designated test center, you can choose which center to use, and you can select a test date that works for your schedule.
- 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.
Test information source: Instituto de Cervantes
Free online resources to prepare for the SIELE exam
Instituto de Cervantes makes these materials available for free when you register to take the SIELE exam. These resources are organized by test format (Global or S1 – S4 Objectives), or by modality (speaking, writing, etc.). They include interactive practice activities and a practice test.
European Languages and Beyond
Although we’re focusing in on testing for three of the more prominent European languages, CEFR has become a standard of testing and classification for students of many languages—even those languages based outside of the European Union.
Tests using the global CEFR standard (or an equivalent standard) are now available for many languages, including these seven.
The HSK Exam 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, who administers the test, has made some effort to match up their levels to CEFR standards, starting with HSK Level 1.
There are three major CEFR placement tests for the English language:
- TOEFL is the Test of English as a Foreign Language, 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 is the Test of English for International Communication. Its purpose is to assess the English-language skills of speakers who use English to communicate with people from many lands. Like the TOEFL, scores on the TOEIC can be understood in the context of the CEFR levels.
- IELTS, the International English Language Testing System, is accepted largely by academic institutions in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK, as well as 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 there are reference materials available to help you understand the correlation of IELTS scores to the CEFR.
Your Italian-language skills can be tested by one of two major exams, the CILS or the CELI. There are many online resources you can use to prepare.
The CILS (Certificazione di Italiano come Lingua Straniera, or Certification of Italian as a Foreign Language) exam is headquartered at the Università per Stranieri di Siena (the 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:
The CELI, or Certificato di Conoscenza della Lingua Italiana (Certificate of Knowledge of Italian Language), is administered by the Università per Stranieri di Perugia (the 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 CELI is also accepted by the Italian Ministry of Education and Research.)
You can take the CELI exam at test centers throughout the world. Like the CILS, it matches up to CEFR levels:
Japanese: JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test)
Japanese speakers can test their linguistic know-how with the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. 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.
Korean: TOPIK (Test of Proficiency in Korean)
TOPIK, the Test of Proficiency in Korean, basically mirrors the CEFR standards:
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).
The Centro de Avaliacao de Portugues Lingua Estrangeira (Center for the Evaluation of Portuguese as a Foreign Language, or CAPLE) administers a series of five tests, corresponding to the CEFR A2–C2 levels:
||CIPLE (Initial Certificate of Portuguese as a Foreign Language)
||DEPLE (Elementary Diploma of Portuguese as a Foreign Language)
||DIPLE (Intermediate Diploma of Portuguese as a Foreign Language)
||DAPLE (Advanced Diploma of Portuguese as a Foreign Language)
||DUPLE (University Diploma of Portuguese as a Foreign Language)
Russian: TRKI (also called TORFL)
Russian speakers, rejoice! You can evaluate your language skills with a test that sounds tricky, but matches up fairly closely to the CEFR levels.
The TRKI, or Тест по русскому языку как иностранному (known in English as TORFL, or “Test of Russian as a Foreign Language”), corresponds to the CEFR as follows:
As more and more language placement tests jump on board the CEFR bandwagon, we language learners can come to a better understanding of our own linguistic proficiency. We can demonstrate our fluency in ways that help us get jobs, study abroad or simply satisfy our own learning goals.
And that’s a boon to us all—shopkeepers, shoe seekers and everyone in between.
This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you
can take anywhere.
Click here to get a copy. (Download)
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