Explaining your level of proficiency in a second language can often be difficult.
“I scored 65 out of 100 on my last test” or “I can speak French okay” does not give an accurate representation of how well you can speak the language.
In addition, we can often downplay our skills when talking in an everyday setting, with your language skills usually better than you think they are.
This is why, since the early 2000s, a European-wide standardised system has been used to assess proficiency in a person's non-native language, after its creation was backed by the EU.
The system can be applied to all European languages (and is increasingly used outside of Europe as well), and gives employers and government officials an easy overview of how well a person is able to communicate.
CEFR is an acronym for ‘Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment’.
The framework has a scale of six levels: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, and C2. If you have no understanding of a language some might say you have an ‘A0’ level.
You can be described as having a level, or being a level, e.g. ‘I have A2 level’ or ‘I’m an A2’.
The levels are standardised, so someone who is an A2 in French knows roughly the same amount in that language as someone who is A2 in English does in that language.
Here are what the levels correspond to:
You are new to learning the language and know only basic words and phrases.
You can explain basic details about yourself, mostly in the present tense (e.g I live, I work, I speak) and understand a native speaker if they speak very slowly and only use basic words (such as describing directions).
At this level, you do not know much grammar, except perhaps how to put the most important verbs into the future or the past.
You are still classed as a ‘basic speaker’ of the language, but you can explain yourself in more situations (such as a simple illness to your doctor) and can have a short and simple conversation with a native speaker about topics that interest you.
You can also describe things about your past and experiences as well as describe your surroundings and future plans.
You should have a grasp of most of the basic grammar aspects of the language at this point.
This is classed as the ‘lower intermediate’ level, with you able to explain yourself in everyday situations and certain specialist situations with technical language, such as those related to your job or hobby.
On top of being able to express yourself and your plans, you should be able to back them up with reasons and explanations.
You will understand most native speakers in everyday situations, unless they have a particularly strong accent or are speaking about something technical, and you are likely to be able to read texts including some shorter novels.
You should also be able to understand most grammar features in the language.
This is the ‘upper intermediate’ level, and at B2 you can have discussions on both concrete and abstract subjects, as well be able to have in-depth, technical conversations about your interests or job.
The Council of Europe says at this level a person can “interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party”.
You should be able to read most texts at this level, and understand complex grammar features of the language.
This is classed as being fluent, meaning you can talk about pretty much anything and everything with native speakers without needing to search for words or expressions.
You are comfortable dealing with even complicated administrative tasks, and can work in the language without issue, including giving presentations and hosting meetings.
You should have no challenge reading most things in the language, including some ‘difficult’ books.
Most people only reach C1 by living in a country or after many years of study due to the number of hours being immersed in the language requires.
This is on par with being a native speaker, including using idioms and expressions fluently, as well as understanding essentially everything you read and write in the language.
You can express your own and others’ opinions on topics fluently and spontaneously, and can live your life in this language with essentially the same ease as your first.
How is the scale used?
The CEFR is useful because it can give an at-a-glance result for exams, and is often given as a score alongside exact exam results.
As mentioned, saying you scored ‘65 out of 100’ on your language test will not mean much to most people, but saying that equates to a B1 or B2 level puts the score into context.
The scale is extremely popular, and because of its standardisation across Europe, is used in professional contexts.
Employers may ask for your language skills to be at a certain level – either in French or other languages – before you can apply to a job.
Alternatively, you can list your proficiency in the languages you speak on your CV.
Language aids (such as grammar books, CDs or courses) will usually say which level they apply to, or what level you are likely to reach by using the materials.
The scale is backed by the Council of Europe (and by extension the EU), so even national governments use it. For example, you must score at least an ‘B1’ level on your language exam to gain French nationality.
Things to remember
One thing to point out with the scale is that you can have different levels in each of the four main categories (reading, writing, speaking, and listening).
Generally, people find it easier to read and speak than write and listen, and you may also have other difficulties that impede your skills.
For example, if you have poor hearing and often need things repeated to you, but are an avid reader and enjoy French history books, you may have a C1 level in reading but B1 in listening.
In addition, each bracket on the scale can see people with quite different abilities.
For example, both an absolute beginner who can only say ‘bonjour’ and someone who has been taking hourly lessons for a few months are still classed as A1.
You should also not use the scale as a way to measure your own progress in your head - especially at higher levels - as the differences can become blurred and are not so evident as with the lower levels.
There is no day where you will wake up and think “I am now a C1 speaker”, it will just happen gradually over time through many smaller interactions.