The CEFR scale and language level

Discussion in 'The language learning methods of Big_Dog' started by Big_Dog, Apr 13, 2014.

  1. Big_Dog

    Big_Dog Administrator Staff Member

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    The CEFR, and how it applies to this website. There are several scales for measuring one’s proficiency in languages, and the most popular is the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). If you follow the link, you will see that there are 6 levels: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 & C2. A1 is the lowest level, and C2 the highest. Another way they break the levels down is just to use 3 level “groups”: A, B & C.

    The level groups have their own special names, but I have always called them Beginner (A), Intermediate (B) and Advanced (C). So when you join this forum, and want to fill out your profile, you are asked the following 3 questions:

    Please select languages in which you feel you have reached a CEFR level of C1 or C2 in at least one of the basic skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening).

    Please select languages in which you feel the highest level you have reached is a CEFR level of B1 or B2 in at least one of the basic skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening).

    Please select languages you are studying in which you feel the highest level you have reached is a CEFR level of A2 or less in any of the basic skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening).


    You can select languages from a list. There are only 26 languages on that list so far. If you need me to add another one, just ask. The languages that you choose for the first question will show up as advanced languages under your name, the second question will show up as intermediate and the third will show up as beginner.

    Judging your level, and some controversy. There are detailed descriptions for each level, but they are somewhat vague, and I have seen them interpreted in varying ways. There are tests of course, and passing a test should put an end to most of the mystery surrounding one’s level. But I still have some concerns. Let me try to express them.

    I’ll use the spoken test as an example, since it seems most people, including myself, are obsessed with conversation. The spoken tests I’ve seen seem to be focused on fluidity and grammar. It’s very hard to test vocabulary, because there is so much of it, so what they do makes sense. But I’m not sure it’s ok to assume passing fluidity and grammar means your vocabulary is also passing. Let me repeat rough numbers of words needed for each level that I wrote in the vocabulary post:

    polydog cefr table 1.jpg

    Is it possible to check all this vocabulary in this short period of time? I don’t think so. Is the test a clear indication of what the learner’s vocabulary level is? I don’t know, but I will say that I’m skeptical.

    If you don’t trust the test, there is another way to get your skill level assessed. Go to a language school full time for a few weeks, with a teacher(s) who are very familiar with the CEFR. They will be able to evaluate your level much more accurately, imo. Ok, this is a time consuming and expensive way to find out what your level is. But I mention it because I’m sensitive about the issue of language level.

    I’m sensitive about it because I know how hard it is to reach my final goal, the C1 threshold, and I don’t like anyone exaggerating my level along the way, because it’s misleading. I would rather work too hard, and reach my goal early by accident, than not work hard enough, and still be floundering around at a low level well after I expected.

    Why do I care so much about reaching C1; what’s so special about it? C1 is the level where I can sit down and watch a movie and understand the plot well enough not to need any translation. It’s the level at which I know what people are saying to each other – this goes beyond a simple one on one conversation with a native; it’s really understanding what’s being said around you. It’s the level where I almost always know the best word to use, and the correct grammar, and in the rare case that I don’t, I can easily choose a different word or figure out a way to talk around it. It’s what it feels like to be “advanced” in a language.

    I can reach B1 fairly quickly. In about twice the time it takes to reach B1, I can reach B2, but C1 is a long hard effort. I’m no complaining – I like a challenge. But it doesn’t help me to trivialize, or pretend that it’s easy. When I’m at B2, and even to some extent B1, I can hold a pretty good conversation with a native speaker. But this is much easier than understanding others talking in a group. There is a lot of work to do, and the long pole is listening. Now you know why I’m so particular about listening from the beginning. And the main problem with listening is recognizing all that vocabulary. The difference between what you can do as an intermediate learner and an advanced learner is huge:

    table3.jpg

    I am not trying to trivialize my own or anybody else’s achievements for reaching levels below C1. You can certainly get something out of some of the “no’s” on the chart. But this is my honest opinion of the language I’ve studied, using only “yes” or “no’ as a judgment.

    A word of caution about learning quickly. I’ve read several stories about people putting in short, hard efforts to pass a CEFR test. Whenever I read one of these, I wonder if they will be able to maintain the level. I have found out from personal experience that studying a lot in a short period of time can produce high levels, but shortly after I stop studying, and sometimes even if I merely reduce the amount of study, my level will begin to drop. How far and quickly it will drop depends on a lot of things – how much I studied per day before I reached my peak, how many weeks the extra effort lasted, how much I will study after the peak, etc.

    Studying the language for several years with a consistent effort, and no increase in effort for testing, is a pretty good way to guard against a level drop. But if you have to make a big effort at some point, continuing to study for a period of time, and perhaps easing off when you feel your level has stabilized, would be helpful. Of course, there are people who prefer to study in spurts, and don’t mind the drop in level because they know they will gain it back during the next spurt. For others, if the level you peak at is B1/B2, you might want to consider maintaining it.
    Last edited: Apr 30, 2014
  2. BAnna

    BAnna Active Member VIP member

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    Determing a level can definitely be rather tricky beyond the beginner stage. I've tried to think about this a bit because often one is asked (especially on forums) to indicate a level and outside of taking an exam (which of course has its own bias toward certain language and skills), I can't think of a truly objective way to self-assess. Your advice to be evaluated by someone knowledgeable is right on. I'm also skeptical about the number of vocabulary words as a reliable measure (not only for the reasons you mention), but because of cognates between related languages. My Polish friend can correctly guess a lot of Russian, and without ever having studied it, I can halfway understand Portuguese. And there are more like these: French and Italian, Dutch and German, the Scandinavian languages, etc. If a Brazilian had a 1000 word vocabulary in Mandarin, it would be way more impressive than if the same person were to know 1000 words in Spanish.
    I think a large part of determining competency has to do with how one actually needs to use the language. By the example you gave about conversations and TV, I'm at an advanced level in Spanish and German, but I would struggle in either to write an appropriate business letter (on the other hand I don't really need to). I don't feel comfortable saying I'm at an advanced level in either one, although in certain areas, I am. And in certain areas of my native English, I'd be at a pitifully low A level: machinery parts or linguistic terms, for example.
    You state there is a threshold level you need to get to in order to avoid major slippage. What do you think this level is? B2? If the language sits completely unused for a while, there will be minor slippage, but providing it's strong enough, it can come back pretty quickly. Although again, it may have to do with other related languages you speak or your native language. Or maybe the age you learned it? As a "mature learner", I fear my optimal time to effortlessly pick up a language may be behind me, but I don't let it stop me from enjoyment. Or maybe it's just the odds of developing a nice accent that get lower as one ages?
    I also agree with you that language skills take time to develop. You can probably get grounded in the language in a relatively short time by intensive study, but for it to really get ingrained, it does take both time and maybe occasional intensity.
    Your post elsewhere about letting things alone for a while was quite interesting. It may be that the long-term memory needs time to chew on things a while. Or maybe any language study, even in an unrelated language can have an effect on what's already been studied. The brain is certainly mysterious and wonderful.
  3. Big_Dog

    Big_Dog Administrator Staff Member

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    If I'm understanding your question correctly, the answer is C1, but feel free to refer to my post on maintaining languages where I address this issue.
    Thanks - actually, I'm a little embarrassed because that post isn't finished. I thought I was going to finish it last night, so I got the links working, then got a headache and quit. I hope to finish it tonight. Thanks for reading this stuff. :)
  4. BAnna

    BAnna Active Member VIP member

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    Sorry, yeah, I'm not even sure I understand my question...I was coming down with a cold when I read this and posted, so I'm not sure myself what it was I was thinking...it seems very clear you mean C1 here. Perhaps I didn't want that to be the answer, since it's so much hard work to get there.:(

    I was just reading something about plateauing at an "OK level" out of a book called Moonwalking with Einstein (about memory training). The only way out of it is to push yourself in a very directed way. I'll have to re-read that when I'm thinking more clearly.
  5. Big_Dog

    Big_Dog Administrator Staff Member

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    Hmm…sounds like a cool book.

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