Assessing language skills: what does A2, B1, C1 really mean?

Have you ever tried to guess someone’s language level? You probably say something like “he’s fluent” or “she can get by.” Do you apply the same descriptors when assessing candidates? Of course you could always trust the language level or test score they list on their CV, but you may be in for a surprise. If you are hiring candidates from another country, you may not have the same reference point for what “fluent” is. This is one of the many reasons why a European language level framework was created.

What is the CEFR?

The result of over 20 years of research, the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) is a common standard created by the Council of Europe to describe language proficiency in a harmonized, standardized way for assessment and learning. This was a real challenge in Europe, with its 24 official languages and nearly 200 unofficial ones.

In 1991, the implementation of this framework was raised during an intergovernmental symposium in Switzerland with 3 objectives: establish a system of language levels to clearly and objectively describe proficiency, define a common framework and be able to apply it to any language. The guide, CEFR: Learning, Teaching, Assessment, published in 2001, lays out the fundamental principles and gives practical advice for applying the CEFR.

The importance of assessment

One of the major areas impacted by the CEFR is assessment. What developed historically before the creation of the European framework was a patchwork system of different scores and levels from one testing organization and training institute to another. The 1980s saw the proliferation of tests like the TOEIC, TOEFL and IELTS, each with their own scoring system. This made it hard to compare scores from one test to another and one candidate to another. The advantage of a framework like the CEFR is not only its ability to standardize language proficiency but also its objectivity and independence – it takes into consideration the theoretical concepts behind language learning and skill, including the 4 main competency areas: speak, listen, write and read. This means assessing speaking, listening, writing and reading skills.

A common framework in 6 levels

The CEFR consists of three broad divisions that can be divided into 6 levels:

ABC users

Many European institutes of higher education require students to demonstrate a B2 level before graduating in order to ensure they will be able to find a job in the global talent market. This makes sense as global enterprises view B2 as the minimum level of business proficiency, particularly for jobs where communicating with international customers, colleagues and suppliers is par for the course. However, companies mainly based in one country with little or primarily written communication with other countries can get away with hiring employees with a B1 level. So what level should we expect candidates to be?

To help you with this task, below is the can-do descriptors for each CEFR level:

CEFR chart

You should have a better idea now of the CEFR so let’s put it to the test. Can you determine the language level of the three French celebrities and public figures below?

Few tests on the market allow for a 360° assessment of these four key skills – speaking, listening, writing and reading. This is why easySPEAKing was created. Want to learn more?


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