On whether you know more languages—and how well

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For decades, Europe has been in a process of reducing national divisions, creating a single market, and developing shared political structures like the European Parliament. One of the complexities they confront is the range of languages spoken on the continent, and the deep sense of identity each group feels with their language and culture. Building on a tradition of multilingualism in several of the member states, like Belgium, Europe has continued to unify politically and academically without unifying linguistically. Instead, they propose to form multilingual citizens, who will speak more than one language.

A key part of this project is the defense of minority languages, with the understanding that the richness of European culture is predicated on cultural variety and vitality. In a recent initiative in October 2016, for example, in the nation of Georgia, the Council of Europe and local authorities promoted language education in a number of Georgian cities. They offered information on classes and distributed brochures in the languages being taught: Azerbaijani, Assyrian, Abkhazian, Greek, German, Kurmanji/Kurdish, Ossetian, Russian, Armenian, Udi, Ukrainian, Kist/Chechen, and Avar. This type of activity is repeated across the breadth of the continent with the express goal of sustaining all of the languages of Europe, and of offering each language an equal treatment.

This vision has been developed over decades, and it is part of a broader drive towards teaching multiple languages. The first intergovernmental conference on European co-operation in language teaching was held in 1957. The first standard measures adopted in Europe were the “Threshold Level” specification in English in 1975 and Un Niveau-seuil in French in 1976. These specified what a language learner should be able to do when using the language independently in a country where the language is used for everyday communication. They served as a model for ongoing development. In 1977, David Wilkins first presented the idea of a European set of levels at the Ludwigshafen Symposium, proposing seven levels. In 1991 ALTE, the Association of Language Testers in Europe, adopted five levels. It was between 1993 and 1996 that the illustrative descriptors for language capacity were developed by two members of the Council of Europe international working party, as Brian North and others have written. In 1994, the European Centre for Modern Languages was established. And it was in 2001 that the Council of Europe officially adopted the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), as part of the European Year of Languages, which was celebrated that same year. The CEFR currently exists in 40 language versions.

This is part of the Council of Europe’s drive to foster plurilingualism, which goes beyond the more traditional multilingualism. Plurilingualism envisions using more than one language, but it conceives of language use as being fluid and including combination and invention as well as competence in more than one language. The CEFR is a guide for what language tests should measure. It is designed so that it can function for any language, not just one. It is also designed to apply to every person who knows a second, third, or fourth language, irrespective of where they studied or how old they are.

“The CEFR,” Brian North and others have written, “is a concertina-like reference tool that provides categories, levels and descriptors that educational professionals can merge or sub-divide, elaborate or summarize, adopt or adapt according to the needs of their context—while still relating to the common hierarchical structure.” The CEFR doesn’t tell people who are evaluating language what kind of kind of questions they should ask, or how their test should be structured, but it offers ways to measure each test in relation to another, and sets general standards that can be used by everyone.

Language proficiency includes four natural domains, once a language develops a system of writing: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. The CEFR sets standards for each of them. It defines three main levels of competence: Basic, Independent, and Proficient. These are represented by the letters A, B, and C. These three main levels are each subdivided into two levels, so that there are six levels of language proficiency in all. In order of increasing proficiency, they are A1 (Breakthrough), A2 (Waystage), B1 (Threshold), B2 (Vantage), C1 (Effective Operational Proficiency), and C2 (Mastery). So the scale in its totality goes from A1 to C2. It is a very practical scale, based on concrete descriptions of what an individual should be able to do at each level; these descriptions are known as “can-do” statements. The scales examine language proficiency from very concrete skills: for example, one scale describes “turntaking” in discussion, with skills described from A2 to C1 (an A1 proficiency level does not include enough knowledge to participate in turntaking).

In this way, the scales that support the CEFR measure language proficiency in communicative and precise terms. They describe what a person at each level of proficiency can do, as well as how much and how freely they can communicate. There is a background idea that what matters is the practical skill, not a more academic or abstract language capacity, and there is also a goal of developing standards that can be used across very different systems and schools of language instruction. This is, after all, an overarching design, a measurement for all of Europe. In recent years, it has become a tool for language proficiency measurement all over the world.

The CEFR is a tool that was very carefully constructed and provides a clear and effective way to understand language proficiency. In the past, people would say that they were fluent in a second or third language. Maybe they would say that they spoke a little bit or knew some of the language; sometimes they could tell you their score on one of the tests they had taken. Now they are likely to tell you that they are an A1 or a B2 in English, French, or Romanian, and we will all have an idea of what that means, of how much they know of that language.


Nathan Budoff
Gerente de pruebas de Inglés
College Board Puerto Rico y América Latina