CEFR – The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages

CEFR Framework in table format for easy reference

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European language students will frequently come across mentions of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, better known as the CEFR. It’s a simple framework to measure language proficiency across languages and teaching methods, used by students, employers, and organizations working with foreign language speakers.

First conceived in the 1970s, the finished version was released in 2001 by the Council of Europe. Since then, the language guidelines have become widely accepted as the standard measure of proficiency in European languages in around 40 countries.

We use the CEFR at Language Atlas. It’s a starting point for most students outside formal studies and a straightforward measure of progress in the language learning world. In short, essential info, and we’ve compiled a guide that covers everything you need to know about CEFR and how it can help you on the path to fluency.

CEFR - The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages in table format

What is the CEFR?

As you can see in our multichromatic table, the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages is a quick and easy guide to language proficiency. It is not a teaching methodology but a broad set of guidelines that can be understood at a glance.

Commonly known as the CEFR in English, but sometimes the CEFRL or CEF, it portions the journey from beginner to fluency into 6 digestible stages. Within each stage is a detailed set of measures and questions for assessing proficiency levels.

New students swayed by the benefits of learning a language, which quickly stack up with major European languages like Spanish and French, will encounter CEFR terminology across learning resources.

The CEFR can be applied to all European languages and provides an accessible table for learners to track progress and set goals. While not a precise measure like IELTS or other international language exams, it boils the language learning journey into a set of measures that travels across borders and teaching methodologies.

Above all, CEFR uses language, terms, and measures we can all relate to and will still be relevant even if/when you become a seasoned polyglot.

Having been finessed and refined since its creation, it has become a continental standard that influences language studies in Europe and beyond.

Steps on the CEFR proficiency table explained

CEFR Proficiency Levels Explained

The CEFR’s effectiveness lies in its deceptively simple six steps from early learner (Basic User) to fluency (Proficient User).

Underlying each step is a set of accessible measures, moulded and finessed to reflect what a successful language learning journey looks like.

A short summary of each proficiency level in the CEFR, sourced from the Council of Europe, is usually enough for many language learners to gauge their proficiency:

Basic User

A1– Able to comprehend and use common daily expressions and basic phrases.
– Can introduce yourself and others
– Able to ask and answer questions about personal details like residence, acquaintances, and possessions.
– Can engage in simple conversations with the other person speaking slowly and clearly.  
A2– Understands sentences and commonly used expressions on issues close to you, such as basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, and employment.
– Ability to communicate effectively during simple tasks involving straightforward info exchanges on familiar and routine issues.
– Can talk in basic terms about aspects of your background.
– Able to resolve matters of immediate necessity using simple terms.  

Independent User

B1– Grasp the key points of clear and standard information on familiar subjects encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.
– Confident in handling most situations while travelling in a region where the language is spoken.
– Ability to generate straightforward, connected text on topics of personal interest or areas of knowledge.
– Can describe experiences, events, dreams, hopes, and ambitions and provide brief reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.  
B2– Comfortable understanding concrete and abstract topics within intricate texts, including technical discussions within their specialized field.
– Able to engage in fluent and spontaneous interactions with native speakers without difficulty for either party.
– Confident in producing articulate and detailed text across a broad spectrum of subjects.
– Capable of explaining viewpoints on topical issues while offering a detailed overview of the pros and cons of different options.  

Proficient User

C1– Can easily comprehend long and challenging texts and discern implicit meaning and abstract ideas.
– Capable of expressing thoughts fluently and spontaneously, with no difficulties finding appropriate expressions.
– Flexible and effective use of language across social, academic, and professional contexts.
– Skilled at producing clear, well-structured, and detailed text on intricate subjects, demonstrating the considered use of organizational patterns and connectors.  
C2– Effortless comprehension of nearly everything heard or read.
– At ease summarizing information from diverse spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts coherently.
– Spontaneous, naturally fluent, and precise expression, with the ability to differentiate subtle nuances of meaning even in complex situations.  

Did you identify your level from the CEFR guidelines?

If you want to see them in action, our French and Spanish lessons are grouped by CEFR levels, and you can get started for free on the A1 lessons.

For a more detailed self-assessment, the Council of Europe have produced an in-depth guide in all European languages, which breaks stages down into granular measures in five categories:

  1. Listening
  2. Reading
  3. Spoken interaction
  4. Spoken production
  5. Writing

The CEFR self-assessment is invaluable for narrowing down where you are on your language journey and for painting a clearer picture of the challenges and objectives you’ll encounter on the path to fluency. 

How can the CEFR help you on your language learning journey?

Advantages Of The CEFR

Knowing where you stand on the CEFR scale opens a bonanza of cross-border opportunities.

Whether aiming to study in Europe for free or seeking a job in Brussels, the CEFR’s accessible language translates across languages, providing a universal framework for recruiting second-language speakers. It also compares easily with other international language learning frameworks, such as the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages Proficiency Guidelines (ACTFL).

Finally, the CEFR provides transparency across language teaching in Europe. It has been instrumental in shaping teaching standards and making language learning more accessible, eliminating jargon and converting each learning stage into words we can all wrap our heads around. 

The CEFR provides a reference for comparing proficiency across different European languages

How the CEFR can help you

If you’re only practising a few phrases for exploring French chateaux or lounging on beaches in Spain, the CEFR can be ignored. But when you embark on a language learning journey with clear objectives, the guidelines will become your main frame of reference. 

Aside from helping you determine where to start and plan your study objectives, the CEFR can make it easier to:

  • Navigate online learning resources. Flashcards, language apps, and YouTube videos are commonly structured on the CEFR, enabling users to find learning material to match their proficiency.
  • Apply for jobs in foreign languages. CEFR standards are widely used by international recruiters and easily understood on resumes and job postings. 
  • Study abroad, matching language skills to study requirements and gauging preparedness for life abroad. 
  • Facilitate visa applications for living abroad when immigration rules demand minimum proficiency levels.

The CEFR also helps you plan your language studies. Mountains of resources have been adapted to the CEFR to help you plot a route to your desired proficiency level.

For example, the Cambridge English Examining Board indicates that 200 hours of study is required to progress through each CEFR stage. You will find similar charts for French and other languages, underlining the value of a universal framework. 

CEFR Limitations

What the CEFR gains in accessibility, it loses in precision. The framework’s leading limitation is being too broad and vague, with inevitable overlaps when assessing proficiency levels.  

This is by design. The CEFR is merely a standardized method for comparing fluency across languages and teaching systems. It may not fit every language and scenario, but it is versatile.

For pinpoint accuracy, language tests still fill the gap. 

The most sought-after language tests indicate what their scores mean on the CEFR. The in-demand IELTS (International English Language Testing System) places scores in a band from A2 to C2. You’ll find similar across examining bodies, providing a quick and easy means of comparing test results. 

A lesser complaint is that the guidelines invite self-assessment, meaning language users may overestimate proficiency. Yet, a quick reassessment is all it takes to find the right learning path.  

As you can see, there are hardly any limitations to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. 

The CEFR does a specific job: facilitate easy comparison of language proficiency and enable users to design a learning journey that matches their needs and objectives. 

Whether you start learning with our flashcards or one of the endless tools and resources that have made language learning more accessible than ever, the CEFR is crucial. But as you can see, refreshingly uncomplicated. Whatever proficiency stage you’re at and aiming for, good luck and have fun learning! 

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