Language proficiency levels

What is language proficiency and how is it measured? Are there generally accepted standards, or does each language have its own? In this article, we will try to answer these questions.

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What do levels of foreign language proficiency measure? Teachers and testers (specialists conducting language testing) identified four competencies that are tested on the language proficiency exam: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. They can be separated into subtests (parts of the test) or mixed into exam tasks. These skills are tested at all levels, but the requirements for them are different. Each level of the language has its lexical minimum, that is, the vocabulary that a person should know, and the requirements for grammar – what rules a person should use. Therefore, texts and audio at the initial and high levels of proficiency look different, although they test the same skill.

There are three main scales of language levels: CERF (Common European Framework of Reference), ILR (Interagency Language Roundtable Scale), and the informal British scale used by Cambridge and Oxford textbooks. For clarity, we give a comparative table of these scales:

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CERF is the most universal, popular, and descriptive scale, so let’s dwell on it in more detail. As we can see from the table, there are six levels in three groups: A – basic user, B – independent user, and C – proficient user.

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According to the official description of CERF proficiency levels, a person who speaks the language at the appropriate level can:

А1 – understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type; introduce him/herself and others and ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has; interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.

А2 – understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance; communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters; describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment, and matters in areas of immediate need.

В1 – understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters; deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken; produce simple connected text on familiar topics or of personal interest; describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes and ambitions, and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.

В2 – understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialisation; interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party; produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.

С1 – understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognise implicit meaning; express him/herself fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions; use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes; produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.

С2 – understand with ease virtually everything heard or read; summarise information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation; express him/herself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in more complex situations.

The above definitions are only a generalized description of each of the levels, with its help you can understand and see the differences, for example, between A1 and A2. For teachers and testers, there are advanced descriptions that help them in preparing and evaluating students. Detailed descriptions are also available for students – you can buy them printed in the bookstore or order online.

The names of levels in different systems hide the same descriptions, so when choosing a course or textbook focused on a certain level on an unfamiliar scale, you can refer to the comparison table and understand what lies behind these designations.

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