Sunday, July 19, 2015

Language Levels

What do you say when someone asks you "how well do you speak French?" (Or whatever language you have studied.) Or if they ask "are you fluent?" Sometimes you will hear people give very precise answers, such as "I'm a C1 reader but only a B2 speaker" or "Spanish is my L1" or even "I'm a heritage Spanish speaker." This post aims to give a straightforward explanation of all of these terms so you can figure out where you stand and describe it to others.

The language-level system most people know about is called the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR). The CEFR is a very well-thought-out system for rating how well someone speaks a foreign language, but the published explanations are awfully complex and can be hard to get your head around. This post aims to simplify the explanations to make it easier for people to understand what language levels are all about. Like any simplification, it will leave some things out, but I think it will make a good starting point--better than starting by leafing through dozens of pages of dense rules, at least.

Native and Foreign Speakers

L1 Speakers (Native Speakers)

A child is able to learn a language without actually trying to do so. Plop them into a new environment where most people speak a different language, and in a few months they'll be chatting like natives. An L1 language is one that was acquired in this fashion. The ability to do this starts to diminish at around age 10 or 12 and seems to be completely gone by age 18 or 20. This is called the "critical period." A "native speaker" is an L1 speaker.

Children who are immersed in a language during the critical period will essentially all rocket up to native proficiency, given time. As a result, there is no rating system for L1 speakers. For the purposes of foreign-language learning, all L1 speakers are the same (but see the section on heritage speakers below).

L2 Speakers (Foreign Speakers)

A adult (anyone past the critical period) cannot learn a language "by osmosis," the way a child can. Adults need some organized study plan. A person who learns a language this way is say to be an L2 speaker of that language. (People who study multilingualism will talk about L3, L4, etc. but everyone else uses L2 for any language acquired through deliberate study.) An L2 speaker is a "foreign speaker."

L2 speakers make slow, steady progress, and many stop after a point, so it is very worthwhile to have a system to rate a given person's ability with a foreign language. In particular, businesses and universities need to be able to set requirements for language proficiency, and having a standard rating system helps them do that. Europe needs this more than most, and their CEFR is hugely influential.

L2 speakers never (or almost never) become good enough to regularly fool L1 speakers. No matter how long they live in complete immersion (decades even), and no matter how much study they put into it, they never become perfect L1 speakers. There is some debate as to whether this is truly impossible or merely very rare. Without getting into the argument, suffice it to say that if it is possible at all, it is so rare that people write papers debating the point. But even if perfection is impossible, excellence is not. Also, although only a child can learn an L1, age doesn't seem to matter much for learning an L2.

For an excellent discussion on the difference between how children and adults learn foreign languages, read Chapter 2, "Is There a Best Age For Learning a Second Language," from Key Topics in Second Language Acquisition (Cook and Singleton, Multilingual Matters, 2014).

What To Measure

Learning a language actually requires mastering four different skills
  1. Reading.
  2. Writing.
  3. Conversation.
  4. Passive listening.
To see how different these are, note that it's possible to be an excellent reader who is almost unable to hold a conversation or to be great at conversation but functionally illiterate. The formal tests that people take to measure language competence generally rate these four abilities separately, even when they give a final, composite grade. In my chart below, I'm going to mix them together to some extent, but keep in mind that you do need to develop them separately. That said, it is also true that improvement in one ability generally benefits the others to some degree.

Levels of Speakers


The chart below summarizes what I just described plus it includes all the CEFR levels. Again, a reasonably complete description of the CEFR can be found on Wikipedia.

No knowledge of the language at all.
Smattering of the language. Knows a few words and phrases. Can recognize the written form and identify what language it is.
Phrasebook speaker. Uses a few templates to create sentences. Can read some signs. Understands responses if they're what he/she was expecting.
Creates original sentences, but doesn't know the whole grammar yet. Can express a lot, but often frustrated by ideas he/she has no idea how to say.
Knows essentially the whole grammar (excluding some of the fine points) but has to think hard to use it. Can eventually say just about anything, but the process can be painful. Can read almost anything, given enough time, a good reference grammar, and unlimited use of a dictionary. Movies are hopeless without subtitles.
Fluent, but with errors and omissions. Can hold real conversations with non-English speakers but often struggles to get around gaps in vocabulary. Often corrects own errors. Reads newspapers with ease. Still depends heavily on dictionary to read novels. Can understand most of a movie in standard dialect.
Fluent, fully conversational, but very obviously not native. Grammar errors don't impede conversation, but minor ones still turn up with some frequency. Reads anything short of literature with minimal dictionary use. Can watch movies without too much difficulty.
Fluent to the point where the residual errors in accent and grammar don't matter. The person does not fool native speakers, due to the nature of the occasional errors, but they are no worse than the errors some native speakers make. Reads/watches anything.
L1HeritageExposed to the language as a child, but acquired a different L1. Has strong listening ability, but speaking ability ranges from zero to limited (See more below.)
Learned as a child and uses it regularly now. 

A0 isn't an official level in the CEFR, but it is very commonly used by people to indicate that they have either begun to study a language (so they're not really at zero) or that they have forgotten so much of it that they don't believe they could even pass the A1 exam anymore.

A-Levels: Basic User

The A-levels are about beginning to learn the language but not knowing all the grammar. An A-level speaker typically doesn't know all the verb tenses, or the declensions of adjectives, or other key bits of grammar.

You can think of the A-levels as being useful to tourists. With A2 ability, you can impress the heck out of your zero-level companions.

B Levels: Independent User

The B-levels are about knowing the whole of the grammar but having limited ability to use it. The B1 speaker has to think to apply the rules, and as a result, speaks in a halting fashion. The B2 speaker can apply the rules without thinking, but is limited by vocabulary.

As far as conversation goes, a few weeks of immersion is probably the only way to move from B1 to B2. It's as though the pressure of having to apply all those rules forces the brain to learn them so deeply that you don't have to think about them anymore. Immersion has some benefits for any student, but the biggest bang for the buck, by far, is for the B1 student who comes back a B2.

There's a rule of thumb that says you should not try to live or work abroad on your own if you are less than B1.

C-Levels: Proficient User

The C-levels are about mastery. Speakers at those levels differ from B2 speakers primarily in vocabulary. A B2 speaker can hold a great conversation and abruptly run into a wall when he/she simply doesn't have the words to describe something. That should never happen to a C-level speaker. B-level speakers know essentially the entire grammar, but C-level speakers have mastered the fine points too.

European universities generally won't admit you if you can't pass the C1 test for their language. (Otherwise you won't be able to follow lectures.) Companies don't want to hire anyone under B2, or at least B1.

Study moves you from A0 to B1. Immersion moves you from B1 to B2. Only time moves you from B2 to C2. It takes many years of daily use of the language to reach C2, and there are no short cuts.

Heritage Speakers

When a child grows up in an environment where his/her parents speak an L1 that is different from the L1 of the community, the child usually grows up speaking both languages. However, the child normally speaks the local language natively but speaks the L1 of the parents in a more limited way. These are called heritage speakers.

To illustrate the idea of a heritage language speaker, consider the example of a person whose parents spoke Japanese but who grew up in California. This person will almost always grow up to be a standard L1 speaker of English, but he/she will usually acquire some level of Japanese. We would say the person speaks "heritage" Japanese. This usually covers three rather different levels of ability:
  1. The child understands Japanese, but never attempts to speak it. This is typical when the child was born in the US and the parents never spoke Japanese to him/her. (The child learned it simply from listening to the parents talk to each other.)
  2. The child uses Japanese words but English syntax to make sentences. This seems to happen when the child was born in the US, and the parents didn't arrange any sort of training in Japanese, although they did use Japanese with the child.
  3. The child speaks Japanese with simplified syntax. That is, they speak but don't use the entire grammar. This is more likely when the child was born in Japan and grew up speaking Japanese before moving to the US at a young age and then continued to use Japanese at home, while acquiring L1 English at school.
Of course, if the person was already too old to learn L1 English, then he/she will be an L2 English speaker and an L1 Japanese speaker. This may end up being a strange dialect of Japanese if no effort is made to study it formally.

It is very, very rare for anyone to be a perfect L1 speaker of two different languages. One loophole is that for two closely-related languages (e.g. Spanish and Portuguese) it may be possible for even an adult learner to acquire essentially L1 proficiency. Unfortunately, there is no significant language that close to English.

It is presently unknown whether a heritage speaker can, in general, improve his/her language ability to meet the expectations of a standard L1 speaker.

To learn more about heritage speakers, read Heritage languages: In the 'wild' and in the classroom by Polinsky, Maria, and Olga Kagan. 2007. Language and Linguistics Compass 1(5): 368-395.

What is Fluency?

A lot of people seem to think that fluency means you are an L1 speaker of the language. Since that's (essentially) impossible to achieve if you didn't grow up speaking that language, that's way too strict to be useful.

In general, fluent means that the language flows. That is, the speaker doesn't constantly have to stop to think about how to construct each sentence. A fluent speaker may make lots of grammar errors, may have to use a lot of hand gestures, and may have an awful accent, but when he/she speaks, the words flow, and the listeners understand. The person is able to start a sentence without having to think out how the sentence is going to end; for the fluent speaker, speech is something that just happens--like walking.

By that definition, B2 is the threshold of fluency. One might argue that B2 speakers have "intervals of fluency" whereas C-level speakers are fluent all the time. Regardless, if you reach level B2 and call yourself fluent, not too many will argue with you about it.

Rating Yourself

You ought to be able to look at the chart above and get a fair idea of where you are. If in doubt, pick the lower estimate. If you want to be more precise, look through the Council of Europe's self-assessment test.

If you actually have a real need to get a formal language rating, you should look online for any of the commercial sites that do formal testing in your target language. Those can be expensive, though, so before you do that, make sure that the certificate you're paying for is actually accepted by whatever organization you plan to submit it to!

Finally, people are notorious for overestimating their language ability. When someone says that he/she is a C1 speaker, odds are good that B2 would be more accurate. If you have a real need to hire someone with specific language ability, insist that they provide a test result from a respectable organization.


Babbana said...

Very helpful. I did a two week course in Italy recently and was a bit disappointed to be labelled B2, but they were right. I certainly fall into the category of talking away quite happily and then running into a wall.

Would you say that someone who is in the upper As can claim to speak the language?

Greg Hullender said...

Sure. As long as they say "I can speak a little X." A1 might say "I have a smattering of X."

Obviously B1 should say "I can speak some X, but I really need more practice!"

Of course the truth is, we all need more practice. :-)

Russell McAllister said...

Great article, I have been learning Spanish on and off over the last few years and would say I am probably an A2, I did have hopes of eventually getting to C1 but reading this article would be happy with B2. But definitely need more practice and probably throw in an immersion course.

Greg Hullender said...

Immersion is great, but if at all possible, you want to reach B1 before you go. A B1 speaker who puts out the effort will gain an enormous amount from a few weeks of immersion. Lower-level students will gain from immersion as well, but the B1 who comes back a B2 can honestly claim to be "fluent," and that's an awesome feeling.

Mal said...

In Wales, there is a jokey way of describing what you call the Heritage speakers as dogs, they understand everything addressed to them, but don't usually respond, or do so in English. This is maybe just my friends and family, but I've heard it a lot. e.g. "Dad's like our dog in Welsh, he listens to everything, but never speaks" The dad in question probably went to an English medium school in an urban area in the years when Welsh wasn't always taught, so never went beyond toddler-speak, even if it was spoken at home. His kids went to Welsh or mixed-medium schools, and were encouraged to speak, so have a different set of skills.

It is interesting to see how easy it is to lose a language, even when it is all around.

Shirley said...

Thanks you so much for this! I never knew about the L1 Heritage, which is probably my level in Spanish (my parents are Argentinian and are speaking to me only in Spanish, and I respond mainly in my native language). The only thing that's still different is that I do know how to speak it fluently (at least C1), only without rolling my R, because my first native language does not have the same R sound, and also because I never learned Spanish properly I understandably have tons of spelling mistakes. Any idea how's that classified? Sorry for the long comment and any errors I did in English.

Thomas said...

Hi Greg, really appreciated your post, and found myself re-evaluating my honest level in my languages. Would you be able to clarify the movie watching bit of it, though? Where do you get your standards for "Can watch movies without too much difficulty." for C1? I'm in the C1 level for German right now, but haven't tested yet. I find movies extremely easy to understand, without any difficulty. My bigger challenge is the reading/writing at a true C1 level.

Have you done any research into lopsided language learners, who for instance learned speaking/listening at advanced levels but whose reading/writing is not up to par?

Greg Hullender said...

I just reviewed the CEFR materials carefully and translated them into simpler language. Bravo for finding movies easy! I'm the other way around. I can read novels in four languages, but movies only work for me in English. I can get the gist of a Spanish movie, but it's not much fun. (Obviously this is a place I should invest some time and effort.) But my conversation is good enough that when I was in Spain this summer, locals would quickly abandon attempts to speak to me in English.

If you don't live immersed in a language, I think you're likely to wind up "lopsided" in favor of reading. If you participate in online forums (as many students of English do), you can end up lopsided in favor of reading and writing. If you live in a place like Japan, where the writing system is challenging, it's easy to end up lopsided in favor of conversation. Odds are, almost all students of foreign languages end up lopsided for one reason or another.

Being good enough across the board to earn that C1 certification is really hard. Perhaps one of the big value-adds of certification is that it forces you to face up to the areas where you need work.