Language levels & Certificates

Hello it’s Bruno again. Today, I will answer the question about language levels and how they are use by universities.

Do you want to study abroad?  You probably already know all the potential obstacles that can stand in your way. One question you certainly asked yourself is “Am I fluent enough to follow the courses in a foreign country?” Or “Is my French good enough to study in Paris?”. Or maybe “Is my English good enough to study in England?”

Getting yourself prepared for that should be on top of your list. Why? You could learn a lot about the language by living in the country. But chance is the recruiter of the university also needs to answer that question, which is part of the greater question all schools need to answer: “Can this student follow our courses?”

This is where language certificates come in handy. They will prove that you are good enough. Some universities set high requirements but no worries, schools will never ask you to be as good as a native speaker.

Especially if you are fresh from high school.

Language levels to understand language certificates

After we have introduced language levels, it will be easier for me to tell you about language certificates. I will use them as a guideline to compare the different tests, based on the difficulty level or to interpret test scores. In the following articles you will be able to tell which test is more difficult or which tests match your level.

Indeed, some organizations choose to provide a different test for each language level. However, others provide a test that encompasses multiple levels and interpret your level based on the score you get. Hopefully, it will help you choose the certificate that suits you best.

The CEFR and the reference levels

What would be good is an international standard for language levels. This would make it possible to compare a Chinese student’s level in English to a German student’s level in Spanish.To accomplish this, the interpretation of level should be based on objective and factual parameters.

Well, good news, such a tool already exists. We know it as “reference levels” and is a part of a document called the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages or  CEFR. The Council of Europe published the first version in 2001 (However it is not the same thing as the European Council, the Council of Europe is not related to the European Union)

Please visit their website if you want to know more about the CEFR, they have much more to offer than just reference levels. Especially if you want to be a language teacher.

Description of reference levels

The six common reference levels are :

  1. A1 : Breakthrough or beginner
  2. A2 : Waystage or elementary
  3. B1 : Threshold or intermediate
  4. B2 : Vantage or upper intermediate
  5. C1 : Effective operational proficiency or advanced
  6. C2 : Mastery or proficiency

They come from three major levels: A: Basic, B: Independent, and C: Proficient.

B2 theoretically corresponds to the expected level at end of high school, before entering university or college, and C2 to the level at the end of university for language specialists.

If you want to understand the levels precisely, you can find reference grids on the website.
They describe all levels in terms of what students can do.
However, there is no level for native users, who are in another league, and learners are not expected to reach this level at the end of their studies (become bilingual).
What is handy here is that all language certificate results correspond to a reference level.

The major skills

The CEFR also takes into account six major linguistic skills :

  1. listening,
  2. reading,
  3. speaking,
  4. writing,
  5. speaking in interaction (dialogue)
  6. writing in interaction (messaging).*
  • this is a new one

Students get a level for each skills, the overall level being the lowest skill level.

There are more skills but the language certificates will not assess so many. They usually assess the four major skills (read, write, listen, speak).

Alternatives to the CEFR levels

There is also the GSE (Global Scale of English) which is more precise than the CEFR levels using a range from 10 to 90 and is only used for English language (As the name implies). It is not as widely known though.

The right choice

One thing to keep in mind is that you are not aiming to get a CEFR level but a certificate recognized by your university.  So before deciding to choose such or such certificate, make sure to get the documentation from the school that interests you and check what certificate they accept for enrolment.