How Fluent Am I?

By Jonty Yamisha

Discover Your Level of Fluency Using the CEFR Self-Assessment

Fluency is one of the most debated terms in language-learning, and perhaps one of the most often misunderstood concepts. The reality is that “learning a language” means different things to different people. Moreover, that definition can change over time. When you’re just starting out, you might be really happy to say a few basic expressions. Once you get more advanced, you might wish you could have a formal discussion on current events. It’s a moving goalpost for all of us. This makes defining your level of fluency tricky…

So, we’re going to make it REALLY easy for you. Because after all, language-learning should be a simple, exciting journey. This article is going to overview EVERYTHING you need to know about the CEFR, what fluency is, and how you can figure out your language learning skill level using the CEFR self-assessment.

What does it mean to learn a language

What Does It Mean to Know a Language?

On the surface, learning a language seems like a pretty straightforward process. You might read through some language guides, spend some time on YouTube, and even use the best language-learning program out there. But when you take a closer look, the idea of what “learning” is and what it means to “learn” something becomes much less clear.

For instance, if you study French in school and pass the tests, do you know the language? Maybe. But what happens if you try to use it and struggle or even fail to speak? Did you learn the language? Even after studying it for all those years? What if you can read, but not write? What if you can speak, but you have a hard time understanding? What if you have an accent?

And most importantly, you may wonder, “When will I ever finish!?”

And this grows more complicated once we move outside of your definition of “learning” and evolve towards what it means to “know”. What do you know or think you know? And what do native speakers think about your language skills? On the one hand, we often know far less than we’d hope. On the other hand, we often know far more than we give ourselves credit for. 

How many domains can a language be broken into? 

If you want to figure out whether or not you know something, you need to know the aspects of that topic. And for language learning, that means understanding how many domains make up a language. The answer is 4. 

Reading

Writing
Listening

Speaking

Why does this matter? Because so many people want to reach fluency, but they often only focus on one or two domains. And the result is that they never make real progress to that goal. 

The CEFR makes this easy. It lays out all the domains and then gives you explicit details on how to reach each level in each category. Yet, despite the fact that all language learners want to know how fluent they are, very few have heard of the CEFR. And of those who’ve heard of it, most haven’t seen it broken down into a way that makes sense.

And that’s exactly what we’re going to do in this post. 

Naturally, there have been many attempts to create an objective reference to gauge language-learning. The CEFR is perhaps the most widely-used model in existence. So, to fully understand what it means to “learn a language” by CEFR standards, we need to define the CEFR and look at how it’s used to define language learners.

And once we do that, we’re going to show you a quick and easy way to self-assess your language learning abilities, so you always know what level you are. 

What Is the CEFR and Why Does it Exist? 

CEFR Compared to Other Language Assessments

The CEFR is short for the Common European Framework for the References of Languages. And it’s the current guideline used to describe achievements of foreign language learners across Europe and increasingly in other countries. 

Originally, the Council of Europe created the CEFR as the main part of a project called “language-learning for European Citizenship” between 1989 and 1996. Its main aim was to provide a method of learning, teaching, and assessing language that applies to European languages. 

The CEFR Levels

The CEFR achieves a standardized method of measuring language-learning by formally assessing and categorizing the abilities of people trying to learn a new language. It places language learners into 3 different categories, Basic, Independent, Proficient.

In each of these categories, there are two levels:

  • Basic: A1 and A2
  • Independent: B1 and B2
  • Proficient: C1 and C2

(Tourist/A0/Pre A1 defines someone who is just getting started on their language-learning journey and has no working knowledge of the language).

Because the CEFR is a standardized unit of measurement, there is less confusion and variance in one’s language-learning level. A person who’s at a B2 level in French living in Germany, for example, would have the same B2 level of French as someone studying in Italy, according to the CEFR.

As learners improve their language skills, they move through the stages and into different categories. During this process, students can take the CEFR assessments used to evaluate their ability and track progress towards a target language level. However, it’s possible (and much easier) for language learners to gauge their progress through self-assessment.  

What Is the CEFR Self-Assessment Rubric? 

The CEFR rubric breaks down language-learning levels into four domains. These are: listening, reading, writing, and speaking. Using the rubric, you can self-assess your abilities based on what you’re able to do in each category. And the CEFR makes this easy because it uses clear statements to classify ability in each category. 

Language-learning is more of a spectrum than a series of clear cut steps. So, an A1 speaker would have a basic understanding of the language on this spectrum. By that same token, C2 would describe the highest language skill level according to the CEFR. This would be language mastery. In short, the self-assessment defines the space between beginner and near-native speaker through a series of steps that anyone can understand.

CEFR Is a Universally Accepted Language Assessment

Here, it’s important to note that one’s language abilities might not be uniform across all four domains of language-learning. More on that in a bit… 

The CEFR exists because of the difficulty in classifying language ability. As a skill, abilities vary greatly. While your friends, family, and loved ones might think your ability to speak in a certain language is fluent. Professors, teachers, or employers may have different opinions. As a result, the CEFR attempts to remove the subjective difficulties in gauging one’s language-learning progress by establishing a list of specific criteria.  

How Is Your CEFR Level Assessed?

Below you’ll find a very brief overview of the CEFR. It generally defines what speakers can do at each level and roughly how many words they have command over. However, only the self-assessment rubric goes fully into the domains with each of its categories. (We’ll cover those shortly…)

A very brief overview of each level according to the CEFR: 

Level
Description
Vocabulary
Speakers generally can:
A1
Beginner
500 words
Use and understand basic phrases when speaking slowly.
A2
Elementary
1,000 words
Understand simple expressions and express immediate needs.
B1
Intermediate
2,000 words
Understand common issues and improvise discussion.
B2
Upper
4,000 words
Understand complex topics; engage in spontaneous speech.
C1
Advanced
8,000 words
Express ideas fluently and spontaneously without strain.
C2
Mastery
16,000 words
Comprehend virtually everything read or heard.

Bear in mind that these are general guidelines. Knowing 2,000 words in your target language does not automatically make you a B2 speaker. In fact, many new language learners make the common mistake of asking how many words do you need to know to be fluent in a foreign language.

It’s not an accurate way to gauge language learning, however. To use an analogy, being a great painter requires far more than having a large number of colors to paint. Both speaking and painting requires practice, patience, and skill. 

Fluency involves the ability to string words together into phrases so you can communicate. After all, language is about communicating with other people to achieve some kind of goal. Words help with that, but knowing them is not the end result. 

Rather, it’s best to look at it in the reverse. Someone who’s C1 can “express ideas fluently and spontaneous without strain,” and they probably have a grasp of around 8000 words. 

Remember: the CEFR is a guide. And like with any guide, it’s important to use it as a frame of reference and as a tool to help you set language-learning goals. However, it’s also important not to get too tied up on categories or labels. To put it another way, you wouldn’t grade a musician on their ability to plan the guitar. But guitarists can be classified by their abilities. 

The key is knowing what they can do with the instrument, and what you can do with the language.  This is what we’ll look at next.

How Are the CEFR Domains Defined?

Now we’ll pivot into the four domains of language-learning into more detail. Below you’ll find a simple version of the CEFR you can use for self-assessment. 

Take a look:

A1 A2 B1 B2 C1 C2
U N D E R S T
A N D I N G
Listening
  • Recognize familiar words and very basic phrases about myself, family and immediate surroundings when people speak slow and clear.
  • Understand phrases and very high-frequency words related to basic personal info. (family details, shopping, employment, etc.)
  • Catch the main point of short, clear, simple messages/announcements.
  • Understand the main points of clear standard speech on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.
  • Understand the main point of media programs about current affairs, personal topics, and professional interests (when delivery is slow and clear).
  • Understand extended speech, lectures, and complex lines of arguments (on familiar topics).
  • Understand most TV news and current affairs programs.
  • Understand the majority of films in standard dialect.
  • Understand extended speech (even if unstructured/involves implied ideas).
  • Understand television programs and films without much effort.
  • No difficulty understanding any kind of spoken language, even when delivered rapidly (accents may acquire time to understand).
Reading
  • Understand familiar names, words, and very simple sentences.
  • Read very short, simple texts.
  • Find specific, predictable information in simple everyday materials (ads, menus, timetables, etc.).
  • Understand short, simple texts.
  • Understand texts consisting of high-frequency, everyday, or job-related language.
  • Understand the description of events, feelings, and wishes in personal texts.
  • Read articles/reports about contemporary problems where writers express opinions.
  • Understand contemporary literary prose.
  • Understand long, complex, factual/literary texts (appreciating distinctions of style).
  • Understand specialized articles and longer technical instructions (even if not related to my field).
  • Easily read virtually any forms of the written language (i.e., manuals, specialized articles, and literary works).
S P E A K I N G Spoken
Interaction
  • Participate in simple interactions if the other person repeats/rephrases speech slowly and helps.
  • Ask/answer simple questions relating to an immediate need or very familiar topics.
  • Communicate basic, routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar topics and activities.
  • Handle very short social exchanges (but unable to keep the conversation going independently).
  • Handle most situations likely to arise during travel.
  • Enter unprepared into conversations on familiar topics (personal interests, family, work, current events, etc).
  • Interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity making regular interaction with native speakers possible.
  • Take an active part in discussing and sustaining views on familiar texts.
  • Fluently and spontaneously express views without obvious searching for expressions.
  • Flexibly and effectively use language for social and professional purposes.
  • Formulate ideas/opinions precisely.
  • Effortlessly engage in any conversation/discussion
  • Familiarity with idiomatic expressions and colloquialisms.
  • Fluently express and convey finer shades of meaning precisely.
  • Backtrack and restructure speech seamlessly when difficulties arise.
Spoken
Production
  • Use simple phrases and sentences to describe where I live/the people I know.
  • Use a series of phrases and sentences to describe basic personal topics (family, living conditions, educational background, job, etc.).
  • Connect phrases in a simple way to describe personal experiences (events, dreams, hopes, and ambitions).
  • Briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.
  • Narrate a story or relate the plot of a book/film and describe my reactions.
  • Present clear, detailed descriptions on wide-ranging subjects in my field of interest.
  • Explain a viewpoint on a topical issue noting the advantages and disadvantages of various options.
  • Present clear, detailed descriptions of complex subjects integrating sub-themes, developing particular points, and finishing with a conclusion.
  • Present a clear, smoothly-flowing description or argument with appropriate style and context using an effective logical structure to help others notice and remember significant points.
W R
I T I N G
Writing
  • Write a short, simple postcard/text.
  • Fill out simple forms with personal details.
  • Write short, simple notes/messages relating to immediate needs.
  • Write very simple personal texts.
  • Write simple texts on topics familiar/personal topics.
  • Write personal letters describing experiences/ impressions.
  • Write clear, detailed text on wide-ranging subjects related to my interests.
  • Write an essay or report with opposing views.
  • Write letters highlighting the personal significance of events/experiences.
  • Express clear, well- structured points of view at some length in texts.
  • Write about complex subjects in letters, essays, or reports underlining important issues.
  • Write in an appropriate style for the reader.
  • Write clear, smoothly-flowing text in an appropriate style.
  • Write complex letters, reports, or articles logically arguing significant points.
  • Write summaries and reviews of professional or literary works.
© Council of Europe / Conseil de l’Europe

You’ll notice that across the top, the CEFR defines each category of language learner (A1 – C2). And going down, it separates the domains. Essentially, these are listening, speaking, reading, and writing. However, speaking is also broken up into two categories: conversations and presentations. 

How to Use the CEFR to Find Out Your Langauge Learning Level

To find your ability in each, you would simply read the statement in each category to see where you are. You’ll quickly discover that you might be an A1 in one category and a B2 in another, depending on your abilities. 

From there, you can use statement in the next category to quickly see what you need to accomplish to go up a level. Each row progressively gets more complex the closer you get to C2. For instance, your topics of conversation move from general, chopped phrases and words to an increased ability to analyze and discuss more complex topics fluidly.  

To figure out your overall language level, you average them out. For instance, if you’re a B2 speaker and listener, a B1 reader, and an A1 writer, you would roughly classify as an overall B1.

How Can I Rapidly Achieve “Fluency” on the CEFR Scale? 

You can use the CEFR to gauge where you’re at in your language-learning abilities. This will help you understand your strengths and weaknesses. But it’s important to remember that language-learning is a skill to be learned, not studied. And the failure to treat it as such usually results in a failure to learn the language.

How Quickly Can I Learn a New Language?

Sadly, there are limitations to how fast we can learn something. In short, we have several different types of memory that all work in their own way. But pushing something from short-term memory into long-term memory takes time.

Learning is an organic process that requires your brain to build new synapses so that it can access new information. And while there are techniques you can do to optimize your time, there is a ceiling to how fast you can truly learn new information.

So while there are no “tricks” or “shortcuts”, there are a few strategies you can use to maximize your efforts. 

The truth most language-learning apps suck. And many traditional methods prioritize reading and writing over speaking and listening. Most programs like DuoLingo and Babbel are great as flashcards, but they over-rely on knowing words rather than speaking. And this is what gets people stuck on their journey to learn a new language.

If you want to stark speaking in your target language fast, then you need a language-learning program that gets you speaking instead of typing, your language. Luckily, that’s exactly what OptiLingo does. For more information, check out how OptiLingo works today!