Different Levels of Language Proficiency
When you learn a second language, you naturally go through different levels of language proficiency. These levels are commonly called beginner, intermediate, advanced, and superior (or highly proficient), although they are not always clearly separated from one another. In general, beginner language users are able to do less with a language than users at more advanced levels. In this post, we explore two frameworks commonly used to understand the different levels of language proficiency: the CEFR language levels and the ACTFL language levels. Both of these frameworks identify language learners as somewhere on a spectrum from a complete beginner/novice learner (A1, CEFR; Novice, ACTFL) to entirely proficient (C2, CEFR; Distinguished, ACTFL). In addition to unpacking these language levels, we’ll also compare the ACTFL and CEFR levels, address how to properly test language proficiency, answer questions about what it means to be fluent, and discuss how to improve your fluency in a language. Are you ready? Allons-y ! / Vamos! / يلا (yalla) / Let’s go!
Table of Contents
What are the CEFR Language Levels?
The CEFR language levels are A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, and C2. These language levels represent proficiency descriptors ranging from beginner to advanced, as measured by the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, teaching, assessment (CEFR). But what is CEFR, anyway? Well, CEFR was first developed by the Council of Europe in 2001 to serve as a framework for the clear and comprehensive assessment of foreign language proficiency. It was also designed to guide the development of language syllabi and curriculum guidelines as resources for language teaching and learning. One of the main objectives behind the creation of CEFR was to bring greater focus to what language learners ought to achieve with language and how this can be accomplished.
Let’s have a look at each of the CEFR levels in more detail.
CEFR A1 Level (Basic)
The CEFR A1 proficiency level represents basic users of a language. At the A1 level, language learners are able to use and understand basic phrases or common expressions used in familiar contexts or to complete beginner-friendly, concrete tasks. In speaking, the A1 learner will use isolated and formulaic utterances, along with pauses, repetition, and rephrasing. When listening and reading, language users at the A1 level require slow, direct, and simple speech and text. A1 learners can introduce themselves, ask and answer basic personal questions, and generally interact in simple ways.
To reach the A1 level, you can start by memorizing a few key, high-frequency words or phrases in your target language and practice introducing yourself or offering some basic personal information. At the next level, you’ll grow a bit more confident in the language — take a look in the next section!
CEFR A2 Level (Basic)
The A2 proficiency level is for language learners who are still basic users, but whose skills are slightly more advanced than an A1 learner. At the A2 language proficiency level, users still rely on familiar and personal subject matter to assist with language understanding and production. In reading and listening, A2 users can comprehend predictable and simple texts and conversations. In writing, these users can create short messages with very concrete purposes, like expressing gratitude.
To reach the A2 level, you can increase your vocabulary repertoire and practice having conversations about a wide range of topics. Now, let’s explore what to work on next after you master these skills.
CEFR B1 Level (Independent)
The B1 language proficiency level describes learners who are independent users of the language. B1 users can regularly understand language related to work, leisure, travel, and school as it comes up in clear conversational input. B1 language users should also have enough vocabulary and knowledge of grammatical structures to manage routine and predictable conversation, and to discuss topics of general and personal interest using short connected phrases.
To reach the B1 language proficiency level, try to practice stringing independent sentences and expressions into larger sequences of information. Expanding your vocabulary on new topics that feel familiar or interesting to you will also help you reach the “independent user” level. Now, let’s check out the next level: B2.
CEFR B2 Level (Independent)
Language learners at the B2 level (still independent language users) possess the ability to identify the main point of texts and conversations that discuss both concrete and abstract (although still familiar) topics. B2 users have a higher level of fluency and spontaneity in conversation than A1 to B1 users. While errors may still be occasionally made, they do not prevent understanding, and the B2 language user will often self-correct.
To reach the B2 level, try to familiarize yourself with more abstract concepts in your target language. Practice speaking and using transition words (even in a mirror!) to improve your fluency and spontaneity in conversation. But maybe you’re already there — in that case, let’s unpack the next level: C1.
CEFR C1 Level (Proficient)
The C1 language proficiency level refers to proficient language users who can understand a broad range of information, often picking up on implicit details and meaning. C1 language users can express themselves with relative ease and fluency. They can use language flexibility in a wide variety of contexts (social, professional, academic, etc.). In speech and writing, the C1 user can use connectors and organizational devices to structure their thoughts.
To reach the C1 level, you will want to practice using the language not only in your everyday life, but in more formal contexts, as well — such as in professional and serious conversations at work or in academic settings. Work on your structural knowledge of the language and expand your vocabulary beyond concepts that are concrete or familiarly abstract. Once you do this, you’ll just have one last language level to go — C2!
CEFR C2 Level (Proficient)
Learners at C2 language proficiency are the most proficient on the CEFR scale, understanding almost all input easily. C2 users can summarize and present information, and even reconstruct arguments or narratives that they have already heard. They can also express themselves accurately and totally fluently, and understand complexities in context, meaning, and language style. C2 users will be able to fully engage content that is unfamiliar, specialized, or complexly abstract.
To reach the C2 language proficiency level, you’ll need to be an expert in your language! Diversify the content you consume in the language to familiarize yourself with new language styles and more complex vocabulary and grammatical structures. And, of course, practice speaking!
Now that we’ve seen the CEFR language proficiency levels, let’s take a look at another scale used to measure language proficiency: the ACTFL language levels.
What are the ACTFL Language Levels?
The ACTFL language levels are Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, Superior, and Distinguished. These levels, published by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language, describe what language users are able to spontaneously do in a language in regard to speaking, writing, listening, and reading. Like the CEFR levels, the ACTFL levels reflect a continuum of language proficiency.
Within the five ACTFL language levels (Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, Superior, and Distinguished), the first three levels of proficiency contain the sublevels “low,” “mid,” and “high.”
At the highest sublevel (“high”), a language user will occasionally perform at the next major proficiency level but will not be able to sustain this performance consistently. For example, a Novice High language learner will behave almost like an intermediate language user, but not quite as consistently. On the contrary, at the “low” sublevel, the learner is barely meeting the requirements for the level — an Intermediate Low learner is clearly far away from the “high” Intermediate sublevel, while not being too far from the Novice level. At the “mid” sublevel, a language user is solidly performing at that major proficiency level, with very little evidence of reaching the next major level. Pretty straightforward, right?
Now, let’s take a closer look at what Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, Superior, and Distinguished language users can and cannot do.
Novice language learners have a very limited functional ability in the language. Novice learners rely on simple, predictable, memorizable, and familiar language structures. They speak in isolated phrases and words that may require a sympathetic listener to fully understand. When Novice language users listen to their target language, they might need help from the speaker in the form of slower speech, repetition or rephrasing, and simple and predictable input. When writing and reading, a Novice learner relies on formulaic phrases and keywords and predictable content/communication.
But what exactly can a Novice learner do? Think back to when you first started learning a second language — you probably started with simple phrases and words like “hello” or “thank you.” Or, maybe you learned how to write your name in a new alphabet! These are all skills that a Novice language learner has. Take a look at the lists below:
Are you wondering how to reach the Novice level? You might already be there! This is the language proficiency level at which every learner starts. Pick up a phrase book, practice some easy, formulaic conversations, or learn the alphabet of your new language and you’ll be well on your way to being a Novice. But, maybe you’re a little more advanced by now…in that case, let’s check out what it looks like to be an Intermediate language learner.
Intermediate language users have a stronger grip on the language than a novice user — Intermediate learners can create with the language, which means they can express themselves (and understand others) beyond formulaic phrases and memorized words. In speaking, they can ask and answer simple, familiar questions and form sentences or even groups of sentences. As listeners, Intermediate learners still rely on tools like repetition, restatement, and context clues, but they can comprehend more information from clear, direct, and simple utterances than a Novice user can. In reading and writing, Intermediate learners can produce and understand simple, straightforward messages in individual and multiple-sentence formats on everyday familiar topics.
To reach the Intermediate level, a language user must learn to create with the language — meaning form sentences and questions and string together ideas and familiar expressions/vocabulary to express original information. At the Advanced level, language users start to acquire some of these skills that Intermediate learners do not yet have. Let’s dig in!
Advanced-level language users can navigate a variety of familiar and unfamiliar situations with a relatively stable handle on the language. Advanced speakers can hold both personal conversations and conversations on abstract and unexpected topics. Across writing, speaking, reading, and listening, Advanced language users can manage paragraph-length language and changing time frames (past, present, future).
To reach the Advanced proficiency level, language users must begin to demonstrate an ability to communicate beyond familiar boundaries. Advanced language users possess a strong competence in the language, but may still make errors when dealing with more complex grammar points or need to substitute descriptions or synonyms for unknown vocabulary or phrases. At the Superior level, this starts to change. Check it out below!
Superior-level language users can use the language accurately and fluently to discuss both familiar and unfamiliar topics in both formal and informal settings. As speakers, Superior language users can communicate without extensive hesitation and can use native-like communications strategies (e.g., turn-taking strategies). In writing, Superior language learners demonstrate a mastery of the writing standards for the target language. Across the communicative domains, Superior language users make few errors in grammar and vocabulary. As readers and listeners, Superior language users can understand information on a variety of topics regardless of level of familiarity.
To reach the Superior level of proficiency in a language, a learner must acquire relative mastery of abstract and concrete vocabulary and grammatical and communicative structures that are used by native speakers. In some cases, a language user will continue to master a language to the point that they reach the Distinguished proficiency level.
At the Distinguished level, a language user is accurate, effective, fluent, and comfortable. Not only can Distinguished language users communicate about everyday familiar and unfamiliar topics, but they can offer advice, make arguments, and explain a significant range of complicated, academic, and abstract subjects. In speaking and writing, Distinguished language users can use the language in official and formal contexts like legal representation and correspondence, journal articles, etc. In listening and reading, Distinguished language users can understand and appreciate stylistic features and devices in the language, such as puns, tone, cultural allusions, and flowery/beautiful language.
To reach the Distinguished level, a language user must have extensive knowledge of the language and many years of experience and practice to hone proficiency. A learner must master the ability to use the language not only in formal settings, but in highly academic, professional, legal, political, etc settings.
Now that we’ve taken a look at both the ACTFL and CEFR language proficiency levels, let’s take a look at how they are similar and different.
How do CEFR and ACTFL Compare?
The CEFR and ACTFL organizations have similar goals: to establish criteria that can be used to assess a language user’s functional language proficiency. Both proficiency frameworks are used to form the basis of major testing and certification systems, as well as to develop materials (e.g., textbooks), curricula, and standards. And yet, only recently have the two systems been empirically correlated. In 2010, ACTFL began an effort to align the two scales, resulting in a one-directional correspondence of CEFR ratings to the ACTFL scale.
Check out the corresponding CEFR ratings to ACTFL proficiency assessment scores below:
Here at Mango, we offer a Mango Proficiency Scale of five levels (Beginner 1, Beginner 1, Skilled 1, Skilled 2, Skilled 3), meant to assist our learners in tracking their progress in their language using the Mango app. Like the CEFR and ACTFL scales, the Mango Proficiency Scale tracks progress across the four domains of speaking, reading, writing, and listening. To see how each Mango level compares with the ACTFL and CEFR frameworks, see the comparison chart we’ve developed below:
Alright, so now we understand what the different proficiency levels are — both on the CEFR scale and the ACTFL scale (and even on Mango’s own proficiency level system!). But, how do you find out which language level you’re at? Let’s take a look!
How to Test Language Level
The most effective way to test your language level is to take a language proficiency test. A language proficiency test assesses a language user’s speaking, reading, writing, and/or listening proficiency. While ACTFL has developed its own assessments in these domains, CEFR offers guides for linking general proficiency test scores to the CEFR scale.
As explained by ACTFL, a good proficiency test will emphasize proficiency over performance, meaning that assessment is more about how you can use the language in real-world situations and less about your knowledge of verb conjugations. Proficiency tests should examine:
The ability to test language proficiency is an important step in studying how language is acquired. Research using ACTFL proficiency tests and levels, for example, has suggested that college language learners’ proficiency increases by roughly one-third of an ACTFL sublevel per college semester. Interestingly, students at lower proficiency levels seem to make the quickest improvements.
Studies like this one suggest that proficiency tests need to properly assess communicative competence (how well a learner can actually function in a language) in a way that is context-appropriate (accounting for differences in learners and their environments).
Okay, so now you know a bit more about how to find out what your language level is. But, how do you know if that means you’re fluent?
Which Language Level is Enough to Speak Fluently?
Generally speaking, the Superior (ACTFL) or C1 (CEFR) language proficiency level is enough to speak fluently. In the descriptors for what learners can do at these levels, ACTFL explains that superior speakers “are able to communicate with accuracy and fluency.” Similarly, CEFR explains that C1 users are able to “express [themselves] fluently and spontaneously, almost effortlessly.”
And yet, the term “fluent” certainly can be ambiguous – it depends on what you really mean when you say you want to be fluent. Do you want to be able to ask for directions on the street? Or, maybe you’d like to hold a conversation with your partner’s family? Perhaps you’re even looking to conduct research and do work in the language? These will all require different levels of language fluency. So in order to really know which language level is enough to speak fluently, you’ll first have to figure out your own goals and take a look at the ACTFL Can-Do Statements and CEFR Self-Assessment Grid to see if you’ve reached them!
But perhaps you already know you’re not quite where you want to be yet. That’s okay! Let’s take a look at some ways to improve your level of language proficiency.
How to Improve Your Level of Language Proficiency
To improve your level of language proficiency, you’ll need to practice reading, speaking, writing, and listening. You can also help yourself get to a higher level by familiarizing yourself with new vocabulary topics, studying more complex grammar constructions, and growing comfortable conversing in the language will also help to proficiency. This can help improve your self-confidence too! However, if you’re still not sure where to get started, check out our self-guided reflection on what might be holding you back from achieving your desired level of fluency. Here’s a preview: you might need to focus on your motivation, the amount of time you’re spending on learning, and your language learning strategies.
One of my favorite strategies for practicing a language is to simply find ways to make yourself more comfortable with it. When you increase your comfort with speaking, reading, writing, and/or listening in a language, you’re more likely to be motivated, have more self-confidence, and have lower anxiety — all factors which can impact how effectively you learn. In other words, the more anxious or less confident you are in your language, the harder it will be to acquire it. To become more confident and comfortable in your language, try incorporating it into activities you already enjoy:
Learning a language takes time, and it’s not always easy to climb the language proficiency ladder. But don’t worry — with time, dedication, and your new understanding of how proficiency works in language learning, you’ll reach your goals in no time!