How good are their language skills?

Wooden cubes with language levels, concept of learning and impro

The Problem

Imagine an HR manager trying to assess the supposed language skills from 4 European job candidates.  Each country has its own assessment system in schools (A-levels in England & Wales, Baccalauréat for example in France, Abitur in Germany, Maturità in Italy).

It has always been difficult to compare linguistic apples with apples (something about comparing cabbages and carrots in French, I believe). Is a grade B at A-level in England the same as a 14 out of 20 in France or a 12 out of 15 in Germany?

The Solution

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) is the go-to system that defines and explains the different levels of oral and written expression and comprehension for languages – as you might expect – across Europe.

The great thing about the CEFR system is that it relies on can-do definitions or descriptors: if you can do these things or perform these functions, you are at this level – whatever the language. Thus, there is a common understanding of linguistic capability; it allows people who are setting up language courses to manage expectations all round.

The CEFR consists of 6 common levels of reference for all languages: three blocks (A or basic user, B or independent user and C or proficient user), which are in turn divided into two sublevels, 1 and 2.

Who needs what?

And of course, you or your delegate might (need to) be at one level with your speaking skills but a different one with your written. This system caters for these differences; and in many countries the exams are adapted to consider ages or even general or business needs. It’s a very flexible and adaptable framework.

If you’re just travelling for overnight stays in Berlin, you can probably survive with the A1 or A2 basic user block (and probably with the focus on just speaking and listening skills), but if you want to study an MBA at a Spanish University, you’ll need something in the C Block (and proficient in reading and writing and listening and speaking).

You can find a full breakdown of the levels here.


How these levels are assessed is down to the individual (country). In the UK a standard recognised testing body is Cambridge English (part of the University); in France it’s the Ministry of Education; and in Germany the Goethe Institut – but there are others. People may also simply self-assess (risky) or ask a professional to write a formal evaluation of their skills.

At Dialogue, we include an informal assessment of level with every report we write. We can also advise on the most suitable exam for your candidates if you need some form of external verification of level.

How long is that piece of string?

The eternal question we’re asked is: “How many hours do I need to move from one level to another?”

It depends on so many things

  • Natural aptitude of the learner
  • Skill of the teacher
  • The student’s experience with learning other languages
  • Environment – learning in the target language country or not
  • Area to be assessed – is it language revolving around the inside of a photocopier or is it general language – the first is easier than the second!
  • Is the focus just on speaking and listening or all 4 skills?

It’s not a straightforward answer, sorry!

Even so, it has brought a level playing field to the world of language training – and all parties – trainers, students, and sponsors – can now have a clearer idea of what they’re doing with their linguistic L&D!

Get in touch and we’ll tell you more.

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