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Language Examinations in England and the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages

by skyblueteapot.

Language Examinations in England and the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages

I hate having to set my own language level in LingQ, because I don’t know how to rate my own ability. This is not, I hasten to point out, the fault of LingQ or the wording of the level descriptions. It’s  my own fault for having gone to school in England. This is why.
The LingQ proficiency levels  are based on the Common European Framework of Reference for languages, described here: LingQ beginner 1 corresponds (as far as I can tell) to A1, beginner 2 to A2 etc. Frameworks based on the CEFRL emphasise practical language skills, and are so worded that it is possible to assess a person’s language proficiency in the time it takes to make breakfast. In fact, you could test someone’s language proficiency during breakfast, using the morning post to test their reading comprehension, and testing their listening and speaking skills by conversing with them over the muffins. If only all testing were that straightforward!
In England, and to a large extent also in the rest of the United Kingdom, the nationwide learning framework we have is the GCSE exams, followed by the Advanced level (A level) exams, then university degrees. Other qualifications are rarely encounterd and usually job-related. Foreign languges are now optional even at GCSE level, so a student has to have a particular interest in learning a foreign language to carry on past junion high school level. Many high schools in England don’t even offer A levels in languages because they have no staff qualified to teach them.
A GCSE gives you an understanding of the rules of grammar and a basic vocabulary. You can write a letter to a penfriend and talk for 5 minutes about your dog. This is all that is required of you, and further than many students ever get. As you don’t get the opportunity to hear natives speaking normally, you don’t know what the language is meant to sound like. You don’t know if you could read a newspaper article, because you never see a foreign language newspaper. That is, unless your parents take you to France for a holiday. Then you are startled to realise that a) French people really DO speak French, and b) that you don’t understand a word of it.
Assuming you are really keen and attend a school with a good French teacher, you may continue to study for an A level, and spend much of the next two years studying “advanced” French. You learn to use the subjunctive and read a piece of literature (Proust maybe) in class. At the end, with a vocabulary of  about 2 000 words, you can discuss A Social Problem and writing essays on Proust in English. You still don’t know if you can read a newspaper and you may still not have heard authentic speech.
Foreign language university graduates in the UK have an average vocabulary of 3 300 words, and, unless they worked really hard in their year abroad (and hung out with actual foreigners), they still can’t speak fluent French.
So how does the national framework of language qualifications in the UK map onto an internationally-recognised framework of language skills?
The short answer is: not very well, at least not according to James Milton (“French as a foreign language and the Common European Framework of Reference for languages”, LLAS, The author has looked at the vocabulary size at each level laid down in the Common European Framework of Reference, and compared this against the actual vocabulary size of students in the UK, Greece and Hungary. He found that in France, Greece and Hungary student vocabularies easily meet or surpass the CEFR targets, while in the UK student vocabularies fall far short. UK language graduates, who in theory should meet the criteria for level C2, have on average a vocabulary of 3 300 words, little more than a survival level and not enough to hold a conversation at the level of an educated native. Their Greek counterparts have an average English vocabulary of 4 500, which easily meets the CEFR targets. Note also that this vocabulary shortfall does not extend to students of English as a foreign language who are studying in Britain. It’s not that British teachers can’t teach languages to non-native speakers, just that they can’t teach any languages other than English. Or maybe it’s because the EFL qualifications are considered as professional qualifications and therefore do not come under the GSCE/A level/bachelors degree model.
This, then, may be the reason why the British fail to learn languages effectively. It may not be a matter of being badly taught, but of being presented with a hopelessly ineffective language learning model. We understanding of what it means to be competent in a foreign language. We don’t even have the vocabulary, in our native language, to describe our language skills. All we know how to say is “I got a B in French at GCSE”. We can’t even ask our teacher for guidance, because our teacher knows only the UK examination model and hasn’t been trained to assess actual competences. To quote the rightfully angry sounding doctor Milton: “Perhaps a [British] university is not the best place to send our learners of French if their foreign language is to develop.”


The Council of Europe (2003) Common Framework of Reference for Languages.Cambridge; CUP.
Milton, J. (2006) “French as a foreign language and the Common European Framework of Reference for languages”, Crossing frontiers: languages and the international dimension, 6-7 July 2006.,

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