The Common European Framework is a framework for the standardisation of language levels. It works by giving verbal descriptions (called descriptors) of the things a language user should be able to do with a language at certain levels. There are 6 levels, extending from A1 to C2, A1 being elementary and C1 being a native user. Here is an example of the general B1 descriptor:
Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. Can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. Can produce simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest. Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes and ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.
This descriptor might look so vague as to be almost meaningless. However, the Framework goes into great complexity, with descriptors for all four main skills, and for many micro skills such as information processing, text management, phonology and conversation monitoring and repair, to name a few, with descriptors for all six levels.
Here is an example of a B1 speaking short turn interaction descriptor:
Can start again using a different tactic when communication breaks down.
The descriptors have been arrived at by three means: intuitive thinking, qualitative and quantitative research. Most of the descriptors have been rigorously empirically tested over a wide spectrum of European languages. They are as accurate and as reliable as any descriptions of language competencies are ever going to get.
The practical benefits of the CEF are manifold.
➢ By emphasising competency (language in use), it shifts the whole emphasis of language teaching and testing towards ability in use, rather than simply knowledge of rules. This is a great step forward.
➢ By its scope and detail, it allows assessors and other users to build a profile of different abilities, rather than assigning a number to an overall, theoretical and largely meaningless level, which is how most previous (and some current tests) operate.
➢ It also is a departure from grammar/vocabulary assessment systems, allowing the Framework to be applied to languages which have widely disparate grammatical systems.
➢ In its sheer breadth and depth, it allows curriculum designers, coursebook writers, teachers and learners to be very selective about what areas of the language, and what abilities they want to focus on, without losing some sense of a common measurable standard in their search for a tailor- made individualised syllabus.
Like any big conceptual structure, it has a few faults.
Chief among these is the assumption that low level users are dependent on set-phrases, while high level users are free from this dependency. The Framework states that grammatical competency is the ability to produce sentences and utterances which conform to the rules of grammar as opposed to memorising and reproducing them as fixed formula. This is wrong. Advanced use is not the ability to construct sentences on the hoof from scratch, utilising the rules of grammar, as the Framework authors think, but a combination of grammatical complexity and low-frequency vocabulary usage. Research in computational linguistics is quite unambiguous in attesting to the ubiquitous presence of pre-memorised set-phrases in very advanced users, in all kinds of discourses. This aside, only a few of the descriptors at C1 and C2 level are affected by this.
These practical considerations aside, what’s most interesting, is the philosophical assumptions that underlie the whole project, in particular its essentially European, humanistic impulse. One can see the CEF as the latest in a long line of Humanistic, Enlightenment projects that sought to encompass, encode and describe all domains of human knowledge: Diderot’s Encylopedia, Grimms’ Worterbuch, Johnson’s Dictionary. The anonymous authors of the Framework go out of their way to emphasise the holistic, individualistic aspect of language use and learning: no two users of a language, whether native speakers of foreign learners have exactly the same competences or develop them in the same way. The accompanying documents, in which the underlying assumptions of the whole project are described, encompass a long tradition of European thought, from the pre-Socratic philosophers to Kant’s phenomenology to the latest research in neurobiology.
The CEF aims at total flexibility of use without sacrificing a useful set of universal standards, and it largely succeeds in this aim.