29 October 2012


Have you heard of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages?  I have, and I don't particularly like it, which is an opinion I'm maybe too quick to express.  I think it's worth me giving a more in-depth and complete critique here.  This is part I...

What is the CEFR?
For those of you not yet familiar with it, the CEFR was an idea conceived by the Council of Europe in the 90s as a solution to the problem of differing language standards across Europe.  Some bodies would use terms like "Beginner", "Intermediate" and "Advanced", or their local equivalents, and these didn't always match up, and some would insert additional intermediate grades.  With EFL, for example, the scale is normally "beginner", "post-beginner", "lower intermediate", "intermediate", "upper intermediate", "advanced".  Others would have numbered grades, others still lettered grades. When assessing CVs (en-US: "resume"), this made it very difficult to compare candidates' language levels.

The Council of Europe's scheme took the basic "beginner-intermediate-advanced" scheme and relabelled it as "basic-independent-proficient", then transferred it to a lettered form, with A as basic, B as independent and C as proficient.  They subdivided each of these into two bands, giving 6 levels in total: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2.

It was adopted by the European Union in 2001 as an official recommendation to all member states.  In practical terms this means that it's quite hard to get European funding for a language teaching initiative if you can't align it to the CEFR.

Why I don't like the CEFR
The CEFR is, I feel, just as vague as the grading systems that preceded it.  The only benefit to the learner, teacher or employer is that it results in everyone using the same terminology, which makes it easier to discuss language proficiency internationally.  But while we can discuss it easier, we're still not able to discuss it precisely, because the CEFR is still far from precise.

Now, when I say this, the response is normally to point me towards such things as the language portfolio.  The initial level descriptions are necessarily quite vague, and while there's a whole host of documents surrounding this, in reality, what we have is a devolution of vagueness to secondary sources.  Much of the "detail" added is actually false detail.

Take for example the Swiss self-assessment checklist, which has picked out as by the Council of Europe as a good example of the CEFR in practice.

The very first checklist item is a level 1 objective: I can understand when someone speaks very slowly to me and articulates carefully, with long pauses for me to assimilate meaning.

What does it mean to "understand"?  We're looking here at someone who has barely started learning a language, and there will be very little content that he will be able to understand.  Technically, I could mark this as "no" for all my languages, because I won't be able to understand someone even if they speak slowly, because I won't know all the words they are saying.

Moreover, the ideas of "speaking very slowly", "articulating carefully" and "with long pauses" are all inherently vague.  Am I allowed to slow them down as much as I like?  Can the pauses by long enough for me to consult a dictionary or a grammar book?

Another problem is pervasive tendency to tautology:
"I can ask and answer simple questions, initiate and respond to simple statements in areas of immediate need or on very familiar topics. "
"I can understand phrases, words and expressions related to areas of most immediate priority"

Familiar subjects are subjects which the learner has become familiar with. The first sentence therefore is logically equivalent to the statement "I can discuss stuff I'm able to discuss."

The second is potentially just as tautologous. Consider that the teacher will be teaching language to a certain priority. So this is effectively "I can understand phrases, words and expressions that I have been taught".

A characteristic of descriptions of the CEFR is that this idea of subject-specificity carries through all levels, moving through talking about your area of work, technical documents etc, but always in a way that really is self-defined.

The CEFR dictates methodology

The people behind the CEFR deny it, stating that the CEFR only dictates content, not method, but have a look at this from the Swiss guidelines:
"I can make myself understood using memorised phrases and single expressions. "
The CEFR itself doesn't state this, but the very same subject-specificity I highlighted above forces the issue.  If you're measuring people on dealing with topics and situations, you have to train them with topic-specific language.

But that's not what language is -- the core of all language is topic independent.  Our basic grammar -- tenses, prepositions, word order etc -- is the same in all fields.

By breaking into topic specific right from level A1, the CEFR actually dictates material that the student isn't ready to learn yet, so they have to memorise phrases.  This imposes a certain view of teaching on the course writer.  It is a view of teaching that is held by the majority of teachers, but it is not universally accepted, and I personally believe it is the wrong way round.

If the grammar is taught first, all that subject-specific stuff will fall into place with ease, but the goals for A1 steal time from the teacher, so it can't be done.


Not all languages are equal

The CEFR is a single framework for all languages, for all students.  Essentially it suggests an order of learning survival -> career related -> general.  Even if a fixed order is a good idea, is that the right order?

In the Romance languages, career-related stuff is simplicity itself... depending on your career.

I used to work in IT, while studying language.  With practically zero effort, I learned to discuss linguistics in Catalan.  I can sort of get by discussing computers, but it's a struggle.  I couldn't ask for directions to the railway station.

So my natural order of learning was specialist->career->survival

This order of difficulty is a bit different from what the CEFR would predict.  Why?

Well, linguistics is mostly Latin (even the word linguistics!) so translation into Catalan is simply a matter of applying regular transformations to known English words.  Computing, on the other hand, uses mostly English words, so the translations into Catalan can be very difficult to predict, and have to be learned individually.  Thus the CEFR suggests that people should get stuck at a certain level for longer simply because some people need more words than others.  But that's not prerequisite knowledge for the other levels.

But both are still easier than getting to the railway station.  Why?

Any technical field is well-defined and logically organised.  Translations are very often one-to-one and quite literal.  Technical stuff is (contrary to expectations) easy.  And more to the point, it is far, far easier to integrate it.

When you teach instructions, the progression of complexity is along the lines of:
left, right, straight on
Turn left, turn right, keep going straight on.
1st, 2nd, 3rd left/right
Next to (other place), opposite (other place) etc.
Turn... at the lights/roundabout etc

But that's a closed set of phrases.  They combine in a highly constrained way, and they can't be integrated with other general language that you might be taught the week before or after.

But late introduction of survival language is effortless - once you know the grammar of a language, it is very easy to build some of these survival phrases independently; even when you can't, it's still a lot easier to memorise them once your learnt all the basic building blocks.

Take "what is your name?"

It's a totally regular question, and the following learning path leads a learner to be able to produce it independently:
 "is" statements -> inverted order in simple questions -> question words

And yet it isn't uncommon for a teacher to ask the question on the very first day, before even the verb "to be" has been mentioned.

But the CEFR asks us to do this.  It tells us which way we should be teaching.  And I think it's wrong.

And finally:
No-one actually teaches to the CEFR anyway

It is very rare that you'll find a course that genuinely teaches you how to discuss your specific profession in your target language.  Even if you do take "English for Specific Purposes", it's still going to be at a very high, abstract level, like "English for Business", not "English for Operations Managers in Logistics SMEs"; or "English for IT", not "English for Object-Oriented Database Admins in the Public Sector".

And even if you do take the course, most of the exams that you can take from members of the Association of Language Testers in Europe (ALTE) do not include a professional component.  And yet they all offer exams that they class as B2, the level that is explicitly defined as language relating to your area of work or study.

It leaves the whole thing seeming a bit... pointless.


Krzysztof Skorek said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JaR said...

Interesting, I've never looked at this by that angle.

In my country we don't use the "communicative approach" so you find articles, "to be", questions in the first lessons. Probably because we teach native children in their own language, and CEFR was designed for immigrants.