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Why your French level doesn’t matter
The myth of “fluency” and why you don’t need to reach C1
When I was actively studying German, my goal was to reach a C1 level. To me, it meant being fluent and achieving all my goals in the language. It’s also a goal that motivated me to keep going. I kept thinking to myself: One day, I’ll reach C1.
Then my career kept me busy and I had no time to study languages. Many years later, I returned to German and took many courses at the Goethe Institut. Until I reached the much-anticipated C1 level.
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This is when my German was at its best.
I took over 200 private lessons, and read dozens of books. I thought: This is it, this is C1!
But over the last two years, my German has gone back into hibernation. I don’t feel I have a C1 anymore. What I had accomplished is not gone, but it needs a lot of maintenance to keep up.
And what I realized is that the level on paper doesn’t matter. It doesn’t say that much.
You can’t trust levels
The same thing occurred with my students.
On Italki, whenever a new student books a lesson with me, I can look at their profile and see what their level is in French. This should give me a good idea of what to expect in our first class, right? Wrong!
80% of my students who claimed to have a C1 level in French didn’t express themselves with the degree of fluency that I was expecting at that level.
On the other hand, many students who claimed to only have a B1 level spoke much better and more fluently!
I discovered that I couldn’t trust levels, even if they came from very serious tests.
The definition of fluency is vague
Over the last ten years, the polyglot community has become a thing.
There are multiple YouTube channels dedicated to the concept of learning many languages and becoming a polyglot.
There are polyglot conferences, and on Instagram and TikTok you’ll find many videos of people who claim to speak a surprising number of languages. These people often claim to be fluent in five, ten or even twenty languages.
Their enthusiasm for languages is contagious, and many of them have great tips to share about learning languages.
However, the word fluent is a vague term with many possible definitions. Therefore, it’s quite easy for anyone to claim that they are “fluent” in a language or another.
One polyglot wrote:
In just five years, I've become a fluent and confident speaker of seven languages. And I'm able to have confident conversations in many others.
The languages included Spanish, German, Italian Dutch, French, and Mandarin. But when I watched some of the videos of this person speaking French, I would not have said he was fluent. I would have said that he spoke French, but not fluently.
Fluent means being able to have a credible conversation in a particular language without much difficulty. The dictionary definition of speaking a foreign language “fluently” is: (of a foreign language) spoken accurately and with facility.
Because there are degrees of fluency, from somewhat acceptable conversation skills to near-native comprehension and speaking/writing abilities (even when speaking with an accent), the word fluent can lose a lot of its meaning.
It would be like saying that someone is an “athlete” because they regularly go to the gym.
We’d view with suspicion anyone who would claim to be an athlete without more accomplishments, yet we accept the claim of fluency from half-decent conversations posted on YouTube, on topics of no particular difficulty.
For me, fluent means that there is no significant added difficulty level when switching from your native language to the foreign language in most situations, including speaking, listening, reading or writing.
It’s a rare polyglot who can achieve a high level of proficiency in more than four or five languages. Usually, a polyglot will have a few strong languages and many minor ones.
The Different Levels. From A1 to C2
There is a system for grading foreign language competency that is common in many European countries. It’s called the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (abbreviated in English as CEFR, CEF, or CEFRL)
In this system, there are three levels: A, B, and C, and they are divided into two levels of competency: 1 and 2. In total, you have six different levels: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2
Without taking a test, it’s possible to evaluate your level by simply reading the following requirements and deciding where you fit.
A1: Lower Beginner
You can communicate simply if the person you are speaking to talks slowly and clearly.
You can understand and use familiar, everyday and everyday expressions and simple sentences (e.g., information about yourself and your family or shopping, work and your immediate surroundings.)
You can introduce yourself and others, as well as ask others about themselves, e.g., where they live, who they know and what they own.
A2: Upper Beginner
You can understand and use sentences and common expressions in everyday situations.
You can make yourself understood in simple, routine situations demanding an exchange of information on familiar and familiar topics.
You can describe your background and education, immediate surroundings and other matters associated with your immediate needs simply.
B1: Lower Intermediate
You can understand the main points of information in conversations and texts on familiar matters relating to work, school and leisure time, etc. when clear, standard language is used.
You can deal with most situations typically encountered when traveling in the country where the language is spoken.
You can express yourself simply and coherently when talking about familiar topics and areas of personal interest.
You can report on experiences and events, describe dreams, hopes and ambitions as well as make short statements and explanations.
B2: Upper Intermediate
You can understand the main contents of complex texts on concrete and abstract topics, as well as technical discussions in your area of specialization.
You can communicate so spontaneously and fluently that a conversation with native speakers is readily possible without a great deal of effort on either side.
You can express your opinion on current issues in a clear and detailed manner, explain your position on a current issue and state the benefits and drawbacks of various options.
C1: Lower Advanced
You can understand a wide range of challenging, longer texts as well as grasp implicit meanings.
You can express yourself spontaneously and fluently without frequently having to search for words.
You can use the language efficiently and with flexibility in your social and professional life or during training or your studies.
You can make clear, structured and detailed statements on complex topics.
C2: Upper Advanced
You can effortlessly understand virtually everything that you read or hear in the language,
You can summarize information from various written and spoken sources, logically recounting reasons and explanations,
You can express yourself spontaneously with a high level of fluency and precision and make finer nuances of meaning clear when discussing more complex topics.
Your level can fluctuate
It’s difficult to evaluate a level in a language because usually, a person will have different strengths and weaknesses.
Your level can also fluctuate from day to day, week to week, and year to year.
Tests are often necessary for immigration or to get a job. In that case, you should do the best you can to get the highest grade possible.
I have never taken language assessment tests just for fun. Some people find it motivating. I find it stressful and unnecessary.
I have instead my own guidelines to assess how I’m doing in a language.
How many books have I read?
I get the feeling that I start to understand a language once I have read at least ten books.
How many new words are there per page?
When I read in French, I might look up a few words per book. If it’s classic literature, there will be more words, but I’m not looking up words on every single page. But when I read in Spanish, I’m looking up new words all the time. I know that way that I still have a lot to learn in Spanish.
How many conversation hours have I accumulated?
Pilots talk about flight hours. I’m asking: how many conversation hours have I accumulated?
How strong is my comprehension of grammar? Do I have any weak spots?
When I was reviving my Italian, I went through a couple of grammar books over one summer. I kept working on the verb tenses. And this allowed me to be accepted into an Italian language program at the university while skipping all the requirements for all the advanced courses, because I did so well on the exam, and it was all thanks to this revision of grammar and verbs!
How often do I speak the language?
This is self-explanatory but the more often you use a language, the more automatic it will feel to speak it.
Do I look forward to speaking the language?
When I don’t feel confident in a language, I tend to apprehend speaking it. But when I’m speaking it more often and feeling more confident, I look forward to using it every chance I get.
How easy is it to switch between two languages?
My ultimate goal, one day, would be to speak Spanish, Portuguese and Italian so well that I could switch effortlessly between those languages and not get mixed up in the similarities! I still have a long way to go.
To me, answering those questions tells me more about how I’m doing in a language than any language test could.
What do you think?