CEFR musings

In light of last week’s discussions on twitter and then here, I ended up doing a bunch of reading and reflection about CEFR things…

Not that you have the time, but sitting down and reading some of the extended documentation on CEFR scales is not an unprofitable activity. I think in a lot of discussions we drop CEFR assessments as macro stand-ins for proficiency, without really paying attention to what they are meant to mean. In particular, the CEFR standards also recognise that different skills also have sub-elements. E.g. just in terms of speaking you can rate how a person speaks in terms of fluency : how quickly they speak, how and why they hesitate, how long pauses are, and turn-taking; accuracy : how consistently they use grammar and vocabulary correctly; range : in terms of both breadth of vocabulary, and also breadth of structures they use; phonology. People can be better at some sub-elements, and worse at others. It’s not monolithic. Proficiency is a multi-factor, multi-faceted thing.

Secondly, I was doing some musing on how long it takes to achieve various levels and what is required. I spent a bit of time looking at the cross-language estimated for various European languages, which tend to break them down into “Instructed Hours” and then “Additional Hours”. These estimates tend to come in around 1000 instructed hours to reach C2, and an equivalent number of extra hours.

I broke that down with some examples as:

Option A: 4 years of college, 2 x 12 week semesters, 2.5hrs instruction a day, 4 days a week.

Option B: 5 years of SeumasU, 40 weeks a year, 5 classes every term (e.g. 5 contact hours a week)

Option C: Live-in immersion, if you could take 52 weeks of 5 days a week, 4 hours of class + 4 hours minimum extra study.

I also often refer to an article in the Foreign Language Annals [1] , “Setting Evidence-Based Language Goals”, by Senta Goertler, Angelika Kraemer, and Theresa Schenker, which looked at benchmarking in the college German program at MSU. The research is interesting on a number of levels, but not least that they place some revised benchmarks for levels of college study:

First semester A1/A2 (IL)
Second semester A1/A2 (IL)
Third semester A2 (IM)
Fourth semester A2 (IM)
Third year B1 (IH)
Fourth year B1/B2 (more B2) (AL)
Graduate classes C1 (AH) C1 (AH)


It’s also worth noting, if you don’t know, that there does exist a set of CEFR-aligned tests for Ancient Greek (https://www.languagecert.org/en/language-exams/classical-greek) covering A1, A2, B1, for “Reading and Language Use”. The sample materials are worth looking at. The A1 vocab list is very long in my opinion, full of things that aren’t that common in Ancient Greek teaching materials. It costs money, and it probably needs to be done through online proctoring, which I don’t really believe in.

There are no vocab estimates or lists for CEFR standards, they don’t function like that. There are some estimates out there. I imagine it differs by language. Something on order of 10,000 words for an active C2 vocabulary. That’s quite large by any standard. More like 5000 for C1, which is closer to the active vocabulary of a native speaker without tertiary education. Greek, I think, has a smaller core vocabulary, but a larger peripheral vocabulary. Which is why a mastery of a smaller range of words goes further, but also why you never feel like you know all the words.

All this got me thinking in turn about two things:

  1. Could you write Ancient Greek content keyed to CEFR guidelines?

To which the answer is yes. I am doing some experimenting in this area at the moment now, thinking through “okay, a person at A1 is attempting to learn core functional abilities in the language, to cover a certain range of situations and competencies, what is the Ancient Greek needed to do that?”

Don’t expect me to release Ancient Greek for A1 any time soon though…

That said, the amount and volume of material needed to go from A1 to A2, and then A2 to B1, and then B1 to B2, just grows and grows. You need reading material, listening material, watching material, and time spent in live conversation. And more and more of it. A full sequence of material to take you from A1 to C2, we are talking about a minimum of 2000 hrs of content. But really more. So, no, I am not releasing “Seumas’ Course to C2 Mastery in Ancient Greek.”

  1. C2 isn’t unrealistic for PhD graduates in classical languages

I mean, plenty of them aren’t C2, but let’s put it like this – if you do a 3-4 year bachelor degree, and then 7 years for a PhD, that’s 10-11 years you’ve put into higher education. Even if you didn’t do Greek (or Latin or whatever) in school (which I didn’t, by the way), you could very reasonably get to B2 at the end of 4 years, which is often considered functional fluency, and then you have 7 years to reach C2, which is entirely achievable. That suggests to me that it is a methods problem, though it’s not only a methods problem. But PhDs in Ancient Greek could be C2 proficient active users of the language, if we designed our education systems to produce them.

[1] Foreign Language Annals, Vol. 49, Iss. 3, pp. 434–454. © 2016 by American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

6 responses

  1. This all seems sane and was very informative. Thank you.

    Two notes:

    1. The Eulalia project (https://site.unibo.it/eulalia/en/project) attempted to create CERF-like standards for Latin education; I don’t know what they’ve come up with (the project just wrapped up and I couldn’t go to the concluding conference), but there’s something comparable out there.

    2. You concluded “That suggests to me that it is a methods problem, though it’s not only a methods problem. But PhDs in Ancient Greek could be C2 proficient active users of the language, if we designed our education systems to produce them.” This seems directly on target to me. I don’t have anything to add about methods or elementary ancient Greek education, but it’s worth keeping that the goal of PhD education is to produce a researcher about (a) culture(s), not (just/simply) a reader of texts. (Also worth keeping in mind that amount of time doing language instruction in graduate schools seems to be dropping over time: less translating in class, less assigned reading, shorter exam lists, and dropping/limiting prose comp requirements.) So, chronologically speaking, achieving C2 might be possible in a decade of university BA/MA/PhD education, but it’s competing with other goals.

    • Right, on point 2. I totally understand that the point of a PhD program, as they’ve been designed, is to produce a researcher, not a language user. I just think that within a PhD program that is specifically focused on language and literature in an ancient language, C2 is neither unrealisable nor that much of a stretch. I think that can be done without sacrificing research competence.

      • I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply that you didn’t understand that. It was a half-formed musing on priorities in graduate education. I’m somewhat less confident than you that it can be done; what goes to make room for more language instruction? Will students accept it? (Those questions are not answerable in the abstract, I think.)

        • The thing to realise is that you would have to shift how you do things, rather than cut one thing to make room for another. If students reach B2 at the end of a college program, B2 is functional fluency – they should be able to read/write/listen/speak to the level of an average native speaker without college education, someone who completed high-school. That is already a high degree of language proficiency. What do you do with C1 students anyway? You tackle *content* in the medium of the language. A good graduate program that intended to include language proficiency in its outcomes would work to teach its content through the medium of the language – “module on Josephus? We’ll be reading large slabs of Josephus, and then we’ll be discussing Josephus in Greek and you’ll be writing papers on Josephus in Greek, and I’ll be giving you some lectures on Josephus in Greek”.

          Granted, PhD programs are not set up like this, I can’t genuinely imagine students or professors signing on for this unless it was baked into the ethos of a college or university. In which case it would become totally possible.

  2. I would be thrilled to see instructional materials aligned with CERF standards for Ancient Greek.

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