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.

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