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Language Levels: L1, A1, and all that

I've noticed that people talk a lot about what language level they have, but there aren't a lot of good resources to explain to them what all the terms mean. Toward that end, I've written a blog post that tries to explain the basics of it well enough for people to at least have an idea of what's being talked about.


I'd appreciate any feedback on it; if there are errors, I'd like to correct them, and if there are topics I should expand on, I'd love to know that too.

July 19, 2015



Hello! I liked your post, I already knew about the CEFR as I've already been using it for many years now, but also learned something new about heritage speakers.

I'd like to ask you a question: do you have any references for this: "A foreign language, then, is any language that you studied past about age 12"? That "12" strikes me as arbitrary so I'm really curious as to why you suggest that any age (my argument is about a range rather than exact number) beyond preschoolers for example would make a difference. So many children, even 5 year olds, start learning foreign languages but those languages remain foreign to them. I'd like to know if you happen to know more about that and why you basically refer to preadolescents/early teens as a sort of cut-off age. Thanks :)


Great article, thanks Greg.

"....A B2 speaker can hold a great conversation and abruptly run into a wall when he/she simply doesn't have the words to describe something...."

This happened to me exactly a couple of days ago, although I think I'd probably say I am a B1, not B2 speaker. I ran into that wall so fast my head hurt. :P

I was trying to describe something well beyond my level of Italian, and ended up having a very strange conversation where I was going round and round in circles trying to describe something by only using the words I knew (or could guess). It got more and more circuitous as I ran out of words and had to change sentences in the middle of what I was trying to say, every time I found a word I didn't know. It was difficult, but fantastic practice.


The article already has a link to it, though.


Thanks Greg!


Thanks for tweeting about it. :-)


It's nice.I was wondering about one of the languages I know.I learnt Hindi when I was still a kid just by watching TV (a lot).I don't know how to read or write hindi,I haven't tried speaking in hindi but I guess I can do that if I want to.But my listening is excellent, I can understand almost anything & everything.What language level do I belong to in this case?


Well, that's typical of a heritage learner. Did you know anyone who spoke it?


No,I don't know anyone who speaks it.But as I said I grew up watching TV where everyone spoke a lot of hindi.Like me all the members of my family know Hindi too.,but we never use it.


"But even if perfection is impossible, excellence is not..." I love this sentence :) Another well-organized, informative, well-written article. Thank you.


Hi Greg. Good article. I've enjoyed your blog. Do you have references for the B1 to C1 descriptions that are not in the Wikipedia descriptions? Are those from your own observations or are they from one or more other sources?

There is a small typo in the C1 description: "reads anything sort of literature." If someone is C1 and converse easily on a wide-range of topics, why would watching movies be difficult? Do you think that fluency includes mostly ease of speaking? How important is accuracy to fluency? Is total immersion the only way to get from B1 to B2? If a B2 learner can apply the rules easily without thinking, then why would he/she make frequent errors? Could you cover more about the transition from B2 to the C levels? What about the minimum number of words typically required for each level?

For heritage speakers, some don't understand the language at all, especially those who are 55 and older. At that time during the 20th century, foreign-born parents were advised against speaking to their children in the parents' native language. I know several people who said their parents used it as a secret language that the kids did not understand. For other heritage speakers, wouldn't the A,B, C levels apply to some degree depending on how much practice they had with the language?


I added a link to an excellent article about heritage speakers. You can look there for lots and lots of fascinating information that was just outside the scope of the article.

Under the self-assessment section, I added a link to the self-test the Council of Europe uses. That should cover items that weren't in Wikipedia.

I fixed the typo. Thanks!

The C1 speaker has some trouble with movies because they require a vocabulary of about 6,000 word families. Most active speakers acquire only about 1,000 word families per year, so it takes years of regular use to reach that point. The C1 speaker is right at that point.

Fluency is largely about ease of speaking, but there is also a notion of "reading fluency." Accuracy only matters to the extent that the speaker is properly understood. Formal level testing allows a certain number of errors.

To make the fluency jump from B1 to B2 for conversation, I no of no other way besides immersion. For reading, of course, all you need is to read ~1,000,000 words.

In any human skill, there are people who can't do it very well because they have to keep thinking about what they're doing. I like to use snow skiing as an example. At a certain point, your body starts to apply the rules and you don't have to think about them. But you still make mistakes. You make fewer of them over time as you get more practice. L2 conversation follows a similar pattern.

I'll see if I can find articles that estimate the number of word families needed for various levels. I think B1 is about 2,000 and C1 is about 6,000, but that's just off the top of my head.

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Thanks, Greg! Your descriptions of the levels should be added to the official CEFR levels (so that self-assessment is possible without getting a severe headache when reading those definitions :)).



I found it helpful, thanks. Do you have anything to add about the connection between that system and Duolingo's ratings? Duolingo says I'm "42% fluent" but that seems extremely generous for an A2, which is how I rate myself.


I think Duolingo is tracking the fraction of vocabulary you must master to reach level B2, but that's only a guess. I think it would be more accurate if they said "You now know XX% of the words you need to be fluent."


Hey Mr. Hullender! That was a terrific post! I had been confused about this for so long and this post just made everything crystal clear to me! I have determined that I am between B1 and B2 (so I am B1.5!) and it kind of encouraged me to read about those speakers! I will press on! Thank you very much! I would say that you accomplished your task of explaining language levels! Thank you again sir! I hope to see some more great posts like this in the future! Have a great day! (Have a few lingots on me!)


Great post -- but also, thanks for the link to the Polinsky & Kagan article. That is the best overview I've seen on heritage speakers. Much appreciated!


I'm reading your article now and I'm finding it very interesting!! Thanks for posting xx


Very useful post. Thanks for sharing!


Very nice article, thanks for the link. Could you please tell me your references for L levels?


Sure. I thought about including references, actually. Which things would you like to see attested? There's an excellent paper from Harvard about heritage speakers that is well-worth citing.


HI. I just would like to read more about the L levels.


Hey Greg what about this link I don't know if it will help http://www.berlitz.us/language-proficiency-testing-assessment/


It appears this page no longer exists. The link just takes you onto the Berlitz website. There is no mention of tests anywhere on the site, so I just wasted 5 minutes of my time on this.


Great article, thanks. Just wondering about your C1 description though. A grammatical error every sentence or two seems like a lot of errors for that level of proficiency.


For example, a C1 English speaker whose native language is Russian will frequently make errors omitting "the" and "a" . I reworded the sentence slightly.


There's a small typo, "The language-level system most poeple know".

So basically, using your definition of L1 and L2, I'd be rated as an L1 English and L1 Portuguese speaker because Portuguese is my mother tongue, and I started learning English around the age of 9 or 8 (I can't recall exactly).

I would suggest adding some references to the fluency section because most people seem oblivious to what it truly means, and would probably debate it endlessly.


Hmm. That section needs some rewording plus a reference. Although your English is excellent, we know you're not an L1 speaker because of the nature of the rare errors that you do make. The problem is that to become an L1 speaker you need to be immersed in the language at a young age, and it's very hard to be immersed in two languages at the same time.

I knew someone who was 16 when his family came to the US from Korea. By that point, of course, he was a solid L1 Korean speaker. However, he was one of those rare folks who managed to achieve L1 English despite starting so late. He made it just before the window closed on him. As a result, he really was a perfect L1 speaker of both languages.

Usually, though, you find that someone is an L1 speaker of just one language and is either a C2 or a heritage speaker of the other one. (I'm still hoping to see research as to whether a heritage speaker who takes classes and then immerses in the target language can become a true L1 or not.)


I'm not so sure about this "knowing someone's not an L1 speaker because of the nature of the rare errors they make". The problem I have with this is the fact that if you want to find a non-native, you will.

Benny Lewis, the Irish polyglot, has written an excellent article (or maybe it was a video, I can't remember nor find it...) about this matter in which he explained that as soon as people find out that the person they're talking to is not a native, they'll suddenly find lots of evidence supporting this. The accent they previously thought to be from a different region or maybe didn't even notice suddenly becomes distinctly foreign. And these little mistakes that they didn't even pay attention to before could now never be made by a native.

So in conclusion, I wonder whether this isn't just a form of hindsight bias. I mean if you told me you're a native I'd say, sure you are, wasn't that obvious? But if you told me otherwise, that you are no native English speaker, I wouldn't be any more surprised. The small mistakes and the sentences you phrased differently than I would in your blog post pointed to that conclusion all the time, you wouldn't just overlook them if you're a native, right?

If you went around the Duolingo forums and tried to identify the natives and non-natives, would you always be right? Or would it boil down to guessing?


A very strong C2 speaker certainly can be essentially as good as an L1 speaker. No one disputes that. Equivalent isn't the same thing as equal in this case.

Perhaps an easier way to understand this is to observe that there are two possible ways to learn a language: The L1 method, which involves near-total immersion and zero formal study, and the L2 method, which doesn't require immersion at all (not to start with, at least), but does involve heavy, deliberate study and drill.

The L1 method is only available to children. The maximum age varies from child to child, ranging from 10 to 20, but beyond a certain age, this method for learning ceases to be available.

There is no serious debate on this point. You may think there is, but there is not.

The L2 method is available to anyone, and it's the only method available to people who don't live in an environment where the target language is widely spoken. A child has no advantage over an adult--even an older adult--when it comes to L2 learning.

Studies of immigrant families have shown that dedicated adult learners actually keep ahead of their children for about the first five months, but after that, the children rocket to native fluency. Even after decades, the adults don't usually catch them, even though they eventually reach C1 or C2.

A very strong C2 speaker can temporarily fool L1 speakers, who often find the C2 speaker easier to interact with than another L1 speaker with a different dialect. However, given time, the L1 speakers always figure it out. Controlled experiments consistently shows that L2 speakers are always different from L1 speakers.

The exceptions involve languages that are very closely related. Supposedly, an adult Portuguese native speaker can learn L1-equivalent Spanish (and vice versa) because the morhposyntactics are so similar.


Do you have a link to the experiments that you talk about in the second-to-last paragraph? This sounds interesting. Specifically, I'd like to know how long "temporarily".

Anyway, this already sounds like something I could agree with.


That's going to depend on the language pair, the context, etc. Bennie's comments, while anecdotal, are illuminating (and entertaining).


For a scholarly view, have a look at Birdsong's paper, starting on page 20.


His references would be worth looking up and reading. Note that he uses L2 to mean "second language acquired, no matter what the age or method," which is a little nonstandard.


Thanks. I'll give it a look as soon as possible and share my thought on it afterwards.


I totally reworded the first section, and I included a reference to an excellent book I found on second-language acquisition. It's very recent (2014) and it's written to be accessible to people who aren't linguists. It has the drawback that's it's not free, but if people want a free explanation they should just believe everything I tell them. :-)



Yes, it looks better. I guess the best references aren't cheap or free. :)


"A adult (anyone past the critical period) cannot learn a language 'by osmosis,' the way a child can."

This quote expresses the conventional wisdom about adult language learning. By including the words "by osmosis" you convey a belief that children learn language in a way that is not only different from how adults learn, but is also uncontrollable and not accessible to adults.

The fact is that the linguistic input children receive is very different from the linguistic input received by adults, so it is no wonder that the outcomes in language proficiency are different.

You could say I'm critical of the critical period.


There is debate on the critical period, but not, I think, quite what you imagine. I am a linguist, and I read papers in the field.

No one, on either side, disputes that children learn in a completely different way from adults. If you think otherwise, go back to your sources and read them carefully.

No one disputes that even the strongest C2 speakers can be distinguished from L1 speakers, with exceptions limited to very close language pairs.

The debate is over a) whether children have any advantage in L2 learning (that is, when they are not immersed and b) whether the differences between C2 and L1 speakers really matter.

On the first point, I think the evidence is convincing; little children have no advantage over adults when it comes to deliberate language study. Their sole advantage is unintentional language acquisition through immersion, which adults cannot do.

On the second point, I agree that the differences between strong C2 and L1 speakers are of academic, not practical interest.


I am not "imagining" my position on the debate regarding the critical period.

I am not interested in anyone's level of success or failure in deliberate language learning or in distinguishing C2 speakers from L1 speakers

My interest is language acquisition through immersion which you state that "adults cannot do" as thought it were a fact and I believe that adults rarely have the opportunity to do, and so it is not proven whether adults can learn this way or not.

Certainly an adult with a normal adult responsibilities of work and family, all carried on in L1, would find it impossible to receive L2 input comparable to what a child receives, but it doesn't prove that the adult couldn't learn in the same way as the child if given the same opportunity.


This problem has been studied at length. Immigrant adults (but not their children) have terrible problems with the local language. I understand that this is something you don't want to believe, but the facts are incontestable.



Certainly an adult with a normal adult responsibilities of work and family, all carried on in L1, would find it impossible to receive L2 input comparable to what a child receives

The fact is that an adult can learn a language through immersion [1], but adults won't reach a good level of proficiency without a conscious effort [2].

Noteworthy sections:

"It appears that adults' performance in an L2 will improve measurably over time, but only if they receive a substantial amount of native speaker input"[1].

"This clearly shows that length of residence no longer plays a role past the first 10 years" (see Oyama, 1978)[2].


Thank you Greg! I found not only the article interesting, but your whole blog!


European universities won't admit you if you can't pass the C1 test for their language. (Otherwise you won't be able to follow lectures.)

That's true, indeed. When I wanted to go to a Dutch university they told me that I'd in that case better use my summer to get from 0-C1, because I would indeed have to take a government run language exam (NT 2) to be admitted. And I was going to follow a study which was mainly given in English. So I had three month to learn Dutch which meant pretty much studying all day. I made it but I notice that ever since my brain seems to be hardwired to Dutch and when I can't remember a word in one of my other languages, the Dutch word just pops in my head. Having a Dutch conversation on an academic level was no problem after the exam, though, I really learned to think in Dutch.

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