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The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) in European education systems

EPALE's Thematic Coordinator for Learning Environments, Simon Broek, reflects on the benefits and challenges of implementing the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages on a national level.

EPALE's Thematic Coordinator for Learning Environments, Simon Broek, reflects on the benefits and challenges of implementing the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages on a national level.

Findings from a Eurobarometer survey in 2012 show that Europeans have a very positive attitude towards multilingualism:

  • almost all Europeans (98%) think that mastering foreign languages is useful for their children's future and 88% see it as useful for themselves;

  • almost three quarters (72%) agree with the EU objective that everybody should learn at least two foreign languages, while 77% think that improvement in language skills should be a policy priority;

  • 67% see English as one of the two most useful languages for themselves. Among the others most frequently cited as useful are German (17%), French (16%), Spanish (14%) and Chinese (6%).

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) was developed by the Council of Europe (CoE). It was designed as a tool to provide unity in educational and cultural matters among CoE Member States with regard to foreign language learning; and to promote transparency and coherence in the learning and teaching of modern languages in Europe.

The CEFR provides a general framework that indicates what language learners need to learn to be able to use a foreign language effectively in practice. In this way the framework creates a common basis for language learning curricula or guidelines, qualifications, textbooks, examinations, and syllabuses across European states.

The CEFR is based on an action-oriented approach to language learning. It includes six proficiency levels for foreign language learning. The CEFR tries not only to facilitate comparability between countries (on the basis of a shared conceptual framework for language learning) but also to respect national traditions and systems in language proficiency standards.

In 2013, an assessment was conducted for the European Parliament to provide an insight into the extent to which the CEFR is implemented in European countries. Besides assessing implementation in state schools, the study also analysed the relationship between the CEFR and the provision of private education and the social function of language certificates. The study focused on Austria, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, the UK (Scotland) and Sweden. The assessment showed that:

  • Countries implement and use the CEFR to different degrees, ranging from anchoring CEFR-related learning outcomes in law to no reference to the CEFR whatsoever. In general it can be concluded that the more the CEFR is implemented and used in policy documents (laws, national curricula), the more the CEFR is used in examinations, schoolbooks and teacher training.

  • Major challenges in implementation concern (i) the lack of empirical evidence to establish links between learning outcomes and the CEFR levels and (ii) the ability of modern foreign language teachers to use the CEFR in their lessons as intended.

  • According to private providers of language learning to adults, the value of the CEFR is that it is a useful tool to assess the language competences of learners; and the great benefit of the CEFR concerns the transparency which ensures that modern foreign language certifications are comparable and recognised within Europe.

  • According to language assessment organisations, the value of the CEFR lies in the transparency that it provides concerning the description of learning outcomes (can-do statements), which allows us to compare and interpret modern foreign language qualifications and certificates from different institutes.

Despite the CEFR being well-embedded in language learning policies and practices in many countries in Europe, there are still some important issues around the CEFR. For instance, further study is needed on:

  • What are upcoming languages, and is the CEFR broad enough to deal with non-European languages, such as Chinese?

  • How can the CEFR be used to strengthen the position of minority and regional languages?


Simon Broek has been involved in several European research projects on education, labour market issues and insurance business. He advised the European Commission, the European Parliament and European Agencies on issues related to education policies, lifelong learning, and labour market issues, and is Managing Partner at Ockham Institute of Policy Support.

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