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When Language Levels (A2, B2, C1, etc.) Harm Language Learning

The dark side of proficiency levels and how not to use them

A kind at the bottom of a flight of steps
Photo by Jukan Tateisi on Unsplash

I’ve used the CEFR levels (A1, A2, B1, etc.) for nearly 15 years, both as a learner and teacher of English.

These labels we attach to language abilities are useful.

They’re helpful guidelines that teachers, examiners, institutions, and employers can use to check what you can or can’t do with the language.

But there are instances where they can have a negative impact on you and your learning.

I’ll explain when these labels become harmful so you can avoid their adverse effects and keep developing your language skills.

I hope you’ll find this inspiring.

When they become meaningless grades

“I need the B1 in English to graduate,” say most students at the university I work for.

The impression I get is that they see “B1” as a meaningless grade they need in order to get a degree. What they can do in English isn’t that important to them. What matters is that they get a B1 certificate.

This saddens me.

But I know this perspective comes from years and years spent in an education system where standardized tests are still considered the ultimate measure of success.

I’ve been a victim of this system myself and things haven’t changed much since I left school in 2006.

My niece — a 20-year-old girl — the other day said, “I got a 7 in maths!”

I wondered what that meant so I asked, “What does that mean? What are you able to do now through maths?”

“I don’t know. But I’m happy I got a 7.”

Grades, levels, and certificates are useful to measure, quantify, and assess learning — and I’m not against that.

But when these become the only things you care about, when what matters is not how well you can communicate in a language, but it’s instead the score you get on a piece of paper, then you’ve lost sight of the true purpose of learning.

The pleasure, the amazement, and the joy of discovering new things get stripped away.

It’s easy to fall into that trap, especially if you’ve been enslaved for years by an outdated education system that cares more about numbers and statistics than human development and growth.

I’d encourage you to forget about the labels and keep going back to the real values of language learning: communication, connection, cultural exchange, exploration, and personal development.

This is what really matters — not B1, B2, C1.

When they raise barriers

a wall
사진: UnsplashPete Willis

I received this email from one of my newsletter subscribers:

I’m having that struggle of having the C1 and studying for the C2 — and failing.

It just feels like this barrier it’s either tough as hell or such a gray thin line that is based on how the examiner is feeling on that particular day, with nothing in between.

What would one need to add to their language knowledge to get through this ethereal barrier, if there’s anything at all?

This learner feels there’s a barrier between levels C1 and C2.

Why?

Unfortunately, thinking of language abilities as something we can categorize, label, and organize into separate compartments can indeed give this false perception.

But in reality, humans and language are so complex, organic, and multifaceted that they cannot be neatly classified into “proficiency rooms” with walls — not least because these rooms are artificial. We invented them to establish some order in the intricate galaxy of human learning.

We created language levels like we created constellations. But the universe is a mess — and it has no compartments.

Instead of seeing a wall between this and that level, check the descriptions of the language abilities you want to have and ask yourself: What’s one thing I can do today that will take me one step closer to that level?

That’s all you need to think about in order to make progress.

Leave your hammer at home, you have no barriers to break.

You only have learning opportunities to seize.

Don’t use language levels to build imaginary walls that may only make you feel small and powerless before their height.

When they feed your ego

When in 2015 I got my C2 certificate in English — the highest of the proficiency levels — I thought, I’m done! I’m a master!

That day my learning started to slow down like a train pulling into a station. I thought I had beaten everyone else and had nothing else to learn.

That certificate told me I was the best. And when you think you’re the best, you’re mind shuts all its doors.

This is nothing but arrogance.

Sadly, in my experience as a teacher I’ve often seen language levels and certificates used as food for the ego.

Once a learner in a C1 class said she didn’t want to talk about food because she viewed it as a topic for A1 students.

Another learner (wrongly) claimed she had a B2 level and felt insulted because she was put into a B1 class.

One of my former classmates in a C1 course refused to talk to people who didn’t have at least a B2 level because, he said, “What can I learn from them?”

If you’re using these labels to feed your ego, then you’re giving food to a beast that will work against you.

But the reality is that you’re not better than anyone just because you have this or that certificate, so use these labels only to learn and grow, not to show how cool you are.

Always stay a student.

Conclusion

Language levels are useful so we can understand each other when we discuss language abilities.

But there are instances when they can hinder your learning. It all depends on how you value them and what effect they have on your language development.

If they raise imaginary barriers, inflate your ego, or become mere grades devoided of any significance, you should question how you view them.

Language levels should act as a map that helps you check where you are and where you want to go.

They shouldn’t slow you down, make you feel more important than others, or devalue learning — the most amazing of all human activities.

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