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The following 10-point scale gives a rough idea of the whole range of proficiency levels from zero to native speaker level. Each level or band is linked to recognised standards and scales (in red): The Council of Europe Levels and The ALTE Framework.

In reality, learners may not correspond to the descriptions given here or elsewhere, as they may be very proficent in some skills (e.g. reading) and much less proficient in others (e.g. speaking). However, these levels can help to select language learning materials and for producing homogeneous groups of learners.

0. Absolute Beginner Level

Students cannot communicate at all in the target language.

1. Beginner Level

  • Students can only speak and understand a few words and phrases. They can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer short simple questions spoken slowly. They can complete basic forms, and write simple notes.

Council of Europe Level A1 / ALTE breakthrough level

2. False Beginner Level

  • Students have a very limited vocabulary and some understanding of basic structures. They can communicate and perform simple routine tasks requiring a direct exchange of information on familiar everyday topics. They can complete forms and write short simple letters.

Council of Europe Level A2 / ALTE Level 1

3. Elementary Level

  • Students can express themselves simply, but are hesitant in more demanding situations. They are likely to make frequent errors in comprehension and expression. They can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the target language is spoken.

Council of Europe Independent Level B1 / ALTE Level 2 / UK GCSE Level (year 1)

4. Lower Intermediate Level

  • Students communicate quite well, can speak in familiar situations and read simple phrases, but have limited vocabulary and fluency. Nevertheless, they can interact with sufficient fluency and spontaneity that makes limited interaction with native speakers possible without undue strain. They can make reasonably accurate notes while someone is talking about a familiar topic.

Council of Europe Independent Level B2 / UK GCSE Level (year 2) / ALTE Level 3

5. Intermediate Level

  • Students speak reasonably well and understand much spoken discourse. They have a fair vocabulary and an understanding of fundamental grammatical rules.

UK 'A' Level (year 1)

6. Upper Intermediate Level

  • Students understand almost all spoken and written everyday language. They can express themselves well in a limited range of situations, contributing effectively to meetings and seminars within own area of work. They can understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognise implicit meaning.

Council of Europe Level C1 / UK 'A' Level (year 2) / ALTE level 4 / Certificate in Bilingual Skills (Institute of Linguists)

7. Advanced Level

  • Students communicate clearly and effectively in both spoken and written language in a good range of situations. They have now acquired more advanced structures and start to master the finer points of the language.

UK Degree Level for language majors (year 2) i.e. 2 years of part-time language study after "A" level

8. Upper Advanced Level

  • Students are very proficient communicators with only very occasional errors and lapses in fluency. They can express him/herself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in more complex situations. They can write letters on almost any subject and take full notes of meetings or seminars with good expression and accuracy. This level may be acquired after one year abroad with intensive language use.

Council of Europe Level C2 / UK Degree Level for language majors (year 4) i.e. 4 years of language study after "A" level, including year abroad / ALTE level 5

9. Near-Native Speaker Level

  • Students can only reach this level after many years of using the target language. They may pass for native speakers in some situations, but there are still signs of foreign accent or inappropriate language in certain cases. Students might reach this level after 5 to 10 years of part-time language study plus 2 to 5 years of residence in the target country.

10. Native Speaker Level



To survive abroad (e.g. book a hotel/ buy a drink) - band/level 2-3 (elementary+)

To discuss an order on the phone with a foreign supplier - band/level 5-6 (intermediate+)

To negotiate a complex business contract - band/level 7-8 (advanced+)


As these levels correspond roughly to the IELTS bands we can also add:

To start a vocational/practical university course - band/level 5-6 (intermediate+)

To start a more theoretical university course - band/level 6-7 (upper intermediate+)


This is a bit like the question "how long is a piece of string?". It will depend on many factors: your aptitude for learning, your memory, the language, the level, your tutor etc. As there are huge variations in learning speeds, a rough rule-of-thumb is 50 to 300 hours per band/level.

e.g.1 UK GCSE courses have about 200 to 300 hours of face-to-face tuition plus homework. They often run part-time for 2 years.

e.g. 2 UK "A" level courses have about 300 to 400 hours of face-to-face tuition plus homework. They often run part-time for 2 years after the completion of an appropriate GCSE course.

e.g. 3 It is very common for elementary-level foreign students in the UK to take a whole year of full-time study to reach an advanced level in English, and some would only get to intermediate level.

These examples contrast sharply with the scandalous claims one sometimes finds in the press of language courses which are supposed to help students become proficient in a matter of weeks or even hours.

There is some evidence from my own research (1996: Time Factors as Predictors of Success in Language Learning) that the law of diminishing returns describes the relationship between hours of study and language learning proficiency. This means that students will often demonstrate fast progress in the early years of study, but that as they progress above advanced level it takes longer and longer to make improvements.

Dr M. I. Freeman

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