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What on earth is the Common European Framework?

Posted by Frank Preiss, on 29 June 2017. Comments: 0

This story neatly illustrates two undesirable features of the ignorance that infects so much of the current debate about Europe.

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFRL) is a project not of the 28-member European Union (EU), but of the much older 47-member Council of Europe (CoE). Sadly, too few people know the difference.

Wikipedia gives a good account of the CoE. Here it is only worth emphasising how important the British influence has been in promoting democracy, human rights and cross-border understanding. It was founded in 1949 as a result of ideas first suggested by Winston Churchill in the middle of World War II. British law and lawyers have been influential in many of the Council's most important initiatives such as the European Convention on Human Rights, and the European Court of Justice, which Brexiteers are now so anxious to leave.

The CEFRL is not at first sight one of the most important CoE initiatives, but that's misleading. Its founding author was John Trim, a Cambridge linguist, who had created the world-renowned Cambridge Proficiency syllabus. Trim later became director of a CoE languages division in Strasbourg where in 1971 he set up the 'Threshhold Programme' to establish common standards of proficiency in the major European languages. In line with CoE core ideals the intention was to facilitate and improve trade, culture and mutual understanding between all the peoples of Europe.

However the CEFRL has since acquired a special importance within the European Union, with its total commitment to free movement of its peoples.

For free movement to work in employment, employers need recognised qualifications of language competence at least as much as of any other skills. Everywhere in the EU, and in many other countries, the 6 levels of attainment identified by the CEFRL have become those recognised qualifications.

But not in the UK. It seems that the common confusion of the CoE with the EU and the fact that the UK speaks English have combined to downgrade the importance of those common standards when applied to other European languages. As a result, a German employer interviewing a Spanish candidate can see at a glance what level of German or English the candidate can offer, but on an English candidate's CV he will see 'A-Level grade B' or something similarly unhelpful.

Language teaching in the UK is in precipitous decline. When we questionnaired some language teachers a few years ago, we were astonished to find that most either didn't know of the CEFRL, or thought it of no importance.

Ignorance of such elementary pitfalls in our education system makes our future in or out of Europe much worse. There are already parts of India where the CEFRL has become the recognised languages standard.

In this, as in so many other matters, we need to set aside the 'British exception'. Of course we will have to integrate the CEFRL into all our GCSE and A-Level national language exams. In the meantime everyone wanting to enrol in a language class should insist that it conforms to CEFRL levels and provides for relevant qualifications. It's another important way to cooperate with our European partners to make a better future for our people, especially for our children.


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