Thursday, November 17, 2011

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Are you ready for intermediate level English? pt 1

How good do you think your English is?  What level do you put yourself?  One of the scales of language assessment is the CEFR or Common European Framework of Reference.  If you see A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 or C2 on your English textbooks then that's what that means.  Common European Framework of Reference - it’s an awful name but it is a useful system for measuring language ability.  Here is the structure and descriptions.

Click for larger image

What is intermediate level?

Here is how CEFR defines B1: the ability to maintain conversation and the ability to independently deal with problems in day-to-day life.  Let me make this clearer.

Some people like to talk a lot and some people hate talking.  Some people are very social and some people like to be alone most of the time.  This is not important for measuring your level of English.  What is important is your abilityCan you have a conversation of 5 or 10 minutes with somebody in English?  Not, do you like having conversations of 5 or 10 minutes with somebody in English?

Is your English good enough to call the plumber,
explain the problem and arrange for him to fix this?
(Photo from Flickr)
With the problems of day-to-day life, some people can fix washing machines and some people can’t, some people know how to pay their bills on the internet and some people prefer to pay their bills at the bank.  It is not a problem if you cannot do these things, it is a problem if you cannot do these things because your English is not good enough.

A2 vs B1: What's the difference?
There is a big difference between A2 and B1 and it is more than grammar and vocabulary.  B1 learners are independent learners and users.  An intermediate student takes more responsibility for their learning and becomes more autonomous (another word that means ‘independent’).  Let’s look at the description in more detail:

Can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken.
If you travel to another countries are you confident that you can deal with a restaurant?  Book a hotel on the phone?  Deal with a taxi driver who needs directions?  Deal with the police if necessary?  I had to deal with the Mexican police once because I was parked in the wrong place – it was not easy.

Is your English good enough to deal
with a parking ticket if you need to?
(Photo from Flickr)
Would you feel confident going to an English-speaking country and using your English for these things?

Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes and ambitions...

This is probably the most difficult part of B1.  Can you describe these things and people understand you?  Can you talk about a funny situation that happened last week?  Can you explain what you want to be doing in one year?

... and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.

Can you explain why you want things like good English, a better English score or a job with an international company?  Can you have a full conversation about these ambitions and plans?

Cambridge ESOL

The CEFR and the Cambridge Exams (Click for large image)
Cambridge identifies the difference between A2 and B1 like this, “Understanding at Level B1 differs in that it goes beyond merely being able to pick out facts and may involve opinions, attitudes, moods and wishes.

Basically this means a few things.

1.  You need to be able to give and support opinions and attitudes.  Compare these two examples:

A2:  I want this chair.  It is comfortable.
B1:  I would prefer this chair because I think it is better for my back.

The B1 example is more polite (“I would prefer”), shows opinion (“I think”) and explains the situation (“better for my back”)

2.  You need to change your vocabulary to help the listener understand your mood or feelings.

A2:  I am not happy because you failed my essay.
A2+:  I’m upset with my essay grade.  I don’t think you were fair.
B1:  I was disappointed that you gave me a low grade.  I think it was better.
B1:  I was surprised that you gave me a low grade.  Could you look at it again?

All of these examples basically give the same information: feeling + reason.  However, the B1 examples are better because they all give the information in a more polite way using vocabulary that is less direct and argumentative.  The A2+ example certainly uses better grammar and vocabulary but it is still direct and argumentative.

B1 users of English needs to understand the context of the situation (a student complaining to a teacher) and understand that argumentative language is not the correct English to use for a positive result.

3.  Another example would be this.

A2:  I need to leave 10 minutes early.  I have an appointment.
B1:  Could I leave 10 minutes early today?  I have an important appointment and I shouldn’t be late.

Again, both of these sentences give the same information.  However, B1 makes a polite request (“Could I...?”) but A2 gives an order (“I need...”).  Also, B1 gives more relevant information (“important appointment” and “shouldn’t be late”).  B1 shows a better attitude and will probably have permission to leave early whereas A2 probably will not.

Some tips for assessing yourself:
  1. Ask yourself, how many times does someone stop me and ask me to repeat?  How many times does someone stop me and want me to explain again?  How many times does a person chatting with me not understand my ideas.  Not the words, the ideas.
  2. How long does it take me to write an email in English?  How much help do I need to use my English in my job?   Can I write a clear email that is easy to understand for users of English?  When I get emails in English, do I always/usually/sometimes need help to understand the meaning?
  3. Do I make phone calls/Skype calls in English for my job or do I get someone else to do it for me?  Do I understand, more or less, voice messages I get on my phone in English?
Useful Links/References

Cambridge ESOL Teacher Support:  This website is for teachers of English but it is useful to clearly explain the types of situations that a learner needs to deal with well to be a B1 learner.

Wikipedia page on the CEFR:  This gives you another description of the different levels.  Unfortunately there is no Simple English Wikipedia page for this.  Read my article about writing Wikipedia articles to improve your English and then perhaps try to write a Simple English page. :-)


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