Changes to the CEFR Framework – Language Learning & Identity in a Digital Era

changes to the CEFR framework

As changes to the CEFR Framework occur this year, this quote by Benjamin Lee Whorf comes to mind, ”Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.”
Indeed, the language you speak influences your identity – how you see the world.

Vision, attention and cognitive control

A recent Scientific American article discussed this, noting that psycholinguistics researchers have demonstrated that what we pay attention to – how our eyes move, what we look at – is influenced in direct, measurable ways by the languages we speak. For example, Russian-English bilinguals who hear the word “marker” may look at a stamp, because the Russian word for “stamp” is “marka.”

People often do this in one language – an English speaker hears “candle,” and may look or think of “candy” – but it’s interesting that bilinguals naturally do this across two languages.

This shows us that language ignites a complex degree of interactivity between words and concepts, but also impacts vision, attention and cognitive control.

What is the CEFR Framework?

The idea that language influences identity is something that Prof. Dr. Bernd Rüschoff discussed at our most recent Speexx Exchange conference in Berlin. He gave an overview of the recent changes to the CEFR Framework 2020 (the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, the most widely used and recognized language standard and proficiency scale worldwide), and how the CEFR is now markedly addressing the difference between “plurilingual” versus “multilingual” concepts. 

CEFR and language ability in Plurilingualism

“Plurilingual” means each of us, as individuals, uses the various languages we’re exposed to – for instance, many of us subconsciously “code-switch,” a very personal thing to do (alternating between languages in the context of a single conversation). We often do this in business contexts – for instance, you may choose to use an English term such as “artificial intelligence” even when you’re speaking German at work. 

Generally, everyone mediates what they want to say, depending on the format – how you write and the words you use for an email will be different from how you compose a tweet, for example.  Just one more thing to consider when thinking of the amazing language abilities we humans have.

changes to CEFR framework and multilingualism

Considering Multilingualism

Thus, “multilingualism” only describes one’s ability to speak many languages proficiently, while plurilingualism is the ability of a person who has competence in more than one language to switch between various languages depending on a given situation(hence the code-switching, or personal applications to language).

The main difference between the two: A multilingual approach accounts for different languages coexisting next to each other, but separately (with the aim of achieving native speaker-like competency for each language). In contrast, plurilingualism emphasizes communication skills that draw on all of our linguistic and cultural experiences.

Most recent changes to the CEFR Framework

Indeed, with the most recent changes to the CEFR Framework, Dr. Rüschoff argued the CEFR is signaling to the language community that plurilingualism is a good thing, something to embrace. We all, according to the new Framework, have a plurilingual repertoire that might actually be very useful in a language classroom – allowing ourselves and our fellow learners to be exposed to and benefit from different ways of approaching or speaking a language. 

Prof. Dr. Bernd Ruschoff talks on changes to the CEFR Framework

No more ”native speaker”

Also during his talk at Exchange, Dr. Rüschoff explained that the CEFR Framework is deconstructing the idea of the “native speaker” – “nativeness” is now a thing of the past. This is another good point to consider when thinking on the changes to the CEFR. To be told you need to “sound native” is demotivating. Moving forward, language learners should aim for “general comprehensibility,” or intelligibility, versus “nativeness” – this will have an impact on teaching and learning.  

Language coaches are encouraged to ensure their students can understand a variety of accents and even embrace accents rather than trying to precisely mimic them. Again, the “ideal native speaker” is not seen as the ultimate goal anymore; the aim is to develop a linguistic repertoire, in which all language abilities have a place.  

When explaining these changes around the idea of “native speakers,” Dr. Rüschoff pointed out that this opens up a tricky question: Who, exactly, is a native speaker?  

In Dr. Rüschoff’s opinion, being forced to consider this question is a good thing – we all have different experiences and language repertoires, which is positive and beneficial in a language classroom.  

Plurilingualism vs. ”Nativeness”

Back to language and identity: While the CEFR still sees phonological control as a linguistic competency (language learners need, to some extent, to vary intonation and place stress on certain words to be intelligible in a given language), Dr. Rüschoff says these new updates show that the CEFR (evident by its updated descriptors) accepts the fact that whatever you say is already impacted by the languages you speak. But as long as you can still pronounce intelligibly, this should suffice.  

A “pluricultural repertoire” (ability to use languages to communicate but also take part in intercultural interactions, especially when an individual has proficiency in several languages and experiences of several cultures), embedded in the CEFR descriptors, notes that people do, indeed, change identities somewhat when they speak different languages. Ever so slightly, and subconsciously, depending on the context.  

Understanding language ability in relation to the CEFR

Thinking more on language ability, even when it comes to sound recognition and processing – how you hear something or absorb and understand something might be impacted by what you already speak. The CEFR indeed accounts for all this – saying we all need to be able to handle mispronunciations in certain contexts, and be aware of the fact that we each have our own ways of saying and understanding something.

language learning in the future

Language learning in the future

Dr. Rüschoff believes language learning might be easier, and learners more motivated, as the CEFR continues to move away from a system focused on the on things learners don’t know yet and still need to learn, which is demotivating (“You don’t know this; you have to learn it!”).  

What’s likely to be more effective is a system that encourages people to already use the new language they’re learning, and points out that even at the beginner level you can already introduce yourself, which can provide you, as an amateur learner, with positive reinforcement.  

Speak your own way

In summary: When you’re learning a new language, and you are frustrated that your pronunciation isn’t precisely matching that of your language coach, don’t fret. You don’t, in fact, need to sound native; rather, you’re encouraged to speak comprehensively. 

Whatever you say is impacted by your mother tongue, other languages you know, your experiences – and that is okay. 

If you’d like to learn more about how needs assessment and corporate language training aligned with the CEFR can help your organization attract and retain top talent while closing skills gaps, contact us. We look forward to hearing from you.