For anyone who has been learning languages for a while, you are probably familiar with the Common European Framework Reference: a set of guides for self-determining one’s level in a language. If you are not familiar with it, you can find the Wikipedia entry on it here.
It is this guide that gives us levels such as A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, and C2. In general, A1/A2 comprise a beginner level, B1/B2 an intermediate level, and C1/C2 an advanced level.
Someone I know recently posted on a language forum I frequent a very good summation of the CEFR levels, which I wanted to share:
The good thing about the CEFR levels is that they are all pretty distinct and over time, it becomes easier to measure where you fall on the scale.
This is how I interpret it:
A1 is completely basic. You know how to greet others, introduce yourself, maybe some colors and simple nouns… possibly the present tense conjugation of simple verbs like “to be” and “to have.” People will have to constantly repeat themselves and even then it might be difficult to understand what in the world someone is saying. Basically, you know only very basic knowledge and can’t hold a conversation of any deep meaning.
A2 is a little more advanced. You might know a couple of verb tenses like the future and past. You can talk about most subjects on a basic level that you’d read in a basic language workbook you’d find at the bookstore (School, weather, work, etc.). Your vocabulary is at least a couple hundred words. Basically, you can have a little bit of depth to the conversation but you’re still a beginner. You can’t talk about most complex subjects. Basically, you’re still in the beginning stages but you can actually hold somewhat of a conversation that has more depth than “where do you live?” and “I like blue.”
When you reach B1, you have essentially internalized all of the basics and you can start seriously building on developing more complex conversations in the language. You can express your opinions, desires, etc. more thoroughly. You know most of the verb tenses and a great amount of grammar. A lot of times if you thoroughly study a language but do not have a lot of opportunities to practice, it’s easy to plateau on this level. You’re not exactly close to understanding EVERYTHING, but you can usually get the main gist of conversations and “survive” in an environment where only the target language is spoken. You can usually figure out a way to say “most” things you want to say, even if it takes a while to remember the vocabulary and you play around with the grammar a bit. You can write a pretty good paragraph on pretty much any major topic, but you won’t be using complex vocabulary or 100% perfect grammar. In summary, you can express yourself in most situations but it still might require a bit of effort to do so.
B2 is a very distinct level and it is extremely easy for one to get stuck here. I would call this the beginnings of being so-called “fluent.” You can work well in an environment where only the target language is spoken without strain for either party. You can write an essay on most subjects and craft your thoughts very well. Once in a while you will have an issue understanding the other party, but they can easily explain the concept to you in the target language. As this level, you can use materials published only in the target language to learn more of the target language.
I have personally found it very difficult to reach C1 from B2. Most people are at B2 for a very long time before reaching C1 and it’s extremely frustrating. In addition, lack of practice can easily set a C1 speaker back to B2. By C1, you have internalized all of the grammatical intricacies of the language (You know all conjugations, all preposition rules, you better have perfected declensions if your language has them) and slip-ups tend to be rare and minor. You can speak usually at the rate of a native speaker, watch shows and movies without subtitles and understand essentially everything (but being able to pick out the odd word you don’t know). You don’t have any issues whatsoever engaging in dialogue with native speakers and at this point, you’re really only developing your vocabulary and learning more rare expressions and idioms. You can read books but you’ll still find some complex vocabulary you don’t know. You’re very confident in the language and aren’t constantly looking to see if you made any errors.
C2, you’re essentially at the level of a native speaker and may know many things about the language that they even they do not know.
Side note, these levels are in separate categories for skills such as writing, reading, speaking, and listening comprehension.