1960’s: Language learning for communication initiatives

According to Article 2 of the European Cultural Convention, member States of the Council of Europe commit themselves to facilitating communication among citizens through the promotion of each other’s languages.

Accordingly, the language projects set up since 1960 all focused on language learning for communication, promoting a learner centred, actional and positive approach. The purpose was to ensure that all citizens would have the opportunity to learn other languages (in addition to their first language), that their specific communicative needs would be taken into account and that methodologies would be based on real communication tasks. In order to promote learner autonomy based on self-confidence and motivation, the approach needed to be positive, valuing all that learners could do in a foreign or second language, even at modest levels.
 

1970’s: Specifications for language learning objectives

In the years 1970/80, among the most important projects, ‘Threshold Level’ specifications were developed first for English soon followed by French, and later for nearly 30 languages: these language-specific documents specify objectives for language learning with a view to attaining independent communication in the target language. Objectives for communication at a higher level (Vantage) and two lower levels (Breakthrough and Waystage) were then also developed for English.

The Threshold Level’s definitional approach reflects the view that linguistic performance depends on more than linguistic knowledge. This view became fully explicit in the next phase of the Council of Europe’s work on the specification of language learning objectives, focusing on scope and levels. Concerning the scope, five dimensions of communicative ability were identified: linguistic, sociolinguistic, discourse, socio-cultural, and social competence. As for the levels, work at this stage points forward to one of the central innovative features of the CEFR, the scaled description of L2 proficiency.
 

1990’s: A descriptive scheme and scaled descriptions of L2 proficiency 

By the 1990's it was time to develop a comprehensive framework for language learning, teaching and assessment in general.

The idea of developing a CEFR was launched in 1991 during a major Council of Europe symposium organised in Rüschlikon in co-operation with Swiss authorities. A working party was set up in 1992, which worked closely with a research group in Switzerland (thanks to the support of the Swiss National Science Foundation). The aim of this research group was to develop and scale descriptors of language proficiency. Four members of the working party were chosen to be the authors of the CEFR.

2000s: The CEFR is adopted in Europe and beyond

Even before its publication in 2001, the CEFR started to have a strong influence on curriculum design in member states. Translated into 40 languages during the decade and adopted as a reference by almost all countries in Europe and many beyond, a survey of member states conducted in 2007 suggested that the CEFR had already become possibly the most influential publication in language education, being used worldwide to inform innovation in curriculum, teaching, and assessment. Adoption was helped by the fact that the CEFR is applicable to all languages, and provides both the pragmatic, real world functional objectives increasingly demanded, but combines these with the promotion of plurilingualism, interculturality and education for democratic citizenship.

2020: The CEFR renewed: The CEFR Companion volume

The Companion Volume completes and clarifies the CEFR descriptive model by defining and further expanding constructs; extends and completes the CEFR set of descriptors; and broadens the conceptualisation of language education. Many of the concepts introduced in the CEFR were further developed both in theory and on the ground over the following 20 years and therefore it proved to be possible to elaborate them further in the Companion Volume. The CEFR descriptors in the Companion Volume replace those published in 2001, with updates to existing scales, especially for A1 and the C-levels, and new scales of descriptors for mediating text, mediating concepts, mediating communication, online interaction, phonology and signing competences.

Development of the CEFR: Chronology

1991 – The symposium "Transparency and coherence in language learning in Europe. Objectives, evaluation, certification" (Rüschlikon, Switzerland, 10-16 November 1991) was the starting point of the CEFR. It was organised by the Council of Europe and the Federal Swiss authorities in collaboration with the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Directors of Education (EDK), the Eurocentres Foundation, the Migros Club Schools and the Interuniversity Commission for Applied Linguistics (CILA).

1995 – Draft 1 of the Framework Proposal published in December 

1996 – Consultation: over 3,000 copies sent out to institutions and experts in all member states, and several hundred evaluative questionnaires returned and analysed. (Note that at this time neither internet nor e-mail was in common use and communication was possible only by post) 

1997 – Draft 2 of the Framework proposal submitted for scrutiny to the conference Language learning for a new Europe (Strasbourg, 15-18 April 1997) 

1998 – After subsequent revision, Draft 2 printed and distributed for piloting together with the accompanying User Guide 

2001 – Official launch of the CEFR at the beginning of the European Year of Languages 

2003 – Development of the pilot version of the manual for relating examinations to  the CEFR

2007  The intergovernmental Language Policy Forum “The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) and the development of language policies: challenges and responsibilities” confirms the role of the CEFR as a stimulus for reflection and further development of current curricula and teaching practices as well as the responsibility of member states to respect the integrity of the CEFR levels.

2009  Publication, after extensive piloting, of the manual Relating Language Examinations to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment (CEFR), followed a year later by further material volume of case studies.

2013 – A decision is made to revisit the conceptual framework of the CEFR and to update and extend the illustrative descriptors to include the areas left to one side in 2001, thus launching a 6-year project.

2015  The draft descriptors for the new CEFR scales for aspects of mediation, online interaction, reactions to literature, and plurilingualism and pluriculturalism are validated in a series of activities over 10 months in which 189 institutions and over 1300 individuals in took part. Over 80 countries and 60 languages were represented in the data.

2018 – Following extensive piloting and consultation with member states, institutions and some 800 individuals, publication online of the CEFR Companion Volume with New Descriptors, in English and French, including descriptors for productive signing competences.

2020 – Publication of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, teaching, assessment – Companion volume in English, with all descriptors made modality and gender inclusive.

2021 – Publication of the French version Cadre européen commun de référence pour les langues : apprendre, enseigner, évaluer – Volume complémentaire.

2022 – Publication of the volume of case studies Enriching 21st century language education: The CEFR Companion volume, examples from practice.

A concrete example of the use of Council of Europe specifications:  multimedia courses used world-wide

English: In the late 1970s, BBC produced the crash course “Follow me”, a television programme based on these Council of Europe specifications. It became popular in many overseas countries as a first introduction to English; it is reported that in 1983, one hundred million people watched the programme in China alone.

Spanish: Based on the BBC initiative and in co-operation with the Council of Europe, the University of Salamanca produced the multimedia course “Viaje al español”, the use of which extended up to 2014.