When you take an English test, you get a score. Often you'll also get some indication of what that score means, expressed as an English level or label, for example "beginner" or "advanced". There are many different English leveling systems in use around the world, and an even wider variety of English tests, which have implicit or explicit leveling systems built into their scoring. Some English levelling schemes are built in to a particular English test, while others are theoretical frameworks without any associated test.
The CEFR is a way of describing how well you speak and understand a foreign language. There are several frameworks with similar aims including the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages Proficiency Guidelines (ACTFL), the Canadian Language Benchmarks (CLB), and the Interagency Language Roundtable scale (ILR). The CEFR is not tied to any specific language test.
The CEFR is a European scale and was specifically designed to apply to any European language, so it can be used to describe your English skills, your German skills, or your Estonian skills (if you have them).
The CEFR was put together by the Council of Europe in the 1990’s as part of a wider effort to promote collaboration between language teachers across all European countries. The Council of Europe also wanted to improve clarity for employers and educational institutions who needed to evaluate candidates’ language proficiency. The framework is intended to be used in both teaching and assessment.
Rather than being tied to a particular test, the CEFR is a collection of can-do statements that list the functions you will be able to perform using a foreign language at any given level of proficiency. For example, one of the level B1 can-do statements is “Can produce simple connected text on topics that are familiar or of personal interest.” A teacher of any foreign language can use these can-do statements to evaluate you and design lessons to address the gaps in your knowledge.
The CEFR is used extensively in language teaching in Europe, both in the public education sector and in private language schools. In many countries, it has replaced previous leveling systems used in foreign language teaching. Most education ministries in Europe have an explicit CEFR-based goal for all students leaving secondary school, for example B2 in their first foreign language, B1 in their second. For job seekers, many European adults use a standardized test score, like the TOEIC, to describe their English level.
Adoption of the CEFR is much narrower outside Europe, although some individual countries in Asia and Latin America have adopted it in their education systems.
In Europe, the CEFR is increasingly the standard way of describing your proficiency level in a foreign language, particularly in an academic setting. If you have studied more than one language, as most Europeans have, the CEFR is a conveniently standardized way to present two or more languages on your CV. In school or university, the CEFR is the standard framework across Europe and can be used without reservation.
However, in a corporate setting, the CEFR is not as widely understood. If you decide to use the CEFR on your CV for professional reasons, it is still best practice to include a level descriptor, a standardized test score, and examples of instances in which you used your language skills (study abroad, work abroad, etc.).
The best way to find out your CEFR level is to take a well-designed standardized test. In English, the EF SET is the best choice because it is freely available online and the first test aligned to the CEFR. You will need to set aside 50 minutes to complete the test and find out your CEFR level. To find out your CEFR level in other European languages, the most common assessment tests are all aligned with the CEFR. Depending on the language, you will need to take a different test. Check with the official instructional body for the language in Europe, for example the Alliance Française for French, the Instituto Cervantes for Spanish, or the Goethe Institute for German. It is not common to use CEFR levels to describe your level in non-European languages.
Many educators initially criticized the CEFR because of the breadth of its levels. Each of the six levels comprises a wide range of skills and abilities. A student who has just reached the B1 level is quite a long way behind a student who has almost, but not quite mastered all of the B2 skills, but both students would be defined as being in the B1 level. From a practical standpoint, teachers are required to break each of the six levels down into smaller sub-levels to design lessons and assessments.
Outside Europe, many countries have a widely-adopted assessment test already in place. They have not seen the value in switching to a different leveling framework that is not aligned to their current assessment tests. For English in particular, the most widely-adopted standardized assessment tests are not aligned to the CEFR.