Taking Europe to Task

Miriam Plieninger explains how the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages has influenced intermediate online learning

Communicative language didactics are big in Europe, largely due to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). The CEFR was published by the Council of Europe and has been influencing learning and teaching for several years now. Beginner levels are called A1/A2, intermediate B1/B2, and advanced C1/C2.

So what changed in language learning? Before the introduction of the CEFR, language skills were primarily evaluated through grammar and vocabulary knowledge, as in ‘could learners translate correctly, build grammatical forms, and spell?’ Digital learning products in this tradition predominantly consist of fill-in-the-blank exercises — for all language levels. The higher the level, the more complex the words or grammar forms that must be filled in. But unfortunately, a specialist in grammar with knowledge acquired from books cannot always get around in the real world; anyone who got good grades in a foreign language at school but can’t speak a word abroad knows this.

The CEFR has a different approach. Levels A1 to C2 show how well learners can cope with reading, speaking, writing, and listening in various real-life communication situations. To cite a few examples of the skill “writing”: at level A1 you can fill out a form, at B1 you can write a simple private letter, at C1 you can write an essay on complex topics. As the CEFR focuses on communication and action orientation, the level descriptions for A1-C2 do not correspond to specific grammar points or vocabulary.

Self-learners at a beginner level need to build up a basis of grammar and vocabulary first. They should understand how their new language works, and they need a few scraps of it to face their first real communication situations (even if with short, memorized phrases). So in beginner’s courses, the most important grammar and vocabulary topics should be the focus, but these are always oriented towards real-life situations. In the new, in-depth programs, such as those published by Babbel this year, it’s the other way around: grammar and vocabulary are greatly reduced and the emphasis is put on action — that means learning how to listen, speak, read, and write in specific everyday situations.

In every unit of these in-depth courses, a story is told in which these four skills are exercised. The first part is all about listening and speaking. After a short vocabulary introduction, there is dictation, listening comprehension texts, and pronunciation exercises with speech recognition — and at the end there is a role-play as a speaker in one of the dialogues. The second part continues with reading and writing — with translation exercises, reading comprehension texts, and free writing tasks, always within the story. Grammar is implicitly introduced in the vocabulary of the first part of every unit, explained in the second, and then exercised with the help of reading and writing tasks.

So while most language learning products at intermediate levels simply resort to more complex fill-in-the-blank vocabulary and grammar exercises, these in-depth programs teach real communication skills. These skills are vital in the everyday life situations of an adult learner, be it for professional or private reasons. Smart and adaptive online solutions are about to redefine the learning experience and the market of language learning.

Miriam Plieninger is head of content at Babbel. She has worked for several educational providers developing communicative language-learning media, from print and CD learning materials for offline learning to online courses and apps. She has been with Babbel for four years and heads the editorial staff. Babbel is an online system for learning foreign languages. Both beginners and continuing learners can study French, Spanish, Italian, Brazilian Portuguese, Swedish, German, Dutch, Indonesian, Polish, Turkish, and English with the help of interactive listening, writing, and speaking exercises. In addition, there are apps for iPhone, iPad, iPod, Windows 8, and Android mobile devices, as well as interactive e-books. More than 15 million people from over 190 countries are already learning a language with Babbel. Babbel is operated by Lesson Nine GmbH, Berlin. The company was founded in August, 2007, and now has around 170 employees and freelancers. Since March, 2013, Lesson Nine has been involved with Reed Elsevier Ventures, Nokia Growth Partners, Kizoo AG, and VC-Fonds Berlin.