What are ILR and CEFR levels? How Much Time Does it Take To Become Fluent?

What are ILR and CEFR levels and How Much Time Does it Take to become Fluent? At Strommen, we think it takes much less time!



What are the ILR and CEFR levels is a common question from our language learners. ILR and CEFR are distinct yet similar ways to determine a language learner’s proficiency level. Basically, they are two versions of the same concept: A system for defining a person’s level in a given language. Tests for ILR and CEFR are frequently conducted over the phone during the hiring process of a new employee to determine their actual language level, or to track a student’s progress. See below for a basic description of ILR and CEFR levels. The ILR scale can be used to determine different levels of Speaking, Reading, Writing, and Listening.How Much Time Does it take to Become Fluent?

We all wonder how much time it will take for us to learn and become fluent a new language. With the help of the ILR an DEFR levels we can take a more scientific approach to this question. It starts with learners taking a placement test, assessment, or professional language level certification test. Once a learner has determined their level they can make estimates based on their goals. Research shows that it takes an average of 600 classroom hours to go from Beginner to Fluent in languages like Spanish, French, German and Italian. According to an FSI study it takes around 600 hours of classroom hours.

“[The estimates below] illustrate the time usually required for a student to reach “Professional Working Proficiency” in the language, or a score of “Speaking-3/Reading-3” on the Interagency Language Roundtable scale [ILR]. These timelines are based on what FSI has observed as the average length of time for a student to achieve proficiency, though the actual time can vary based on a number of factors, including the language learner’s natural ability, prior linguistic experience, and time spent in the classroom.”

  • Category I Languages: According to the FSI it takes a learner 24-30 weeks (600-750 class hours) to learn category 1 languages like  Italian, Spanish, Norwegian, Dutch, Romanian, Swedish, and French) This means going from A1 to C1 or ILR level 1 to ILR level 3.
  • Category II Languages:  It takes approximately  36 weeks (900 class hours) German, Haitian Creole, Indonesian, Malay, Swahili
  • Category III Languages: “Hard languages” – Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English. It takes approximately 44 weeks (1100 class hours) to learn Albanian, Amharic, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Bengali, Bulgarian, Burmese, Czech, Dari, Estonian, Farsi, Finnish, Georgian, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Kazakh, Lao, Mongolian
  • Category IV Languages: “Super-hard languages” – Languages that are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers. It takes approximately 88 weeks (2200 class hours) to learn Arabic, Chinese – Cantonese, Chinese – Mandarin, Japanese, Korean.

If this seems like a lot of time, don’t fret, or let this hold you back from starting. Remember, that according to Malcolm Gladwell it takes 10,000 hours to master anything. Indeed, it may take you 600 hours to become fluent (A1 – C1) but remember that you can become conversational and conversant (B2 Level or C1 Level) much quicker than that. Also, these estimates are for classroom hours (group setting). With private classes that are focused on your specific needs, you can get speaking and conversing much quicker than that. We have seen students go from A1 to C1 in as little as 100 hours of private lessons. The further you advance in a language you have diminishing returns on improvement. See the chart below:

The CEFR Levels:

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment, abbreviated in English as CEFR or CEF or CEFRL, is a guideline used to describe the achievements of learners of foreign languages across Europe and, increasingly, in other countries. The CEFR is also intended to make it easier for educational institutions and employers to evaluate the language qualifications of candidates to education admission or employment. The Council of Europe put it together as the main part of the project “Language Learning for European Citizenship” between 1989 and 1996. Its main aim is to provide a method of learning, teaching and assessing that applies to all European languages. In November 2001, a European Union Council Resolution recommended using the CEFR to set up systems of validation of language ability. The six reference levels (A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2) are becoming widely accepted as the European standard for grading an individual’s language proficiency.


The levels for the CEFR are below:

Level group Level Description
Basic user
Breakthrough or beginner
  • Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type.
  • Can introduce themselves and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where they live, people they know, and things they have.
  • Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.
Waystage or elementary
  • Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment).
  • Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters.
  • Can describe in simple terms aspects of their background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.
Independent user
Threshold or intermediate
  • Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.
  • Can deal with most situations likely to arise while traveling in an area where the language is spoken.
  • Can produce simple connected text on topics that are familiar or of personal interest.
  • Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes, and ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.
Vantage or upper intermediate
  • Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in their field of specialization.
  • Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.
  • Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.
Proficient user
Effective operational proficiency or advanced
  • Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer clauses, and recognize implicit meaning.
  • Can express ideas fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions.
  • Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic, and professional purposes.
  • Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organizational patterns, connectors, and cohesive devices.
Mastery or proficiency
  • Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read.
  • Can summarize information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation.
  • Can express themselves spontaneously, very fluently, and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.

The ILR Scale:

The Interagency Language Roundtable scale is a set of descriptions of abilities to communicate in a language. It is the standard grading scale for language proficiency in the United States’s Federal-level service. It was originally developed by the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR), which included representation by the United States Foreign Service Institute, the predecessor of the National Foreign Affairs Training Center (NFATC).

The scale grades people’s language proficiency on a scale of 0–5. The designation 0+, 1+, 2+, 3+, or 4+ is assigned when proficiency substantially exceeds one skill level but does not fully meet the criteria for the next level. Thus the scale totals 11 possible grades.

Grades may be assigned separately for different skills such as reading, speaking, listening, writing, translation, audio translation, interpretation, and intercultural communication. For some of these skills, the level may be referred to with an abbreviation, for example, S-1 for Speaking Level 1.

ILR scale
  • ILR Level 0 – No proficiency.
  • ILR Level 1 – Elementary proficiency.
  • ILR Level 2 – Limited working proficiency.
  • ILR Level 3 – Professional working proficiency.
  • ILR Level 4 – Full professional proficiency.
  • ILR Level 5 – Native or bilingual proficiency.

ILR scale

ILR Level 0 – No proficiency

The baseline level of the scale is no proficiency, rated 0. The following describes the traits of an ILR Level 0 individual:

  • oral production limited to occasional, isolated words
  • may be able to ask questions or make statements with reasonable accuracy only with memorized utterances or formulae
  • unable to read connected prose but may be able to read numbers, isolated words and phrases, personal and place names, street signs, office and shop designations
  • understanding limited to occasional isolated words or memorized utterances in areas of immediate needs.
  • may be able to produce symbols in an alphabetic or syllabic writing system or 50 of the most common characters

ILR Level 1 – Elementary proficiency

Elementary proficiency is rated 1 on the scale. The following describes the traits of an ILR Level 1 individual:

  • can fulfill traveling needs and conduct themselves in a polite manner
  • able to use questions and answers for simple topics within a limited level of experience; the native speaker must strain and leverage contextual knowledge to understand what is said
  • able to understand basic questions and speech, which allows for guides, such as slower speech or repetition, to aid understanding
  • has a vocabulary only large enough to communicate the most basic of needs
  • writes in simple sentences or sentence fragments with continual spelling and grammar errors

The majority of individuals classified as Level 1 are able to perform most basic functions using the language; this includes buying goods, reading the time, ordering simple meals and asking for minimal directions

ILR Level 2 – Limited working proficiency

Limited working proficiency is rated 2 on the scale. A person at this level is described as follows:

  • able to satisfy routine social demands and limited work requirements
  • can handle with confidence most basic social situations including introductions and casual conversations about current events, work, family, and autobiographical information
  • can handle limited work requirements, needing help in handling any complications or difficulties; can get the gist of most conversations on non-technical subjects (i.e. topics which require no specialized knowledge), and has a speaking vocabulary sufficient to respond simply with some circumlocutions
  • has an accent which, though often quite faulty, is intelligible
  • can usually handle elementary constructions quite accurately but does not have thorough or confident control of the grammar

ILR Level 3 – Professional working proficiency

Professional working proficiency is rated 3 on the scale. Level 3 is what is usually used to measure how many people in the world know a given language. A person at this level is described as follows:

  • able to speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most conversations on practical, social, and professional topics
  • can discuss particular interests and special fields of competence with reasonable ease
  • has comprehension which is quite complete for a normal rate of speech
  • has a general vocabulary that is broad enough that he or she rarely has to search for a word
  • has an accent that may be obviously foreign; has good control of grammar; and whose errors virtually never interfere with understanding and rarely disturb the native speaker

Individuals classified at level 3 are able to use the language as part of normal professional duties and can reliably elicit information and informed opinion from native speakers; examples include answering objections, clarifying points, stating and defending the policy, conducting meetings, and reading with almost complete comprehension a variety of prose material on familiar and unfamiliar topics such as news reports, routine correspondence, and technical material in trained fields of competence.[1]

ILR Level 4 – Full professional proficiency

Full professional proficiency is rated 4 on the ILR scale. A person rated at this level should have one of the following characteristics:

  • able to use the language fluently and accurately on all levels and as normally pertinent to professional needs
  • can understand and participate in any conversations within the range of own personal and professional experience with a high degree of fluency and precision of vocabulary
  • would rarely be taken for a native speaker, but can respond appropriately even in unfamiliar grounds or situations
  • makes only quite rare and minor errors of pronunciation and grammar
  • can handle informal interpreting of the language

Individuals classified at level 4 are able to understand the details and ramifications of concepts that are culturally or conceptually different from their own language and can set the tone of interpersonal official, semi-official and non-professional verbal exchanges with a representative range of native speakers; examples include playing an effective role among native speakers in contexts such as conferences, lectures, and debates on matters of disagreement, as well as advocating a position at length. While proficiency may match that of an educated native speaker, the individual is not necessarily perceived as culturally native due to occasional weaknesses in idioms, colloquialisms, slang, and cultural references.[1]

ILR Level 5 – Native or bilingual proficiency

Native or bilingual proficiency is rated 5 on the scale. A person at this level is described as follows:

  • has a speaking proficiency equivalent to that of an educated native speaker
  • has complete fluency in the language, such that speech on all levels is fully accepted by educated native speakers in all of its features, including breadth of vocabulary and idiom, colloquialisms, and pertinent cultural references

Equivalence with the European language proficiency scale CEFR

A table published by the American University Center of Provence gave the following correspondences between the ILR, the European language proficiency scale CEFR, and the proficiency scale of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL):

A1 0/0+ NL, NM, NH
A2 1 IL, IM
B1 1+ IH
B2 2/2+ AL, AM, AH
C1 3/3+ S
C2 4/4+ D


Share this post