The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages or CEFR has been the subject of roughly a dozen questions so far (see ). The CEFR is best known for its method for defining proficiency levels based on can-do statements that apply to four skills: reading, listening, speaking and writing. This is fine for most language learners, but how does the CEFR cater for the needs of Deaf people, who cannot listen or speak in the usual sense of the word?

1 Answer 1


In 2018, the Council of Europe (CoE) published Common European Framewok of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment. Compation Volume with New Descriptors. This is the first official version of the CEFR documentation that includes descriptors for sign language. Page 59 says,

Ever since the CEFR for spoken languages was introduced, there has been a need to define common learning targets, curricula and levels for education in sign languages. The CEFR is in fact increasingly used in order to structure courses in sign language. 95% of deaf children are born to hearing parents, so, although the community of the deaf is small, there is a great need for such courses, not just the families of deaf children, but for educational purposes (interpreters, deaf migrants, hard of hearing, pedagogues, linguists, etc.).

Pages 145-156 are dedicated to descriptors for the language skills of sign language users. The introductory paragraph to that section of the document says,

Many of the CEFR descriptors, especially those for spoken communicative language activities, are as applicable to sign language as they are to spoken language, since sign language is used to fulfil the same communicative functions. (...) However, there are obviously ways in which sign language differs substantially from spoken language. Fundamentally it involves a spatial and diagrammatical competence in the use of visual space. And it involves a broadened notion of the term “text”, namely for video recorded signing that is not based on a written script. These competencies go far beyond the paralinguistic features of communication through spoken language. The signing space is used to nominate and later refer to relevant persons, places and objects in a form of spatial mapping. Sign languages then have syntax, semantics, morphology and phonology just like any other language.

However, there are challenges in applying the CEFR to sign language (page 145; italics from the source):

Due to the divergent modalities of signed and spoken languages it cannot be assumed that the different levels and the respective competencies of the CEFR for spoken languages can be transferred onto sign languages as such. No European spoken language shows typological features that are characteristic of the European sign languages. So whereas a translation of communicative functions from spoken to sign languages can work, a translation of language competences is less appropriate!

The CEFR breaks singing competence down into the following areas:

  • linguistic:
    • sign language repertoire
    • diagrammaical accuracy
  • pragmatic:
    • sign text structure
    • setting and perspectives
    • presence and effect
    • signing fluency
  • sociolinguistic:
    • sociolinguistic appropriateness and cultural repertoire

Sign language repertoire refers to "lexicalized language resources" (page 146); this covers both manual and non-manual elements (e.g. mimic expressions, and head and body motion). Below are some of the descriptors for some of the CEFR levels:

  • A1:
    • "Can sign conventional greetings and leave taking expressions."
    • "Can describe physical shape (height, width, length)."
    • "Can spell names and technical expressions, among other things, using the finger alphabet."
  • A2:
    • "Can present different aspects of the plot or storyline (e.g. duration: as in "work through the night")."
    • "Can express his/her own opinion."
  • B1:
    • "Can describe important characteristics of a person or object with the appropriate handshapes."
  • B2:
    • "Can alternate between productive and lexical signing."
  • C1:
    • "Can express actions, objects and relations between these by using suitable (substitutor)-classifiers (one- and two-handed) in varying ways with ease."
    • "Can switch between direct and indirect speech."
  • C2:
    • "Can formulate abstract expressions and concepts, e.g. in the academic and scientific domain."

Diagrammatical accuracy "describes the correctness, accuracy, precision, and complexity of syntax expressions" (page 148). Below are some of the descriptors for this area:

  • A1:
  • A2:
    • "Can express the conditions under which one does certain things if ... then)."
    • "Can present the environment (e.g. landscape) by describing the relevant form(s)."
  • B1:
    • "Can situate objects/people in the signing space by indexing and later referencing to them with pronouns."
  • B2:
    • "Can situate the different contents/actions in the text sensibly in the signing space in order to structure the text."
  • No descriptors for C1 and C2.

Signing text structure refers to "[t]he ability of the user/learner to shape and structure their contributions is in the focus of this scale. (...) For sign languages, the scale captures the signing competences needed to shape and structure a (video recorded) text" (page 150). Below are some of the descriptors for this area:

  • A1: no descriptors.
  • A2:
    • "Can formulate simple for and against arguments into the form of questions to put."
  • B1:
    • "Can structure text content into an introduction, main section and closure or conclusion."
  • B2:
    • "Can create appropriate transitions and links between the different sections of the text."
  • C1:
    • "Can develop a convincing, logical argument (thesis, justification, exemplification, conclusion)."
  • C2:
    • "Can systematically justify his/her opinions, for example logically, morally and pragmatically."

Setting and perspectives refers to "establish[ing] clearly the context and setting at the beginning of the interaction or production in order to establish reference points within the three-dimensional signing space and to get onto the same wavelength" (page 152). Below are some of the descriptors for this area:

  • A1: no descriptors.
  • A2:
    • "Can when signing consistently maintain the relative sizes and proportions of objects (e.g. when peeling a banana)."
  • B1:
    • "Can demonstrate a change of role through an alteration in upper body posture."
  • B2:
    • "Can linguistically correctly construct a new setting when a new topic or situation etc. occurs in the text."
  • C1:
    • "Can switch between different perspectives."
  • C2:
    • "Can present a complex action or event by playing different roles and taking different perspectives."

Presence and effect refers to "[t]he extent of the effect on addressees of one’s signing (perlocutionary effects of convincing, amusing, persuading, affecting, etc.) and the specific signs at the user/learner’s disposal" (page 153). Below are some of the descriptors for this area:

  • A1:
    • "Can position him/herself so that the signing is easily visible to the recipients."
  • A2:
    • "Can employ mimic appropriately to express negative and positive feelings (eyebrows together: negative; eyebrows raised: positive)."
  • B1:
    • "Can convey a new point of view in a way that makes the recipients think."
  • B2:
    • "Can chose from a broad variety of non-manual means (e.g. mimic) to build up suspense and excitement."
  • C1:
    • "Appears calm and relaxed when signing, even when a high degree of concentration is required."
  • C2:
    • "Can effortlessly and playfully employ hand shapes as an aesthetic element, so that creative forms of language emerge."

Signing fluency is "a direct equivalent of the scale for spoken fluency and complements it" (page 154). Below are some of the descriptors for this area:

  • A1: No descriptors.
  • A2:
    • "Can indicate the end of a sentence clearly by leaving a pause."
  • B1:
    • "Can employ different handshapes fluently one after another."
    • "Can sign a fluent transition between related points."
  • B2:
    • "Can sign at a comfortable pace, without needing to think about the individual signs."
  • C1:
    • "Can sign rapidly in a steady rhythm."
  • C2: No descriptors.

Sociolinguistic repertoire and cultural repertoire is the equivalent of the scale for spoken language and complements it. Below are some of the descriptors for this area:

  • A1:
    • "Can respond appropriately to a "Thank you," (e.g. with "You're welcome")."
    • "Can employ different strategies in order to establish the eye contact necessary for communication (touching, winking, tapping the table, turning off and on lighting)."
  • A2:
    • "Can use an appropriate means of address when meeting an unknown deaf person."
    • "Can maintain eye contact with his/her interlocutor whilst signing."
  • B1:
    • "Can use his/her knowledge of sign language culture to explain the origin of certain culturally determined signs (e.g. the names of well-known people, institutions and place names)."
    • "Can sensibilise people to cultural issues."
  • B2:
    • "Can adopt the appropriate formal register in order to maintain distance to the reported issue."
    • "Can explain facts and events that are important in the culture of the deaf."
  • C1:
    • "Can respect sociocultural norms in producing texts, e.g. appropriate register, forms of politeness, status, taboos."
    • "Can switch between formal and informal registers without effort."
    • "Can tell a joke that relates to the culture of the deaf."
  • C2: No descriptors.

Note that the updated CEFR descriptors from 2018 describe only a person's competence at producing sign language. These descriptors were the result of a research project at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) (Gemeinsamer Europäischer Referenzrahmen für Gebärdensprachen), funded by the Swiss National Research Programme. The Companion Volume with New Descriptors mentions that,

The project aims in a second phase to produce descriptors for receptive signing competence. (page 49)

This means that desciptors for sign language understanding may be integrated into a later update of the CEFR's descriptors volume. However, even with descriptors for receptive signing competence in place, the CEFR would only provide descriptors of the skills of people learning sign language.

The CEFR does not provide guidance on how to evaluate the speaking and listening skills of Deaf people learning a spoken (i.e. non-signed) language. The descriptors for reading and writing would obviously still apply, but replacing the descriptors for speaking and listening with those for signing and sign language understanding, respectively, would not lead to equivalent requirements. This is because (1) there is not one sign language but many and (2) sign languages are not simply the signed counterpart of the spoken language of a specific country or region. For example, English is spoken in countries such as the UK and the USA; in spite of the differences between British and American English, both varieties are mutually intelligible. This is not the case with British and American Sign Language, since American Sign Language derives from an older stage of French Sign Language.

For example, a Deaf person from Germany who wants to learn English can learn to read and write English, but this does not lead to any increased understanding of British or American Sign Language, which don't derive from English. Expecting that this person also learn British or American Sign Language would amount to adding another language. The CEFR does not discuss this type of issues.

  • I think the question is not about sign languages per se, but about language learning for Deaf people. For example, say I am deaf and want to learn German. Obviously I can learn to read, write, and maybe speak German, but I can't listen to it because I am deaf. Would it even be possible for me to qualify for a CEFR rating, or would the fact that I am not able to hear result in me failing a section or the entire rating?
    – Robert Columbia
    Commented Jan 3, 2019 at 12:54
  • @RobertColumbia I don't understand the downvote. What you are asking is simply not part of the CEFR. I have updated my answer.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Jan 3, 2019 at 19:52

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