Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Common European Framework of Reference for Languages - Too common for ESP?

You've all heard of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) or at least seen those A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2 on the cover of language coursebooks and exam brochures, right? If you haven't, don't worry, the CEFR will get to you eventually. Unintentionally perhaps, it's little by little realizing Pinky and the Brain's lifelong dream: to take over the world.

 (Source: retro.mmgn.com)

We're all too aware of the advantages of CEFR: for one, it provides a common language for us to talk about language levels. I may not speak a word of German, but if a Fräulein says she's a B2 in the language of Goethe, I'll know what she means. I'll know what she's capable of in a General German context.

(not enough, let me make it bigger)

(now that's better)

what is the role of the CEFR in contexts of Language for Specific Purposes (LSP)? Should it have a role at all? 

My go-to response for anything in life (just ask my poor husband) is "NO". That's why the moment I heard Aviation English course sellers refer to the CEFR, my mind pretty much shut down as if they were Charlie Brown's teacher.

Seriously, you're talking gibberish.

Because, no matter how carefully designed the CEFR was, it still has a single purpose: "to explore the communicative needs of adult migrants and to guide the assessment of their proficiency in the language of their host community." (Council of Europe, a.k.a. horse's mouth) And you can't just cross the ocean on a state-of-the-art fighter.

Or that's what I thought until I attended the TESOL International Academy on ESP (BTW, I strongly recommend both the Academy and the Association itself). The speakers there represented the crème de la crème in terms of ESP practitioners, and they did it beautifully. It was serious, principled ESP they were reporting. And yet they'd still talk about the CEFR as a backbone of their courses. Whatever ESP they were in, whatever the background of the presenter, there they were: speaking of their A1-C2 levels.

One of the things we do when we carry out a needs analysis is, of course, list the tasks involving language in that domain. CEFR tasks are those of an adult migrant. May there be a considerable overlap? Well, there might be. In Aviation I seriously doubt it. But in tourism, business or other fields, it might perhaps be possible to map the domain you are working with onto the CEFR. Provided that you set out and do it, actually study how the construct behind the European framework relates to your specific domain, I'd be OK with it, if a bit suspicious at first (ok, very suspicious at first, but I'm a nobody, so don't worry about me). On the other hand, if you just assume the CEFR fits the bill no-questions-asked, aren't you paying lip service to the need of needs analysis?

(Yeah, I'm being controversial. Go ahead, shoot!)