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"DO you speak French?" This seems to be a straightforward question, but language specialists know that the answer is anything but simple. For what purpose? In what context? To whom? Even someone with a good command of a foreign language could find themselves in an unfamiliar situation where specialist vocabulary is required. This is why learners, teachers, employers, examiners and other users need some reference points in order to be more specific about competence in a language.

At one time the only generally recognised measures of knowledge and competence were qualifications - GCSE or A-level, for example. While such qualifications indicate a level of study, they do not necessarily provide the required information about a person's competence in using the language. Someone with GCSE French might be able to talk about their last summer holiday, but could they make the arrangements for a business meeting over the telephone? Over the past 10 years or so, different reference frameworks have been developed that make it easier to give accurate information about what someone can actually do in a language. For teachers and examiners these are common yardsticks for measuring attainment. For the learner they help to give a sense of progress and can also serve as learning goals.

Since the introduction of the national curriculum, teachers have been required to use the level descriptions to make judgments about their pupils' attainment and to report this at the end of key stage 3. This year they are using, for the first time, the level descriptions which were revised as part of the national curriculum review in 1999. In KS4 teachers focus more on potential exam grades, but a simple comparative exercise would show that there are similarities betwen certain level descriptions and the GCSE grade descriptions - for example, the descriptions for level 6 and for GCSE grade C.

Less well known, but much more detailed, are the National Language Standards (NLS). A revised version of these was published in 2000 by the Languages National Training Organisation. As well as being the basis for National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs), the NLS can form the basis for language training programmes and provide a national reference framework to describe in detail a person's language competence or the language requirements of a particular job. The five levels of the NLS reflect the emerging national qualifications framework. The QCA is currently involved in an extensive programme of work to accredit all qualifications for which courses can be publicly funded. Each qualification is given a level within the framework, and both NVQs and vocationally-related qualifications (those which fall between general qualifications, such as GCSE and NVQs) are related directly to the NLS.

Most ambitious of all is the Common European Framework, which was developed by the 24 member states of the Council of Europe. The Nuffield Languages Inquiry drew attention to this when recommending a unified standards framework for languages. There are differences in terminology but the similarities with corresponding levels in the NLS are obvious. Indeed the comparison can be carried further, for example to the GCSE grade descriptions. Although there may still be different systems for describing language competence, it is clear that these are converging and already overlap.

Christopher Maynard is principal officer for MFL at the QCA, 83 Piccadilly, London W1J 8QA. Tel: 020 7509 5555.Web:

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