Many languages, but a common framework

Photo: Floflo / Aqwis / Wikimedia Commons Bergen Museum, a part of the University of Bergen. The school’s Bergenstest was until recently the highest test of Norwegian proficiency available.

Photo: Floflo / Aqwis / Wikimedia Commons
Bergen Museum, a part of the University of Bergen. The school’s Bergenstest was until recently the highest test of Norwegian proficiency available.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

Language learning and teaching, as well as the testing of linguistic skills, are ever more essential in Norway and elsewhere in multicultural, multilingual Europe. Norwegian children start learning foreign languages in primary school, usually the major European ones—English, French, and German. Over the past few decades, they’ve been joined by immigrant children who must also learn Norwegian as a second language. Language proficiency, the ability of a person to speak or perform in an acquired language, is increasingly required in education and work. For example, admission to higher education now requires proficiency in Norwegian and English. A college or university student is expected to function in at least two languages. Similar requirements apply in some professions, like healthcare and the oil and gas sector.

Language proficiency requirements early brought about a need for testing to prove compliance. Most famously, the exam for the Cambridge Proficiency in English (CPE) was launched in 1913 and now consists of more than 20 exams for learners and teachers that each year are taken by more than five million people. The equivalent exam in Norwegian is newer and less ambitious, but nonetheless equally relevant for its language. Known as the Bergenstest or Test i norsk—høyere nivå (Test in Norwegian, higher level), it is named for the University of Bergen where it was devised and first launched in November 1990. It is equivalent to the American Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) level 2/2+ in the grading scale for language proficiency in the Federal service.

Both the CPE and the Bergenstest recognize language qualifications at a relatively high level; the Bergenstest is the formal requirement for admission to higher education in Norway. Other countries have similar tests in their languages, but historically there has been little equivalence between the various tests. Moreover, though foreign languages were taught across Europe, there were no comparisons of the proficiencies attained.

In 1989 the Council of Europe acted to put an end to the imbroglio of European language learning in an eight-year project entitled “Language Learning for European Citizenship.” Its aim was to work out methods of learning, teaching, and assessing that applied to all languages in Europe. The result in November 2001 was a Council resolution establishing the Common European Framework of Reference for Language (CEFR) guidelines.

The CEFR has six reference levels that now are widely accepted as the European standard for grading language proficiency. The reference levels are in three groups, A: Basic, B: Independent, and C: Proficient, each in two sub levels. So the six levels are:

A1: Breakthrough or beginner
A2: Way stage or elementary
B1: Threshold or intermediate
B2: Vantage or upper intermediate
C1: Effective operational proficiency or advanced
C2: Mastery or proficiency

Aside from providing international equivalence, CEFR has expanded and given structure to Norwegian language learning. The Bergenstest, equivalent to CEFR level B2, has long been the highest available Norwegian language test. Courses for CEFR levels C1 and C2 now are offered by colleges and online. More important in face of the numbers of immigrants coming into the country, Adult Education Centers now offer courses at the A1 and A2 levels that provide elementary proficiency required in basic jobs.

Further reading:
Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment, by the Council of Europe, Modern Languages Division, Cambridge, UK, 2001, Cambridge University Press, 278 page paperback, ISBN 978-0-521-00531-9, also available in 40 languages as a free download from the Council of Europe website, English version link:

The Power of Tests: A Critical Perspective on the Uses of Language Tests (Language in Social Life), by Elana Shohamy, Oxon, UK, 2001, Routledge, 208 page paperback, ISBN 978-0-582-42335-X.

Language Education Policy Profile Country Report, Norway, by the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research, 2003-2004, published by the Language Policy Division of the Council of Europe, Strasbourg, 32 page PDF free download, link:

This article originally appeared in the July 15, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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