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How long does it take for your French to reach A2, B1 or B2 level?

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James Harrington - [email protected]
How long does it take for your French to reach A2, B1 or B2 level?
A written test is part of the B1 language exam, required for German citizenship on the standard track. (Photo by THOMAS COEX / AFP)

France's new immigration bill brings in tougher language level requirements for certain types of residency permit and for citizenship - but how long does it usually take people to reach these levels?

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Naturally how quickly you learn French depends on all sorts of factors, from how immersed you are in the language in daily life to how much time you can spare for studying. But there are some guidelines to how long it usually takes. 

New rules

France's new immigration bill makes three changes to language levels required.

  • The multi-year carte de séjour pluriannuelle now requires a minimum level of A2 French.
  • The 10-year carte de résident now requires B1 level (against A2 previously)
  • Becoming a naturalised French citizen requires French at B2 level (up from B1 previously).

You can find a full explanation of the new rules - and the exemptions to them - HERE.

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There are no language requirements for short-term (one-year) residency cards, or for French visas. The Office français de l'immigration et de l'integration (OFII) can order new arrivals who have no or very little French to attend language classes, but there is no requirement to pass any kind of test. 

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QUIZ Could you pass the new French language tests?

What do these levels mean?

The international DELF scale starts at A1, which is beginner level. A2 is one step above A1, moving toward everyday language capabilities.

French authorities also refer to the language scale as the CECRL, cadre européen de référence pour les langues - also known as the CERF, Common European Framework of Reference for Languages in English.

At the A2 point, you should be able to “understand single phrases and frequently used expressions that are used in everyday environments, such as when giving personal details or ordering food”.

You should be able to communicate about simple, daily tasks that require only an exchange of direct information on familiar subjects.

B1 is the first intermediate level. You should be able to communicate well in daily situations, with anyone speaking ‘standard’ French.

You should be “self-sufficient in most travel situations where French is spoken” and be able to engage in “simple and coherent discourse on familiar subjects and in areas of interest”. You should also be able to “recount an event, experience or dream, describe a hope or goal, and briefly explain a project or idea”.

B1 level speakers are expected to know the past-perfect tense, the past and present conditional tenses, and speaking using hypotheses (si - or if).

B2 is the upper intermediate level. You should “be able to understand and read about both concrete and abstract topics; communicate spontaneously and easily with a native speaker; speak clearly and in detail on a wide range of topics, express an opinion on a relevant topic and discuss the pros and cons of a particular subject”.

The scale then moves on to C1 and C2 - generally described as fluency. These more advanced levels are not required for admin tasks such as residency or citizenship, but most French universities require C1 level French in order to enrol on a study programme (although some programmes accept B2).

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At the first advanced level, you should be able to comprehend long and demanding texts and capture implied meanings; speak spontaneously and fluently without struggling or having to look for words; use language effectively and flexibly in social, professional or academic life; express yourself on complex subjects in a clear and well-structured way that demonstrates control over syntax, strong articulation and cohesion of discourse.

How long will it take to get to these levels?

The 'how long is a piece of string' question. Remember school? Learning a language is very subjective and takes different people different lengths of time, depending in part on how intensive and immersive their lessons are, and how much time they spend practising outside the classroom. 

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And there’s knowledge of other languages. If you are already familiar with another romance language - Italian, or Spanish, for example, you’ll find there are more than a few crossovers that will make learning French easier. 

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The CEFR estimates that you’ll need to study for 350-400 hours to reach B1 from scratch, so a couple of hours a week is two years or so.

If you’re already at the A1/A2 level, cut that down to an additional 150-200 hours of study. The more time you can commit, the shorter the timescale.

The most important thing is that you learn at a pace that suits you best.

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What does the language exam involve?

Proving your language skills usually involves taking an exam at an accredited centre, although this can be waived if you have a degree from a French-speaking country.

The exam itself has four sections: a written, reading, listening and an oral test, in which you have a conversation with an examiner. The length of the exam varies based on your level, but it's usually between 1 hour 30 minutes and two hours.

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Oral comprehension – This test involves listening to a recording and answering questions about the content, usually multiple-choice answers;

Oral discussion – This is a one-on-one conversation with an examiner (either in person or on the phone). At the basic level it involves introducing yourself and answering some simple questions, at higher levels you will have to give your views on a prepared topic and then engage in a debate with the examiner.

Reading test – Candidates are expected to read a selection of French texts (newspaper articles, memos, adverts etc) and answer questions about their content;

Writing test – Candidates must write a piece on a given topic in a specified style (formal letter, email, memo, news report etc).

Bear in mind that instructions for the exam - times allowed, which sections to answer etc - are all in French. 

You need to pass all four sections of the test.  

The Local has put together a quiz based on past papers of A2, B1 and B2 level French - take the test HERE.

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