CEFR Analysis for Toki Pona (Listening and Spoken Interaction)

jan Telakoman

Last edit: 2023-04-24 19:22 UTC

This is my take on the CEFR scale and how it can be adapted to Toki Pona, specifically as respects listening and spoken interaction.

Here is my Google Sheet with examples of Toki Pona content comprehensible to learners at each level


CEFR is based around "can do" statements, which is great. But when you look at many of these statements it's not immediately obvious how they can be adapted to Toki Pona.

  • Toki Pona is primarily used online rather than in daily in-person interactions
  • Toki Pona's minimalist nature means that mastery of the lexicon is less relevant as a measure of progress than skill at expressing or understanding high-level meaning constructed from semantically elementary items

This means that I need to get a handle on the essence of the CEFR scale in terms of meanings expressed, rather than the forms used to express them, and go from there.

I believe the essence of the CEFR scale can be expressed as an overlap between concrete and abstract thoughts:


Concrete Abstract
A1-A2 Can understand/express basic thoughts
B1-B2 Can understand/express most thoughts Can understand/express basic thoughts
C1-C2 Can understand/express most thoughts

For simplicity I'm going to call this my concrete-abstract model. To me:

  • "concrete" means that which is immediately accessible to the five senses, what you can see or touch or hear and so on
  • "abstract" means that which is not concrete, everything we feel or know, including our memories, our opinions, our mental models, and analyses of the world.

I've gone through the self-assessment grids and highlighted what I'm categorizing as "concrete" and what I'm categorizing as "abstract":


Click for full res image

In this document I'm doing this for each CEFR level:

  • Relating the CEFR level "can do" statements to my concrete-abstract model
  • Going from there to reformulate "can do" statements for Toki Pona
  • Giving examples of Toki Pona proficiency and content at that level

Note: When rating content for difficulty, it is important to account for non-linguistic clues provided to aid comprehension, such as pictures and visually evocative gestures. The question needs to be, "if there were no non-linguistic clues provided, what level would be required to comprehend the message?" The whole point of opetp, for instance, is to provide comprehensible content to someone with no knowledge of Toki Pona at all. But without the non-linguistic clues, the content might well be A2 or even B1 in some cases.



How do you know you're at A1?

This is the most basic concrete level, but definitely not nothing. You can introduce yourself, you can ask for things, you can hand me things if I ask for them. If we go outside you can look around and say, "Look, that's a tree. Look, that's a bird" and so on.

How do you know you're not at A2?

A2 means that you can get your basic needs met and achieve daily routines. So if you understand me when I ask you to give me a piece of fruit that's on the table, you're A1. But if you don't understand if I ask you to go down to the shop and get some more fruit, you're not A2.

Adapted to Toki Pona

The lexicon of Toki Pona is so small and concrete that it doesn't make sense to talk about "familiar words". Also the online nature of most Toki Pona interactions means that it's probably good to not depend on physical surroundings.

  • Listening: "I can recognise very basic phrases concerning myself, my family, and what I can see and hear in the moment when people speak slowly and clearly."
  • Spoken Interaction: "I can interact in a simple way provided the other person is prepared to repeat or rephrase things at a slower rate of speech and help me formulate what I'm trying to say. I can ask and answer simple questions in areas of immediate need or on very familiar topics."

If you can do the following you're at A1:

  • Easily follow jan Polijan's content
  • Easily understand what's going on in the simpler stories in o pilin e toki pona
  • Talk about pictures of animals shared in Discord

I see the self-reported level of "pona ala, mi sin (Beginners. Learning the vocabulary, essential grammar, and fundamentals)" in ma pona pi toki pona as functionally equivalent to A1.



How do you know you're at A2?

You are still limited to concrete subject matter, but you are able to go beyond what is immediately visible to you. You are able to talk about common, predictable daily tasks and needs. You are also able to share more information about yourself.

How do you know you're not at B1?

In concrete matters, the line between A2 and B1 seems to be the ability to handle surprises in day-to-day activities. Someone at A2 can navigate daily, routine activities, but dealing with "situations likely to arise while travelling" is a B1 skill. So if you can get through the day or the week in interactions at work or at school, do the shopping and pay the bills, you're at A2. But if you would have trouble finding your luggage at the airport or changing your hotel booking you're not at B1 yet.

In my concrete-abstract model, B1 is where abstract thoughts begin in the areas of opinions, experiences and plans. If you can't describe unique events that happened in the past and events that may happen in the future, and how you feel about them, you're not at B1. A1 and A2 are all about the present, the here-and-now.

Adapted to Toki Pona

I see the self-reported level of "pona lili, mi kama sona (Intermediate. Comfortable with the core grammar and able to understand an average conversation)" in ma pona pi toki pona as functionally equivalent to A2-B1.



How do you know you're at B1?

In concrete subjects, you are able to deal with unusual situations and solve problems in day-to-day activities.

You are able to talk about specific unique events in the past and future, and this is a springboard into the abstract, your experiences and memories of the past and your hopes for the future.

How do you know you're not at B2?

In the concrete side of the concrete-abstract model, B2 is where you've "made it". If you still struggle or miss things sometimes in conversations about concrete events, you're not at B2 yet.

B2 is the level at which you have no problem watching a feature-length movie of average difficulty. If you find it difficult to follow what's going on from start to finish, you're still at B1.

On the abstract side, B2 is really where complex abstract concepts and argumentation come fully into play. If you can express your opinions but you can't really explain them, and you can only really get the main point of other people's opinions, you're not at B2 yet.

Adapted to Toki Pona

I see the self-reported level of "pona lili, mi kama sona (Intermediate. Comfortable with the core grammar and able to understand an average conversation)" in ma pona pi toki pona as functionally equivalent to A2-B1.



How do you know you're at B2?

This is the highest level when it comes to concrete subject matter. You can understand and relate any story or plan involving physical events.

In abstract topics, at this level you are able to follow along with whole trains of thought. You are also able to explain not only what you think but why you think that way, and understand other people when they explain their opinions, even on unfamiliar subjects.

How do you know you're not at C1?

C1 is where you start to pick up on implied thoughts and "read between the lines." If you need things to be spelled out explicitly for you you're still at B2.

At B2 you're capable of expressing abstract thoughts and providing reasons for your opinions, and understanding others when they do so. But if it's a struggle to step outside of subjects that are familiar to you, then this is a sign that you're not yet at C1.

At B2 you're able to understand an average feature-length movie without issues. But if you have trouble with the more complicated ones, you're not at C1 yet.

Adapted to Toki Pona

  • Probably many episodes of kalama sin
  • My long-form blog posts

I see the self-reported level of "pona mute, mi ken toki mute (Advanced. Can listen and join in complex conversations, as well as explain nuanced topics)" in ma pona pi toki pona as functionally equivalent to B2.



How do you know you're at C1?

You're able to follow along with people as they explain the logic behind their thoughts, even on unfamiliar topics. You can understand what people say not only explicitly but implicitly, or indirectly. You're able to respond in kind and engage in a complex discussion, even a debate. You're able to present multiple lines of argumentation to support a point.

How do you know you're not at C2?

The difference between C1 and C2 is about how at ease you are and how precise you are. In Toki Pona, C1 would mean being able to break down any complex thought and rebuild it without confusing the listener or getting confused. C2 would mean being able to do this effortlessly and without loss of precision.

Adapted to Toki Pona

  • Some episodes of kalama sin are probably in C1 territory for difficulty.

I see the self-reported level of "pona wawa, mi sona toki pona a! (Fluent. Able to express or comprehend nearly any concept in Toki Pona given prior understanding)" in ma pona pi toki pona as functionally equivalent to C1.



How do you know you're at C2

You can do everything you could do at C1, except it's effortless. You are a master of nuance. Your arguments are not only coherent, but presented in a way to maximise their impact. You also have a high tolerance for noise in what you listen to, you can still understand exactly what the person meant even if their manner of speaking is unusual.

Adapted to Toki Pona

In Toki Pona, a debate without slides about a technical or very complex subject would probably qualify

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