Local problems and a global solution: examining the recontextualization of CEFR in Thai and Malaysian language policies

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Since its publication in 2001, the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) has become a highly influential means of describing language proficiency. Its spread has, however, been marked by contradictions, since the framework has been appropriated in the service of a variety of different policy agendas. In this paper, I argue that such contradictions are indicative of broader ideological contrasts, which may impact how the framework is implemented at the local scale. By drawing on critical discourse analysis and conceptual history, I analyse a set of recent language policy texts from Thailand and Malaysia, two Asian contexts where CEFR has recently been introduced, to examine how such global ideological struggles connect with local agendas. I find that CEFR has in these multilingual contexts been embedded into a bilingual policy agenda which foregrounds the national language (Thai or Bahasa Malaysia) and English while backgrounding other languages. This means that CEFR was detached from the agenda of the Council of Europe, with the recontextualization of CEFR shown to have been a selective process in which the only part to be consistently transferred were the CEFR levels, which were in this decontextualised form presented as a transnational standard. I argue that these patterns are indicative of a struggle between the global agenda of ELT and its roots in the ideology of neoliberalism, that underlies much of the worldwide spread of CEFR, and a local nationalist agenda attempting to appropriate the framework for its own purposes.

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  1. 1.

    Of the documents presented from the Thai context, T-Plan and both teaching manuals were in Thai and were interpreted and analysed with the help of research assistants.

  2. 2.

    The reasons for this are related to the timelines imposed by previous policy, in this case the expiration of the previous National Education Plan.

  3. 3.

    The reason for such an expansion was a perception that the bottom range of the original CEFR, where most Thai speakers of English are seen to be concentrated, was insufficiently detailed to provide useful background information (for a presentation of this adapted version by its developers, see Hiranburana et al. 2018), a motivation similar to that referred to by the authors of CEFR-J (Negishi 2012).

  4. 4.

    This reference is likely an error since CEFR does not include a level C1+. Such ‘plus levels’ are used to represent half-way points between levels of proficiency (i.e. B1+ is an intermediate level between B1 and B2) but have only been described below the two highest levels (C1 and C2). For more information, see North (2014).


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Funding was provided by Thailand Research Fund (Grant No. MRG6080168). I would also like to express my gratitude to Professor Ruth Wodak and Dr Chonlada Laohawiriyanon for the advice they provided during the course of this research. Any errors or inaccuracies are, of course, my own responsibility.

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Correspondence to Kristof Savski.

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Savski, K. Local problems and a global solution: examining the recontextualization of CEFR in Thai and Malaysian language policies. Lang Policy (2020).

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  • CEFR
  • Recontextualization
  • Globalization
  • Thailand
  • Malaysia