The Do’s & Dont’s of Evaluating Language Competency When Hiring

Many 21st century jobs require individuals who have specific skill sets or competencies which can be proven with certifications, ratings, or official measurements. Rarely would it be enough to trust a job candidate to evaluate his or her own abilities as a computer programmer who claims to be proficient in a specific programming language. Nor would it be acceptable to have a current employee ask a few questions to find out if a candidate can handle a complicated, technical, and demanding job.

Likewise, when determining whether or not someone has the foreign language proficiency specifically required for a position, there are certain Do’s and Don’ts that can help guide the process for hiring managers and human resources professionals.

DON’T: Rely on Candidate Self Report

“Fluent in Spanish” . . . “Conversant in Arabic”. . . “Working knowledge of Mandarin Chinese”. . . These phrases are often included on résumés with no explanation or proof of actual proficiency. Some companies learn the hard way that assuming someone has a certain level of language can have negative repercussions when that person is asked to perform tasks beyond their abilities.

Josebe Bilbao-Henry is Program Manager for the Language and Culture Program at The World Bank, the unit that combines both client learning and staff learning, with a particular focus on staff learning of business skills. She stresses the importance of accurate language measurement, rather than having individuals give their own evaluations.

“Self-rating is not very reliable,” says Bilbao-Henry, who has worked with language education and testing in corporate programs and law firms in Washington, D.C., and other professional settings. “I’ve seen very well-educated adults doing self-rating in languages and it tends to be all over the place. You might have people who are advanced speakers who claim they still have a lot of trouble with the subjunctive, and would rate themselves lower even if they have a high level of functional skill.” Then again, she says, “there are people who are fairly confident and good communicators who rate themselves very highly because they get messages across—but this doesn’t really correspond to certain level of accuracy.”

She continues, “If someone writes on their résumé: Spanish, fluent, I would say approach at your own risk. Rely on that information at your own risk. It doesn’t necessarily mean much. If someone tells you, ‘I have working skills in Spanish’—I would ask, working where? In a kitchen? In the streets? Or conducting negotiations? Because there are different work environments that require different skill levels.”

According to Bashar Haddad, chief operating officer at Mid Atlantic Professionals/SSI, a company that provides foreign language instructors, cultural advisors, subject matter experts, role players, linguists, interpreters, and translators, mainly to U.S. government agencies: “Applicants will give you their opinion as to what their language score is . . . I can tell you 50% of the time the scores are right on the money and 50% of the time the candidates will tell us they have this particular level but when they are actually tested, they aren’t as good as they think they are.”

DO: Recognize the Consequences of Miscommunication

“Depending on what the role of the employee is—if he is involved in negotiations, any type of interpretation, or escorting a visiting businessperson or dignitary and he is the one who is doing the informal conversation—misunderstandings occur. You can only imagine what can happen as a result,” says Karen Decker, president of the International Center for Language Studies (ICLS) in Washington, DC. “If it’s a question of someone doing translation or correspondence, there are so many different things that can go wrong if a person is not at the level she claims she is and the level the company itself needs and expects her to have.”

Marketing missteps, ineffective localization, culturally insensitive messages . . . all are problems that can occur when the person responsible doesn’t know what he or she doesn’t know. Plus, “a lot of the work is done at the cocktail party after the meeting,” says Decker. So, cultural nuances, behavior in different environments, body language, and even how to present a business card can have everything to do with success using a second language in business.

DON’T: Assume That Native Speakers Are Necessarily Qualified

When an organization needs to fill a position that needs someone with specific language skills, often they think that hiring a “native” or “heritage” speaker is the answer. But, what does that even mean? Heritage speakers, who often have grown up in a dual language environment, may have some conversational skills but could still lack the necessary proficiency in business communication.

“Their language might be only at a certain in-the-house-with-family level,” Decker notes. “People don’t really understand what proficiency means and what you can do at different levels of a language. They get hung up on the idea of a ‘native speaker’—that terminology. Then the assumption is that you are at the highest level just because you are a native speaker.”

One hiring manager in a large Silicon Valley technology firm shares about the pitfalls of relying on the heritage-speaker criteria. “We have hired people who claimed they had the language skills we needed to accompany their tech skills,” she says. “But they really couldn’t hold their own communicating in higher-level international interactions. It was disappointing.”

DO: Learn About Accurate Language Tests

Validated and certified language proficiency testing can offer an accurate measurement of language level (with a corresponding label such as “Intermediate Low” or “Novice High”) that directly explains to what an individual can actually do in the language.

There are several scales of measurement that are common and recognized as accurate for determining proficiency, including the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) scale and the Inter-Agency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale.

“Having a measurement and understanding of what proficiency really means can help a company decide whether that’s attainable,” says Decker. “So, for example, if you really expect someone to conduct a meeting in a language, most businesses do not have the time or the resources to invest to get an employee to that level . . . Maybe a company when they truly understand what the levels mean will think it’s okay that this person is at an Intermediate-Low level, that will be enough for THIS job but not so much for another job. Because it’s not about how many pages in the book you covered; it’s a lot more than that.”

Decker is familiar with language testing in her position at ICLS, an independent language school offering both English as a second language and foreign language training to professionals.

“Companies are always looking for ways to measure what people can really do with language,” she says. “We get calls all the time to do this, but we are not an official testing organization; we are a school. Individuals will sometimes call and say, ‘I’m looking for a job,’ or ‘I’m working with a government contractor,’ and they may have the need for a person to be at a specific level in the language. So they’re going for a government contract and they have to say they can speak language at this level or this level. How do they measure that? They need to take some kind of proficiency test.”

“The fact that there is a standardized way to conduct an interview, that there is a set of standards for the levels, really allows you to see whether the needle is moving,” says Bilbao-Henry.

DO: Research the Convenience of Online Testing

Many organizations use an Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) to get an external measurement of an individual’s ability to speak the language at different levels. The OPI is a live, 20-30 minute conversation over the phone between an ACTFL certified tester and an applicant. The Oral Proficiency Interview by computer (OPIc) is an Internet-delivered test which provides valid and reliable oral proficiency testing on a large scale, offered by Language Testing International (LTI). The computer-delivered assessment emulates the “live” OPI, but delivery of questions is through a computer program, and via a desktop avatar. Thus the test can be taken on demand, and at a time convenient to the candidate and proctor.

Decker states, “We have 10 levels of instruction in English and we say that students can do certain things according to ACTFL or ILR level. We say they are at a certain point on that scale based on our expectations and our curriculum is developed to meet those goals. But how do we know they’ve really met those goals? We’ve been using LTI to help us measure speaking, listening, and reading. We’re using the computer-based test for our students so that when they leave they can actually have a piece of paper that says this is what I can do in English and this is how it’s been measured, not just by my teacher or the school. So we’re assuming they can take that professionally and say this is my level of English.”

Haddad’s company also uses the OPIc because, he says, an ACTFL language proficiency rating for each person is required by their largest client, United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). “This particular client has the most stringent requirements,” he notes.

DON’T: Put Unqualified Employees in a Bad Position

Sometimes a company will try to take a shortcut by asking another employee who speaks a language fluently to evaluate a candidate who claims to have skills in the language. But this can backfire, as the responsibility for evaluation now rests with someone who has not been trained to evaluate language levels. This can open the organization, and the employee, up to unanticipated risks.

“There are certain elicitation techniques that testers use when you are having an OPI,” says Decker. “It sounds like a normal friendly conversation but actually it’s a fishing expedition and the tester is eliciting certain tasks that a speaker can do and then pushing them to where their ceiling is in terms of speaking. A lot of times the testee may not realize what the tester is doing. It takes a lot of skill and understanding of what the proficiency levels are.”

That skill and understanding is highly valued by those employers who appreciate the importance of accurate language measurement. And it should be carefully considered by those who may not fully realize just how crucial it is.

– By Sandy Cutshall