The Importance of Assessing Employee Language Skills for Specific Positions

How well does one need to be able to speak a language to use that language effectively and appropriately in the workplace? What language tasks does that individual need to accomplish successfully? How accurate must one’s language be to be acceptable in the work context? The simple answer – it depends upon the job.

In a global workplace, employers can no longer depend on the self-reporting of language skills when determining if a potential hire has sufficient communication skills in the language for success in the workplace. How can one’s ability to accomplish the tasks required for any given position be assessed and documented? What proficiency level is sufficient for the communication tasks of any given position? The answer – a standardized assessment system for documenting spoken language ability. The ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines 2012 – Speaking describe functional spoken language ability, in other words, how well an individual uses his/her language for real world communication purposes. Internationally recognized assessment tools of spoken language ability, the ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) and ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview – computer (OPIc) document spoken language ability according to these guidelines.

The ACTFL Guidelines identify five major levels of proficiency: Distinguished, Superior, Advanced, Intermediate, and Novice, levels that describe a continuum of proficiency from that of the highly articulate, well-educated language user (Distinguished) to a level of little or no functional ability (Novice). The five major levels are characterized by the functions or global tasks that a speaker can successfully perform. For example, a speaker at the Novice level communicates with words and lists; a speaker at Intermediate engages in simple conversation by asking and answering questions. At the Advanced level, a speaker talks about the present, past and future, describes, tells stories, and makes explanations. A speaker at the Superior level discusses issues, supports opinions, and deals with hypothetical questions. The ability to speak using sophisticated and nuanced language is a feature of the Distinguished level.

Consider the language tasks required of a customer service representative, for example. It is critical that this individual be able to explain and describe a company’s products, respond to inquiries regarding problems with service, and communicate clearly with speakers of the language who may not be familiar with non-native speakers. Or the requirements of an account executive who must discuss issues, support policies, conjecture on alternative outcomes in accurately and precisely. Consider the negative impact that could result from miscommunication.

ACTFL describes levels of proficiency; ACTFL does not prescribe the minimal levels for a position or profession. The communication tasks required for the job determine the level.
Subject matter experts (SME’s), representing a particular field or profession, participate in a standardized procedure, a language needs analysis, to identify the proficiency-level required to perform job-related communication tasks, establish clear language training goals, and identify specific “training gaps.” In determining an appropriate minimal proficiency level for any position, SMEs engage in a series of activities that include a review of the job description for the position, a Language Task Analysis Survey, a review of the ACTFL Rating Descriptions, and a review of samples of speech that represent a variety of proficiency levels. SME’s are asked the following questions:

  • What are the routine tasks that need to be performed? Are there non-routine tasks?
  • What content knowledge is needed to perform the task?
  • What is the context/situation of the task?
  • Who is the targeted listener?
  • What is the impact of miscommunication?
  • How well does the employee need to speak to successfully perform the language task?

Decades of language needs analyses and language testing have produced the data presented in the Oral Proficiency in the Workplace chart found on Language Testing International’s website. This chart aligns minimal ACTFL levels of spoken language proficiency with corresponding workplace positions as determined by SME’s. In addition, there appear examples of speaker profiles that are likely to perform at those levels.

Subject matter expert Dr. Elvira Swender is a specialist in proficiency-based language assessment and research and their implications for instruction and learning. She is currently a Senior Adviser to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL).