Your company’s business depends on the professional communication skills of bilingual employees. How does this play a role in the hiring process? According to the resumes reviewed, many candidates are heritage speakers of the languages needed. If these applicants already speak the desired language, why is it important to test their language proficiency?

The term “heritage” refers to how individuals acquired their language abilities—not to how proficient they may or may not be in the language. For this reason, testing the language skills of heritage speakers must be part of the hiring process.

Many heritage speakers learn their heritage language in an informal setting (e.g., at home or in their communities) and use that language with family, friends, and co-workers. They may have native-like pronunciation, be confident when dealing with highly familiar topics, and engage freely and fluently on topics related to everyday life. Heritage speakers are typically exposed to their heritage language in childhood but may or may not have learned the language to its full functional capacity because another language became dominant in their day-to-day interactions. They may have never even received formal education in their heritage language. In fact, heritage speakers residing in the U.S. have typically received most of their formal education in English-speaking schools, and for this reason, they may not have all the functional abilities in their heritage language that they have in English. 

The term “heritage” does not indicate or predict any specific proficiency level. Heritage speakers’ extensive exposure to the language in informal contexts may result in profiles that differ from those of traditional second language learners. Nonetheless, their functional ability of language is assessed according to a common set of criteria, which corresponds to a given proficiency level. Their language skills can be assessed at any level of the proficiency scale as described in the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines.

The features of heritage Intermediate-level speakers are remarkably similar to those of second language learners in terms of their development of the functions associated with the Advanced level (lack of structural control, limited vocabulary, and the inability to perform the task). On the other hand, the speech of heritage speakers—even at the Intermediate level—may be marked by more fluency and confidence and more ability to fill cultural and linguistic gaps than is usually the case with Intermediate-level second language learners. 

Advanced-level heritage speakers typically perform Advanced-level tasks with quantity and quality. Their native-like pronunciation and fluency, as well as their extensive vocabulary and structural control, may distinguish them from their second language learner counterparts. When asked to perform tasks at the Superior level, Advanced-level heritage speakers may not demonstrate errors in language control nor diminishing fluency but rather may avoid addressing a Superior-level task. For example, rather than supporting an opinion, they may provide anecdotal information; rather than discussing a topic at the issues level and from an abstract perspective, they may resort to a concrete treatment of the topic; rather than speculating on possible outcomes when asked to hypothesize, they may describe a real situation.   

Heritage speakers at the Superior level demonstrate the ability to sustain the Superior-level tasks in extended discourse, using precise vocabulary, and with no patterned errors. They are not rated Superior because of the way they sound but rather because their ability to use the language effectively falls within the functional requirements for thatlevel.

Why, then, should businesses test heritage speakers’ language skills?  The term “heritage” does not identify what speakers can do with language, nor does it indicate how well theycan communicate in different situations. Simply identifying oneself as a “heritage speaker” of a language does not provide evidence to a prospective employer as to whether that person has the language skills appropriate for the demands of the workplace. Official testing of language abilities does provide this information. Testing heritage speakers, using official ACTFL assessments and reporting results based on the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines, enables employers to have confidence in their hiring decisions.

Language Testing International, Inc. (LTI), the exclusive licensee of ACTFL, offers  businesses a wide variety of commercial and official testing options to assess language ability.  Proficiency scores enable employers to compare language abilities with the linguistic requirements of any given position and to hire with evidence that the speaker can meet those requirements. (Click here to view the Oral Proficiency levels in the Workplace chart released by ACTFL.)

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