How to Identify & Hire for Language Proficiency Skills | Toggl Hire
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How to Identify & Hire for Language Proficiency Skills

Post Author - Mile Živković Mile Živković Last Updated:

It’s 2024, and you can talk to people all around the world with one cick of a button. You can even go to the most remote parts of the Earth within the same day — digitally, of course, but still…

The world is global, and the workplace needs to keep up. So if you don’t want to get left behind, you need a workforce that speaks a variety of global languages.

There are many benefits of hiring multilingual employees that extend far beyond creating a unique and diverse environment. You can communicate effectively with international clients, create product translations, and branch into new target markets, for example.

But to do all that, you first need to assess the language proficiency levels of candidates applying for your job openings. Luckily for you, we’re about to show you which method is best for assessing such skills, such as candidate assessment tools and others.

TL;DR — Key Takeaways

  • Language proficiency levels are degrees of how proficient someone is in a certain language.

  • There are many different language proficiency scales, but the most common ones are CEFR, ACTFL, and ILR. Being familiar with them helps you better assess the language proficiency levels of your applicants.

  • To assess fluency, you can use standardized tests in different languages, do interviews in a foreign language, role-play situations, or have candidates do self-assessment.

What are language proficiency levels?

Language proficiency levels are degrees of language skills. These are arbitrary scales that determine how well someone can use a certain language to communicate in everyday life and professional settings. You can also use them to evaluate if someone is a good fit for the job.

There are many types of language proficiency scales and levels, but the one that is used most frequently in language learning settings is the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). It’s well-known around the world, and in the United States, you would use ACTFL, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

If you’re an employer, it’s important to be familiar with these frameworks because they’ll often come up in resumes and applications, so you have at least some idea of what the candidate is capable of.

CEFR Proficiency Scale for language learning and testing

Developed in 2001, the CEFR Proficiency Scale was designed as an easy way to describe someone’s proficiency in communicating in a particular language.

It’s important to know what CEFR is and what it stands for, as it’s a language learning framework that gives you an accurate idea of someone’s language proficiency levels without the person speaking a single word.

Ranging from A to C, it ranks individuals from completely newbies to independent language users who can speak on a native-like level.

CEFR levels for work

A1 and A2: Basic User

At the A1 level, the speaker can understand the most basic expressions used in everyday situations. At the A2 level, they can communicate only for very simple tasks where information is exchanged directly.

B1 and B2: Independent User

At a B1 level in a particular language, the speaker can handle familiar contexts in a foreign language, e.g. when traveling to a country where it is spoken. At B2, the speaker can somewhat fluently communicate with native speakers in new, spontaneous situations in a way that isn’t too challenging for them.

C1 and C2: Proficient User

The C1 knowledge level of a target language means that the speaker has practical proficiency and can express themselves easily without having to struggle to find the appropriate expression.

At the C2 level, the language user has a proficiency level allowing them to understand just about everything they hear or read. They have an extensive vocabulary and can express themselves in real-world situations without any issues. They might even sound like a native speaker.

ACTFL Proficiency Scale

Out of all the language proficiency scales, you’re most likely to find this one in the US. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) proficiency scale is a standard for language testing and proficiency in this part of the world.

ACTFL is mostly used in American educational settings, meaning it’s not as globally recognized as CEFR.

ACTFL levels for work

Novice Level

At the novice level, the person has the most basic language skills, meaning they can understand and communicate the most essential everyday phrases. They know the basic greetings and how to introduce themselves, but not likely much more than that.

Intermediate Level

These individuals know the basic phrases, and they can hold very simple conversations in real-world situations, such as asking and answering questions on topics they’re familiar with. For example, who they are and where they come from and whether they have brothers or sisters.

Advanced Level

At an advanced level, the language user communicates effortlessly and with confidence on various topics. They can handle more than their familiar contexts, and they do fine in unpredictable, spontaneous situations. For example, they can hold a conversation in a cafe when someone asks them whether they want a certain type of coffee.

Superior Level

At this proficiency level, the language user has the ability to communicate on abstract topics that go beyond everyday life, and they can use the language for persuasion and conviction. For example, they can talk about how much they value independence in their native country.

Distinguished Level

These proficient language users have advanced levels of speaking, reading, and writing and can easily talk about global issues, abstract concepts, and all of that on the level of a native speaker of a language. For example, they could tell you about their role model and why they find them inspiring.

Sub-levels

All of the levels mentioned above can be further broken down into three sub-levels (low, mid and high) to more accurately describe their proficiency levels.

ILR Proficiency Scale

If you’re hiring in the United States, aside from using the ACTFL framework, you might also use the Interagency Language Roundtable (IRL).

This is the standard language proficiency scale used by the US Federal Government to measure language skills, and it often appears on resumes in the US, too, with employees listing their level for roles that require language skills.

These are the main language skills levels in the IRL scale.

Level 0: No Proficiency

This person has no language skills in the target language, and besides a few words, they don’t know how to communicate effectively.

Level 1: Elementary Proficiency

Someone with elementary language skills can string a few words together and state the basic information about themselves and their surroundings. For example, who they are, how old they are, where they are from, etc.

Level 2: Limited Working Proficiency

These language skills allow someone to handle routine tasks, but anything out of the ordinary is out of their scope of knowledge. For example, they can take a basic order as a sales team member, but if you ask them to compare two different products, they won’t have the language skills to respond.

Level 3: Professional Working Proficiency

At this level of language learning, the person can talk about a large variety of topics, and they have near-native language proficiency levels. For example, they can explain the unique value proposition of your product or service or show why you’re better than the competition. These people can almost entirely understand a native speaker of a target language.

Level 4: Advanced Professional Proficiency

The advanced level user speaks the language fluently, and they can accurately express themselves on all levels, in and outside of the professional setting.

Level 5: Native or Bilingual Proficiency

Speakers who have native or bilingual proficiency levels can speak a foreign language at the same level as a native speaker (and an educated one at that). To the untrained ear, it would be hard to tell the difference between them and someone who spoke that language since they could utter their first words.

Top tips to enlarge those brains Top tip:

The ILR also has plus levels. “Plus” is used to denote someone who is not yet at the next level but they have language skills higher than a lower-level speaker. For example, someone at level 3 could be excellent at using a language in professional settings, but they don’t yet know the cultural nuances that put them at level 4. So, they’re a 3+.

Most in-demand foreign languages in 2024

No matter what industry you’re in, having employees who are fluent in languages widely used around the world is always a plus. Think of languages such as Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, or German. In certain industries, knowledge of languages from emerging economies is a huge plus, such as Hindi, Russian or Portuguese.

Most spoken languages in the world 2024

There are many different opinions on the most popular and “best” new language to master. However, these are some of the common ones where having a good language proficiency level is a plus for any employee: English, Japanese, Indonesian, Mandarin Chinese, and French.

Besides taking a look at the knowledge of a target language, make sure to test employees for cultural understanding, empathy, and overall communication skills. Remember, just because someone is fluent in Japanese, for example, it does not mean that they are a great communicator.

The bottom line is that great language proficiency is always going to be an in-demand skill.

How to assess language fluency

Language fluency is not just the breadth of someone’s vocabulary. One person can comprehend language, express themselves in different situations, understand culture and cultural references, and hold a conversation with another speaker.

The tips below are going to be useful both for employers looking to assess language proficiency levels in their candidates, as well as candidates who want to check those skills for a resume or a job interview.

Standardized language proficiency tests

For just about every language in the world, there are standardized language proficiency tests where language learners can easily determine their knowledge and language ability. For English, the most common ones are TOEFL, IELTS, TOEIC, CELPIP, and others. For French, you’ll see DILF, TEF, DALF, TCF, and others.

These tests are commonly used in academic institutions, and they’re recognized globally as standards for language learning. If someone has a TOEFL certification, you can easily look up what kind of language skills they should have based on the certification requirements.

Being familiar with these tests can also help you optimize your hiring tests. For example, the TOEFL exam tests for the four proficiency-related subjects below, but it’s more focused on academic proficiency than professional working proficiency.

You could use a few exam questions as a guide and pair them with other questions or assessments to test listening skills and proficiency as part of an initial skills assessment.

What does the TOEFL test

Interviews in a foreign language

Fake it ’til you make it can be your candidate’s motto, but only until they get to the interview with native speakers. When talking to candidates in a foreign language, you can assess:

  • How well they understand your questions

  • How quickly and accurately they respond

  • How well they use idioms

  • How comfortable they are speaking in this language

Many times, a short interview will tell you much more than the five certifications the candidate allegedly has. Having to speak a foreign language spontaneously is a fantastic measure of an individual’s ability to speak about work-related issues with relative ease.

Role-play scenarios for language testing

So the candidate knows how to speak a foreign language well. But this still isn’t true language proficiency — maybe they learned the most common interview questions by heart.

To assess their language skills in a real-life situation, you can make up a role-play scenario to see their language proficiency in action in a situation they can’t necessarily “prepare” for by memorizing interview questions in the target language or practice speaking beforehand.

For example, you could simulate a customer support call for a simple issue in your product or service. Alternatively, this could be a casual conversation with a customer, a business meeting with a partner, or another similar situation.

Self-assessment to measure language ability

There are countless ways that candidates can do a self-assessment of their language skills, including language learning resources such as the European Framework’s self-assessment grid or various other free online tests for language learners.

The problem is that these tests aren’t always very accurate. Additionally, the online self-guided nature of these types of tests means it’s easier for candidates to cheat, as we know first-hand from our own experience (which is why we embed anti-cheating measures into our skills tests).

The importance of cultural understanding in language testing

Language proficiency is more than being able to speak it. Cultural differences go beyond language skills and can often cause major blunders.

If you’re hiring a customer-facing employee, this is especially important to assess, as you want to ensure they have the right cultural understanding to not only convey complex ideas but also treat your customers with respect.

For example, in Spanish, knowing the difference between using “usted” for formal situations and “tú” for informal ones is critical when addressing someone. However, there are other cultural nuances aside from understanding which words to use.

For example, what might seem respectful and normal in Spanish spoken in Colombia could have a different meaning in Spain or Argentina. Someone truly fluent in the language would likely understand those differences because they have real-world experience speaking the language.

Being unaware of cultural nuances can sometimes be seen as a simple, silly mistake, but it can also have major repercussions if the speaker inadvertently offends someone — especially in a professional setting.

Assess language skills with Toggl Hire

Familiarity with common language proficiency scales is a must for anyone who wants to hire applicants with the language skills necessary to succeed on the job. Luckily, there are many ways that you can test proficiency levels even if you don’t want to adhere to language proficiency scales.

At Toggl Hire, for example, our Spanish language skills test helps test for various Spanish proficiency levels and related skills.

Using skills testing platforms, in general, as part of assessing fluency in a target language also makes it effortless to run asynchronous video interviews in foreign languages, so you can test the initial proficiency level of a candidate by asking them to hold basic conversations and record their responses.

Ready to get started? Browse our test library to find more tests, and check back soon as we’ll be adding new languages!

Language skills tests online
Mile Živković

Mile is a B2B content marketer specializing in HR, martech and data analytics. Ask him about thoughts on reducing hiring bias, the role of AI in modern recruitment, or how to immediately spot red flags in a job ad.

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