In today's globalised world, there's a growing need for employees that speak the most commonly used business languages. From English to Dutch to Mandarin, native and non-native speakers alike must be able to communicate at a level that suits their role.
For some, a basic grasp of a second language is enough. Others however will need to prove fluent, able to express and understand complex information, and build strong working relationships through effective language use.
This is when testing for language proficiency becomes critical. Employers need demonstrable proof of a candidate's skills to ensure they have what it takes to be successful.
What Are The Four Key Language Skills In The Workplace - And How Do You Test Them?
Whatever the language in question, there are four key skills involved in its use, typically acquired in the following order: listening, speaking, reading and writing.
To be considered proficient, a candidate must show advanced (or intermediate, depending on requirements) capability in all four areas.
In the context of language proficiency, listening is the ability to fully understand what is being said. This is often more complex with a second language, as there are nuances, speech patterns and culturally specific terminology the non-native speaker is not accustomed to.
The skill of listening is important in customer and client-facing roles where the employee will need to converse one on one - either in person, over the phone or through a video call. It's also crucial for anyone that needs to attend meetings, presentations or conferences delivered in their second language.
Listening is a relatively straightforward skill to assess. Most recruiters will administer a test where audio content is followed by a series of questions that challenge the candidate's understanding of what they've heard.
This is the skill most often associated with language proficiency. Speaking well in a second language means having a broad vocabulary, a sound understanding of sentence structure, and exacting pronunciation. It also means making correct use of words and terms that may not directly translate from one language to another.
Again, this is a skill crucial for those customer and client-facing roles, where the employee will regularly converse - or needs to discuss ideas at length - in their second language.
Speaking ability is not as easy as other language skills to measure. It can be assessed through language-specific screening interviews, but this is time-consuming. Another option is to incorporate a spoken exercise into the recruitment process, either as a standalone task or as part of a full language proficiency test.
This relates to a candidate's ability to process and interpret written information. The extent to which they need to do this can vary greatly - anything from reading a short, straightforward email to a complex, legally binding contract.
Testing a candidate on their reading ability is a case of presenting them with written information, and either multiple choice or open-ended questions that measure their understanding of it.
The last of the four language skills used in the workplace is writing. Essentially, this is the candidate's ability to articulate themselves clearly and concisely in written form.
In a business context, this may be anything from responding to emails, compiling reports or presentations, or drawing up contracts.
As the two are very much intertwined, writing skills are often measured alongside reading skills. Candidates must interpret written information and use their language knowledge to complete a series of problems - be it filling in gaps in a sentence, identifying errors, or assessing sentence composition.
Depending on the role you're recruiting for, some skills may be more important than others - and however you choose to test for language proficiency, the tasks included should reflect the reality of how the candidate would use their language skills on a day to day basis.
Which Roles Require Language Proficiency Tests?
There are various job roles - and indeed business scenarios - where fluency in a second language is either an absolute necessity or a strong advantage.
You may need to test for language proficiency if:
You're recruiting for customer-facing roles in international markets - if you have clients located in a specific country, it's vital that anyone involved with those clients is able to communicate with them effectively, be it an account manager or a member of your tech support team.
You're recruiting for roles at international offices - whether you're recruiting to staff an established office or as part of an expansion strategy, it's useful for anyone working at an office outside of their home country to speak the language of the country they're in.
You're recruiting remotely - the recent surge in remote and hybrid working has opened up a network of global talent for employers. If you're using such models to recruit the most promising candidates, you're going to need to test their skills in all relevant languages.
You're recruiting for roles popular with overseas applicants - as a UK employer, it's important to recognise the second language you're assessing may be English. This is particularly true in industries that attract a lot of non-native applicants, like investment banking and healthcare for example.
What Are The Different Levels Of Language Proficiency?
Language proficiency is typically measured using the Common European Framework of Reference for Language (CEFR) - a set of internationally accepted standards for learners of a second language, traditionally European but now also encompassing languages from outside of the continent.
The CEFR outlines six levels of ability: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2.
Basic (A1 and A2) - these imply that the individual has a basic grasp of a second language, and is able to construct simple questions and sentences to converse at a fundamental level.
Independent (B1 and B2) - those classed as independent users of a second language are able to convey and interpret more advanced information, with a level of fluency that makes for easy conversation with native speakers.
Proficient (C1 and C2) - these are those for whom a foreign language is second nature. Their command of it is such that there are no barriers to communication, and they are able to navigate complex situations through spontaneous and effective language use.
The level of proficiency that employers require typically sits somewhere between independent and proficient levels, depending on the role in question. This is why you'll find language proficiency tests designed at intermediate and advanced levels.
Intermediate level testing may suffice when the employee will only use their language skills to deal with daily scenarios commonly encountered in the workplace. However, if they're communicating outside of the office environment, and need the skills to speak ad-lib, advanced level testing is more appropriate.
How To Test Language Proficiency
Make it a part of the initial screening process - recruitment is a costly affair, particularly if it results in a bad hire. With that in mind, it's vital to test for language proficiency as early as possible, ideally between the application and first-stage interview. This gives you the confidence that those applicants you progress really do have the skills you're looking for.
Assess skill level in the context of the role - before you start looking to measure language proficiency, you need to be clear on what your expectations are. It's unfair to test a candidate at an advanced level if they'll only need to use basic language skills in their day to day role. You should also be clear on which of the four language skills is/are most important and focus your testing accordingly.
Use a professional testing solution - because we're so used to speaking our native language, we often forget its complexities and assume a second language will be just as easy to command. However, you need to account for cultural differences, variations of meaning, and how easily things can be lost in translation. A professionally designed assessment takes care of this for you, and ensures you test language proficiency holistically.
What Are The Best Language Proficiency Tests?
There are multiple methods of testing language proficiency, with some of the best tests including:
Writing tests - these ensure the candidate has a strong enough grasp of the language to write clear and accurate communications.
Reading tests - typically multiple-choice assessments, these focus on grammar, spelling, sentence structure and vocabulary.
Listening tests - here a candidate will listen to recorded audio and then answer a series of multiple-choice questions relating to what they heard.
Speaking tests - a good method of assessment here is to use pre-recorded audio that requires a candidate to listen and respond accordingly. These tests highlight accurate word choice, pronunciation, intonation, and fluidity of language use.
Translation tests - these are a great way to see how well a candidate can convey meaning in a second language as opposed to applying lateral translation.
Most professionally designed assessments will incorporate a variety of these methods, testing language proficiency in a way suited to your recruitment needs.
Language Proficiency Test FAQ
What Are The Most Popular Languages For Business?
In terms of international business, English is the most widely spoken language with Mandarin following in second place. Across Europe, German, Dutch and French are commonly used, with Spanish useful for business across South and Central America. Arabic is also a language growing in use across the business world.
What Are The Benefits Of Using A Language Test?
A language test gives you an accurate picture of a candidate's skill set and can streamline the recruitment process as they are easy to administer at scale. By using a standardised test early on, you can measure every applicant objectively, and get comparable data to progress those that show the most promise.
How Do Language Tests Work?
Language tests are typically designed as multiple-choice assessments. Candidates must work their way through various passages of text and accompanying problems that focus on vocabulary, grammar, spelling, reading comprehension and common phrases. A good test is designed around the CEFR, using these internationally accepted standards as a benchmark for results.