How bilingual are you?

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I will admit that I am writing this article straight from the heart. In my years as a recruiter here in Montréal, Canada, I have witnessed candidates, students, friends and family struggle with the questions of bilingualism, either in English or in French. I have so much empathy for the anxiety people experience surrounding this when applying for a job that I felt compelled to write this post.

If you have ever been unsure if you have the language skills necessary to apply to a position, please read on. I will help you to define your skills and to communicate your proficiency to prospective employers.

The initial telephone interview is when I would address the language question with candidates, and speak with them in the other language. This is how I came to understand that candidates themselves did not know how to evaluate their own language skills. I was able to develop a series of benchmarks whereby I could determine their level and compare it to the level required for the position.

When qualifying your level of bilingualism, there are four key parts of language that you want to consider:

  • Listening
  • Speaking
  • Reading
  • Writing

Listening and Reading are comprehension skills. The information comes to us in the verbal or written form and we have to understand it.

Speaking and Writing are production skills. We are the ones who create verbal or written content to be understood by others.

Remember to be realistic when evaluating your skills – you will not be perfect in all four areas. As is the case with your mother tongue, you will be stronger in one of these areas and weaker in another.

Listening & Reading

To assess your listening skills, consider the following: can you sit in a meeting and understand everything that was said? Can someone give you an instruction and you can execute what the person has requested?

For reading, when you are given a memo or receive an email, do you understand the content and can you action the items contained in the text? If you have to log on to a computer and use a program, can  you do so without it having a significant impact on your productivity?

Listening and reading are generally rely on recognition. You will have a larger vocabulary when listening and reading than you will when speaking or writing.

When applying for a job, pay close attention to the description of responsibilities – if they seem to require mostly listening and reading skills and you know that you can function in a work setting, go ahead and apply.

Speaking & Writing

Speaking and writing are both production skills that each represent their own unique set of challenges. With speaking, pronunciation and the ability to reach for words in the moment are put to the test whereas with writing, grammar rules and spelling come in to play.

To self-evaluate your speaking skills, can you clearly communicate your message? Can you give an instruction for someone execute? If you don’t know a word, can you describe what the word is in the same language to get the point across? Do the people you are speaking to ask you to repeat?

People often worry about their accent when they speak, which is understandable. You hear those around you, but then you open your mouth, it just doesn’t sound the same. Accents are one of the most difficult aspects of language to overcome and you shouldn’t downgrade yourself because of your accent.

With regard to writing, it is best to state what you do write in the other language versus what you “could” write. What is the length/complexity of what you write? Do you draft in the other language or do you translate what you have written in your language? Can you edit and proofread your own work? What do native speakers have to say about your writing? These are all ways to talk about your writing in your other language.

Keep in mind that writing is easy to test, so be as honest as you can about your writing skills. If you exaggerate and they test you, your exaggeration could be a bigger strike against you than the test score.

With speaking and writing, practice is key. If you were once at a more proficient level and a change in environment as made your skills regress, don’t worry. It is not lost and you can get there again with the right tools and environment. Keep this in mind when you are applying for a job. If you have been working at a company in your first language for several years, you might have concerns about working in the other language. If you have a solid base and the right attitude, your proficiency will come back a lot sooner than you think.

I hope that this article has helped to give you the tools to better describe your skills in your second (or third!) language to potential employers. Remember that it is better to take the chance and apply, because you never know exactly what an employer is looking for. As the Great One, Wayne Gretzky, once said: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”