Your Hiring Team’s Guide to Language Proficiency Tests

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Your Hiring Team’s Guide to Language Proficiency Tests

hiring team's guide to language proficiency tests

It’s extremely frustrating for a recruiter to realize one of their most promising applicants doesn’t have the necessary level of language proficiency, and that they simply cannot proceed with their application because of that. 

A candidate may be extremely skilled, but if the language barrier is too wide, this will inevitably lead to trouble communicating with coworkers, clients, and partners. This is also detrimental to your brand image. 

You can avoid problems like this by using language proficiency tests at the top of the hiring funnel.

By conducting a language proficiency test as the very first step in the hiring process (before even going through resumes), you’ll save time, effort, and resources, and optimize recruitment. 

Far too often a company won’t even include a language proficiency exam, because the hiring team is confident in being able to assess language proficiency during interviews alone. 

This approach is clearly not efficient, though: it’s very time-consuming, and you’re not able to assess all essential language skills during an interview, which might cost you missed business opportunities down the road. 

If you aren’t familiar with language tests in the context of hiring, we’ve created this ultimate guide to help you understand how, when and why you should use them.

Knowing how to distinguish quality tests that bring you the results your company needs is one of the most important aspects.

Additionally, you need to know when and how to use them, and how to make the most of them during the recruitment process.

In this article, we’ll go over different aspects of language proficiency testing, such as its benefits, the different types of tests, and how to accurately evaluate the results, plus more.

Let’s get started. 

Table of contents:



What is a language proficiency test?

A language proficiency test is a type of test that allows you to determine how fluent an applicant is in a specific language. 

Language tests will give you a general baseline for different levels of language proficiency and help distinguish how well a person can apply their language skills in different ways and situations.

These tests differ from other methods specifically to help you conclude whether an applicant can perform the tasks of the role in the desired language.

Recruiters and companies worldwide can use foreign language proficiency tests to better assess someone’s language skills in a professional context and hire candidates with the right level of proficiency. 



How do you measure language proficiency?

Language fluency is one of the most difficult things to define. For this reason, picking the right test is important for recruiters.

If a test is worded poorly or has structural issues, you may find yourself back to square one: interviewing new candidates to assess their language skills. 

Generally speaking, you can measure language proficiency by measuring a number of different sub-skills.

The following are the key language skills that are assessed either together or independently in tests:

  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Listening
  • Speaking

Let’s look into each one.

key skills that measure language proficiency

Reading 

Can candidates read a work brief and understand the instructions?

Writing 

Writing skills are defined as the ability to create a coherent text or respond in writing to instructions. Having strong writing skills is particularly crucial in the context of remote work.

Are candidates able to compose emails to clients with correct spelling and grammar? Do their emails have consistency and flow?

Listening

Listening skills are defined as the ability to comprehend a conversation or audio in a given language and answer questions. 

Are candidates able to follow along in meetings and understand a fast-paced conversation? Can they understand different accents and nuances in speech?

Speaking 

Speaking skills refer to the ability to hold a conversation: understand the other person(s), interact with them, ask and answer questions. For this, it’s crucial to have a clear diction and master the right intonation and tone of voice.

Do their tone and speaking ability reflect what they are trying to say to a customer?

Language tests usually help assess candidates’ reading, writing and listening skills. Speaking skills can be evaluated either during a live interview, or with an asynchronous video interview where you ask candidates to record their answers to custom questions. 

TestGorilla offers recruiters this possibility, and you can also tailor questions to evaluate whether applicants know the right terms in their specific field. This can be an incredibly useful and important part of administered language proficiency tests. 

It has to be done selectively because the wrong type of formatting and questions can ruin the process. Using a quality test is important. 



What are the different levels of language proficiency?

Proficiency can be measured using a few different frameworks or scales. 

Different frameworks have different names for each level of proficiency, but they all assess language skills on a scale, from basic to proficient.

Among the most common and widely used ones is the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), which recognizes six proficiency levels, from A1 to C2 starting at no proficiency (A1) to a native/bilingual level of proficiency (C2). That’s also the scale we’re using for our language tests.  

Whether you need to administer an English Proficiency test or a Mandarin Proficiency test, the levels remain similar.

Therefore, you need to decide what is the level of proficiency you’re looking for, i.e. which is the level that corresponds to the company’s standards and the requirements of the role. 

what are the different levels of language proficiency

A1: No proficiency

It’s unlikely that you’ll ever come across a candidate like this applying for a job where they need to be proficient in the language they’ll work in. 

This level means the person may know a few words but has practically zero capability of understanding the language or carrying on a conversation.

A2: Elementary proficiency

This level suggests that the applicant has the ability to form basic sentences, possibly with some language mistakes. They’ll likely be able to understand and answer simple questions such as:

“Do you speak English?”

“What is your name?”

“Where is the…?”

This is comparable to someone who is just starting to learn the language.

For blue-collar jobs where candidates don’t need to speak to customers in the language in question and need to receive only basic instructions to be able to do their job, A2 might, in some instances, be sufficient. 

B1: Limited working proficiency

B1 means that the candidate will be able to carry out basic conversations that include social phrases specific to that language. In regards to office-related work, the applicant will likely be able to understand basic commands (in written or spoken form) but will probably be unable to participate in extensive conversations that include jargon specific to that field. 

Examples: 

  • Can read and respond to basic emails from co-workers, maybe with some mistakes.
  • Can understand basic tasks and instructions.
  • Can participate in conversations to an extent. Chat or email will probably be simpler. 

B2: Professional working proficiency

B2 means that the candidate can hold conversations of medium complexity, use field-specific terms appropriately, and speak and write without grammatical errors for the most part. 

For positions where applicants need to have a certain level of fluency, a B2 level might be sufficient. They’ll likely have a distinguishable accent but should be able to carry out most conversations at a normal speed. 

The extensive vocabulary that an applicant has at this level allows them to contribute to team meetings, speak with clients, write emails, understand detailed instructions, and more. At this level, they should be able to do most day-to-day operations without difficulty, at least for low- to medium-complexity jobs. 

For positions that don’t require understanding nuances, producing complex text or presenting in front of an audience, this level of proficiency would likely be sufficient. 

C1: Full professional proficiency

C1 is the desired and acceptable level of proficiency for most employers and most jobs of medium to high complexity. 

With full professional proficiency, the applicant will be able to carry out a conversation with ease. On rare occasions, they may make a minor mistake or misinterpret something but for the most part, they are able to do nearly everything a native or bilingual employee would. 

Examples: 

  • Can converse with ease on work-related and personal topics.
  • Can understand and discuss current events, masters jargon in several fields, grasps nuances. 
  • Can easily understand and distinguish different accents. 
  • Can understand and create complex text with no mistakes, or very minor ones. 

C2: Bilingual/Native speaker

C2 is the highest possible level of language proficiency; at it, candidates are fluent and demonstrate native-level language skills in all four areas, reading, writing, listening, and speaking. 

Recruiters will have no concerns regarding language proficiency if the candidate has a C2 level. The candidate might still have an accent, but they can understand everything as well as be understood and make practically no mistakes. 



What are the benefits of using a language proficiency test?

There are many benefits of using language proficiency tests early on in the recruitment process. They allow you to: 

  • Reduce time to hire by disqualifying unsuitable candidates quickly
  • Reduce hiring costs by concentrating only on candidates who have the necessary language skills
  • Find the appropriate match by making sure all shortlisted candidates meet your language proficiency requirements

Let’s look into the details.

Quick elimination

It’s easy to create a resume that looks good on paper, and automated translation tools (such as Google Translate) allow candidates to do that even in a language they aren’t proficient in. Some applicants might even outsource the resume writing process, or hire a proofreader to make sure it’s free of mistakes.

Such an approach isn’t necessarily a bad thing: it shows a certain level of dedication and motivation. However, it also means you have no way of knowing if someone is proficient in a given language simply by looking at their CV. 

You might have already been in that situation yourself, reaching out to a candidate with a perfect CV in the preferred language, only to find out that their language skills are less than satisfactory. By holding off on reading resumes and having applicants first complete a language proficiency test, you can quickly eliminate unsuitable candidates. 

Additionally, you can combine the language skills test with 1-4 role-specific skills tests or personality tests to create a comprehensive pre-employment assessment for the role.

Reduce costs

The average cost per hire is $4,000 in the U.S., and the last thing any recruiter or HR officer wants to do is waste money by hiring out the wrong person. 

Without language proficiency tests (especially when hiring remotely), companies risk wasting money in a time when recruitment budgets are tight. 

For example, let’s say you hire an employee for a new position in your German office without assessing his proficiency in German. 

They get through the initial training with ease, but once they start working with their German coworkers and clients, you realize that their language skills are not on par with your expectations and that they cannot contribute much to the work of the team. 

In this scenario, HR is back to square one, needing to recruit a new candidate and spend more money for the same position. A German fluency test early on in the recruitment process would have helped accurately assess the candidate’s suitability for the role, and avoid costly mis-hires. 

Fill the right roles

Specific roles require different levels of understanding of a language.

For some low- to mid-complexity roles that aren’t client-facing, someone with a B1 or even A2 level of language proficiency might prove to be the right fit. 

In some industries, candidates who aren’t fluent in the language they’ll use on the job might still do exceptionally well. For example:

  • Construction
  • Transportation and logistics
  • Landscaping
  • Manufacturing
  • Home repairs
  • Cleaning. 

In general, many blue-collar jobs require a lower level of language proficiency than white-collar jobs. Nevertheless, you might still decide to administer a language proficiency test, for example for English (B1), French (B1), or Spanish (B1). You can combine it with other blue-collar skills tests to get an accurate picture of the candidate’s skills. 

Other roles, especially those of higher complexity, might require proficiency in the working language. For these, you can use C1-level tests, for example Mandarin, Dutch or Italian, in order to optimize the hiring process and quickly find candidates who have the necessary language skills. 

A language proficiency test not only helps recruiters but also helps candidates understand what’s needed for the specific role for which they are applying. 



What language tests are available to recruiters? 

Testing for English proficiency is still one of the most popular language assessments worldwide: even companies that are headquartered in non-English speaking countries might use English as their working language, especially when hiring remotely.

Having said that, in 2018, more than 67.3 million US residents spoke a language other than English at home, according to the Center for Immigration Studies

This means that:

  • Even in the US, for some roles, you might want to test for English proficiency
  • US companies can find workers fluent in a specific foreign language even when hiring locally. 

TestGorilla offers many foreign language proficiency tests, such as: 

Check out all of TestGorilla's language proficiency tests.



What are the five different types of language tests?

Language fluency tests for the workplace are not the same as some of the other language assessment tests available online. It is important for a recruiter to understand this because the results can make a difference in your hiring process. 

what are the five different types of language tests

1. Placement tests

Placement tests are commonly used for school programs. They help administrators determine the language skills of test-takers and also create groups based on enlisted students’ proficiency with the language.

2. Diagnostic tests 

Diagnostic tests help language teachers identify students’ strengths and weaknesses, and areas where improvement is necessary, such as grammar, vocabulary, etc. The results from these tests are used to see how test-takers can improve their language skills, rather than evaluate their level of proficiency.

3. Achievement tests

Achievement tests are administered by language course teachers and are used to assess whether the student is successfully learning the content being taught. These typically come in the form of exams and quizzes given out to test the material that has been taught previously. 

4. Proficiency tests

Proficiency tests are different than achievement tests in the sense that the questions are not directly related to the material was taught. Instead, they assess whether students or applicants are able to use the language skills they have to communicate efficiently. Proficiency tests can be used for hiring. 

5. Aptitude tests 

Aptitude tests are less about learning the specifics of a language and more about understanding the capabilities test takers have when it comes to learning a language. It may test memory, pronunciation, grammatical skills, and so on. 



What are the qualities of a good language proficiency test?

How do you know if the language test you’re using is good? 

If you administer language tests that don’t effectively measure language skills, you’re wasting your time and the time of your applicants. You also risk making hiring mistakes, which can be very costly

When selecting the right language proficiency test to use in your recruitment process, look for these top three qualities: 

  1. Reliability
  2. Creditability 
  3. Relevancy 

Reliability 

Above all else, a recruiter should make sure the test is reliable and provides accurate results. It is one of the most important qualities of a test. In essence, this means two things:

  • If the same applicant takes the test twice, they’ll have approximately the same score
  • Test results will accurately reflect the level of language proficiency of each applicant

When it comes to language fluency tests, reliability needs to be considered in three different ways. 

The test

The test itself needs to help you determine whether a candidate has the necessary language skills for the job vacancy you’re looking to fill. Tests should be standardized to be accurate. 

This doesn’t mean that all applicants will see the same questions, but simply that questions should be sufficiently similar in type and in difficulty. All candidates should have the same amount of time to take the test.

This way you can compare candidates’ results and be confident that a high score also indicates a high level of language proficiency. 

How it is assessed

Answers should be graded in an identical manner: a given type of mistake should be sanctioned in exactly the same way for every candidate. 

In other words, all candidates should be held to the same standard for the same test. This helps you ensure that the results are fair and accurate, which is critical for all pre-employment tests.

How it is given

The conditions in which a language proficiency test is given play an important role, which is often neglected. Certain environments naturally provide more distractions which make it more difficult for some applicants to perform well. 

Of course, with online skills tests you cannot control applicants’ surroundings and environment, but you can give them enough information on the testing process to allow them to prepare adequately and remove distractions. Test takers should also know they cannot redo a test or stop midway through. 

Creditability

The creditability of a test is also crucial. This is why working with a specific test provider for all your skills assessment needs can be beneficial for your company and the HR team. 

There is a science that goes into test-making to ensure that all questions are relevant and can produce the results a company or school wants. 

Creditability looks like this:

  • Clear instructions and test questions
  • An appropriate time limit
  • Appropriate anti-cheating measures, especially if the test is administered online
  • No discriminating questions that would give a given group an advantage over another group
  • The ability to provide reasonable accommodation for candidates who have disabilities or need special assistance
  • A test layout that makes sense in order to yield appropriate results

Relevance and practicality

Does the test your administering on behalf of your company test what you need it to?

A language proficiency test that is too technical for the job you are looking to fill will give you inaccurate results. When looking at the relevance of a test, you need to ask yourself the following questions. 

  1. Does the test accurately assess language proficiency? 

  1. Does the test allow you to compare candidates’ scores?

  1. Is the test easy to administer and manage?

  1. Is the test cost-efficient and practical for the company?

These types of questions determine whether this testing company and the test itself are a good fit and will yield the results needed. 



When should a recruiter test for language proficiency?

Of course, not all job roles require a language proficiency test, but in case your applicants need to work in a language that isn’t their native one, it might be a good idea to administer one. 

Let’s look at some specific examples where it’s a good idea to rest for language proficiency before you begin to sort out resumes. 

1. For remote work

Remote work is becoming more and more common, and if you’re hiring remotely, one of the key skills you’d need to assess is language proficiency. 

While many companies that are hiring remotely use English as their working language, they often recruit candidates who do not speak it at a native level. You might need to check your candidates’ language proficiency level and communication skills to make sure they can easily integrate with the team. 

2. For a new office location

Many companies have a global presence and offices in a number of locations. 

And if a company does not have its own office abroad, many are working with partners and clients from other countries. If that’s your case, administering a foreign language proficiency test can be useful in a number of situations:

  • If you are sending US-based employees abroad and want to make sure they are able to work with local customers and partners
  • If you have a number of office locations in different countries and want to make sure all new hires are proficient in English
  • If you need to hire customer support agents who’ll be working with customers from different countries
  • If you’re hiring a business development manager who’ll be working on a new market

These are a few examples of the many situations in which you might need to administer a language proficiency test as a part of your recruitment process.

3. For a product that caters to a different audience

If your product mostly attracts customers whose primary language isn’t English (but Spanish or Portuguese, for example, if most of your customer base is in Latin America), you will want to make sure your employees can communicate with your company’s main audience. 

Additionally, in some locations in the US having bilingual employees will prove to be a great advantage, as it’ll allow you to cater to different audiences efficiently.



A step-by-step guide to administering the ideal language proficiency test

Now that you understand the importance of administering language proficiency tests, you’re probably wondering how to implement them in your hiring process. 

In this section, we’ll go over the details and give you a step-by-step guide to testing for language proficiency successfully.

step-by-step guide to administering the ideal language proficiency test

1. Determine the level of language proficiency that is required for the role

Before you think about how to administer a language proficiency test, you need to take into consideration the specific requirements for the role. 

For some roles, a B2 proficiency level will be sufficient, while for others, you might need to make sure your candidates are actually fluent in the language. At the same time, for some blue-collar jobs, a B1 level might be enough. 

Because of the different levels of proficiency, you’ll need to assess the responsibilities of the role to have a better understanding of the level that is most appropriate, and that you should test for. 

To better understand the role, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the main function of the role? Someone who’ll work as a consultant will need a different level of language proficiency than someone who’ll work at a retail store. 

  • What are the current obligations vs the future? Will this role develop into something that may require a higher level of proficiency? If the answer to this is yes then your best bet is to test for fluency, rather than for basic language skills. 

  • Who will the employee be working with? Their day-to-day functions may not require reading or writing in the desired language but they still might need to communicate in a different language with a manager or a key partner. 

Now that you have determined the appropriate fluency level, you need to decide on the specific test you want to administer. 

For example, if your company needs to hire someone who can make calls to their Italian headquarters to report monthly earnings and operations, this would require a high-level proficiency. You can test for it with our Italian (proficient/C1) test

Alternatively, if our company wants to hire more delivery truck drivers who only need a basic understanding of the language and the ability to follow a GPS, you can use our Italian (intermediate/B1) test

2. Ensure the test does the job

The role of a language proficiency test is to filter out unsuitable candidates, or those who don’t have the necessary skill level. This optimizes the hiring process and helps you save both time and money.

Instead of interviewing all candidates who look promising, but might or might not speak the language well enough, you can only spend time interviewing the ones who have the necessary language skills. 

To reap those benefits, you need to make sure you’re using the right testing platform that can give you consistent results and that is reliable.

Here are some of the qualities you need to be looking for when assessing language testing platforms:

  • Consistency: The tests should produce consistent results among similarly qualified candidates

  • Clear results: The tests should provide you results that are easy to interpret, and that eliminate all unqualified candidates

3. Customize the test as necessary

Certain professions may require a more technical language than others. For example, if you’re hiring healthcare workers, engineers, or legal staff, you might also want to make sure your candidates are comfortable with the specific terms that they’ll be using on the job. 

In such instances, you can add custom questions to accurately assess the level of language proficiency of your applicants in your specific field. 

Additionally, custom questions help you broaden the scope of the test. Questions in which you request a video answer help you evaluate your candidates’ speaking skills; alternatively, you might ask candidates to write a short essay in order to assess their writing skills. 

Beyond that, customizing your tests by adding your logo and using the color code of your brand allows you to provide a better candidate experience.

4: Define an acceptable score 

While the test will be able to tell you how well the applicant performed, it is best to define what is an acceptable score, and also be able to compare candidates. 

To define what’s an acceptable score, look into these factors: 

  • Define what’s necessary for the role. It’s important to have a clear idea of what’s necessary. For example, if a candidate has a very low grammar score, they’ll probably make mistakes in written communication; if they often need to communicate with colleagues and clients via email, they’ll probably not be a good fit. The same can be said for terminology and medical roles, for example. 

  • Decide what’s nice to have. While some specific competencies might be important, you might decide to still proceed with candidates who didn’t score as well. For example, if a candidate has excellent writing skills but makes pronunciation mistakes, you might decide that’s still acceptable if they’ll be mostly communicating with others via chat. 

  • Assess what can be trained. Terminology, for example, might be trained, if the candidate is otherwise exceptional. You still need to decide whether you have the necessary resources for that. 

5: Administer the test 

So, what is the best way to administer a language proficiency test, and at what stage of the hiring process should you do it? 

Language proficiency tests are best paired with other skills tests, such as cognitive ability tests or role-specific tests. This allows you to create an overall assessment of the skills and competencies of all candidates, and only proceed with those who meet your requirements for the role. 

For this reason, we advise you to administer skills assessments early on in the recruitment process, in order to pre-screen applicants quickly and efficiently. You need to be considerate of applicants’ time. If a test is much longer than 10 minutes, the best candidates might abandon the application process

For custom questions, it may take some time to formulate them well, so be prepared for this. 

6: Assess the results and invite the best candidates to an interview

The last step of the testing process is evaluating the results of all tests of the assessment, in order to see who your best candidates are. 

A good system will allow you to compare candidates side-by-side as well as rank them so that you can quickly see who passed the test and look into the details of their results. Additionally, if you used any custom questions, you might need to have a native speaker (or someone who has a native-level proficiency) evaluate the answers. 

Once you have determined who your best candidates are, it’s time to invite them to an interview.

Language proficiency tests help you speed up the recruitment process

With high-quality language proficiency tests, you can make your recruitment process much easier and faster.

Tests allow you to quickly see who has the necessary skills for the role, and who is simply not fluent enough to communicate with clients or partners in another language. 

Asking applicants to take a language proficiency test before screening their resumes can be a cost and resource-efficient way to eliminate interviewees that are not qualified for the job.

In addition to that, you can combine language tests with other skills tests, or even personality tests, to get a more accurate picture of your candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. This makes the hiring process more efficient, and also fairer and more objective.  Try TestGorilla for free today.

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