Bilingualism and Multilingualism: Job Postings

A recent job posting listed the following skill sets*:

• 10 ans d’expérience pertinente en transport comme gestionnaire;
• Baccalauréat en transport et logistique ou expérience pertinente;
• Bonne connaissance d’un milieu syndiqué;
• Capacité de travailler avec des délais très courts ;
• Habileté à gérer plusieurs projets simultanément ;
• Bonne connaissance de l’informatique et des logiciels suivants sont un atout
(Microsoft, AX, Roadshow, Hand Held, Turnpike, Kronos, Guide TI, Route
Admin etc.);
• Excellentes aptitudes en français (parlé, écrit);
• Anglais fonctionnel (parlé, écrit);
• Disponibilité à voyager occasionnellement.

Of the nine skills, the antepenultimate and penultimate points are of interest for this article: Excellent spoken and written French skills, and a working knowledge of spoken and written English (my translations).

Nowadays, it is customary for companies and employers to recommend or require their potential candidates to be bilingual or multilingual, regardless of the profession (sales, banking, editing…) or hierarchical position (president, treasurer, conductor…). Because language skill sets are of utmost importance in job postings, I have come to ask myself a series of questions: What does it mean to be bilingual or multilingual in a workplace setting? How can employers exactly determine if candidates or employees are fluent in or have a working knowledge of the language(s) in question? Most importantly, can employers define their own concept of bilingualism or multilingualism?

Collins Dictionary Online provides the following definitions of bilingual, bilingualism, multilingual, and multilingualism:

BILINGUAL: 1. Able to speak two languages, esp with fluency; 2. Written or expressed in two languages

BILINGUALISM: The ability to speak two languages

MULTILINGUAL: 1. Able to speak more than two languages; 2. Written or expressed in more than two languages

MULTILINGUALISM: (of a country) the condition of being multilingual

Although the above definitions are useful, they don’t define bilingualism or multilingualism in a daily, professional context. They don’t describe, for instance, the level of linguistic knowledge required to do our job effectively. At last check, if you were to apply for a job within Canada’s federal government, you would need to ensure your language level(s) matched those of the posting: A (beginner), B (intermediate), or C (advanced).[1] Such a system would definitely help candidates decide whether or not they should apply for the job. However, not all employers have a system like the federal government’s; it is therefore difficult to properly assess candidates’ proficiency level in any language.

If such proficiency levels don’t exist in other workplaces, how is language proficiency assessed? It is all well and good to ask candidates to sit language tests before, during, or after an interview, but these tests have their limitations. Language tests often assess proficiency skills in “a general and daily context.”[2] If a more advanced, technical level of language is required to work effectively, these tests fall short.

We need a plan B. What other methods do companies or employers use to ensure bilingualism or multilingualism?

Having sat a number of job interviews, I know hiring staff often alternate between or among one language and others. Though that may be helpful, such an interview practice doesn’t necessarily guarantee fluency in or adequate working knowledge of the language(s) in question. Like written tests, interactions during interviews usually assess oral knowledge of languages in a general, daily context.

A plan C is in order, I guess.

Depending on the job posting, candidates may need to write an essay or some other kind of text to test written skills. This practice can prove useful, since candidates will need to compose e-mails and write a variety of texts daily. Such a test determines if candidates know grammar, style, and syntax rules well enough to write effectively in their language. Again, however, this type of testing has its limits. While candidates may know the rules in their mother tongue, they don’t necessarily know the rules or conventions of writing in other languages. Not knowing these rules or conventions well enough may have serious repercussions, especially in the language industry. This is why I don’t work in Spanish and French, even though I use these languages in regular correspondence, i.e. e-mail, Skype, Twitter, and so on.

How, then, do employers define bilingualism and multilingualism? Having exhausted the above strategies, what other tools are at employers’ disposal to ensure their candidates can work in two or more languages? Most importantly, how can employers ensure quality work, especially at a written level?

First, I don’t think you can quantify bilingualism or multilingualism. An individual’s level of language (beginners, intermediate, advanced) differs from one person to the next. In addition, some individuals are better in writing languages than they are speaking, or vice-versa. And some individuals may have difficulty speaking or writing; yet, they are able to read and understand messages well enough to convey ideas effectively to clients, customers, or colleagues. Asking people to rate their language skills on a percentage scale or a scale of one to ten seems counterproductive.

Second, asking candidates to work in several languages is absurd at a written level. Whether or not you’re a language professional, one thing is certain: you have familiarity with one language, and one language alone—your mother tongue. It is impossible to deliver the same quality work in several languages and your mother tongue. Grammar, style, syntax, and other conventions differ from one language to the next. Also keep in mind that languages evolve regularly. It’s one thing to stay on top of changes in your mother tongue, but it’s another to stay afloat with changes in other languages. I certainly couldn’t do both!

Last, but not least, unless you were immersed in several languages from the day you were born, you can never be perfectly bilingual or multilingual. Though I speak French, Portuguese, and Spanish, as well as some Italian and German, I am certainly not multilingual. Nobody in my immediate family speaks any other language but English. Though I was blessed with extended French and modern language classes during my secondary and postsecondary years in Ontario, most of my schooling was in English. Given these realities, dear potential employers and companies, you may now single me out from competitions that will require me to work (and write) in languages besides my mother tongue.

In closing, let me provide employers and companies with some solutions around this bilingual/multilingual conundrum: a) don’t require 100% bilingualism or multilingualism in your postings; b) in the case of language industry-related jobs, hire different professionals in each language; c) before mentioning “fluency or working knowledge” in your posts, be sure you have defined fluency and a working knowledge of a language on your terms (some of this text may inspire you); and d) forget about asking candidates to quantify their language skills (see reasons above).

Happy recruiting!

*The company name has not been used to protect the innocent.

 [1] “Official Languages: Useful Information,” Government of Canada [http://jobs-emplois.gc.ca/centres/inside-ausein/ol-lo-eng.htm], modified December 11, 2008, date accessed July 21, 2014.

[2] Édouard Garret, « La traduction? “Pas moi, je suis bilingue” », article tiré du blogue de Cultures Connection [http://culturesconnection.com/fr/traduction-pas-besoin-bilingue/], accessed July 21, 2014.

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