What Is Language Proficiency? Definition and Levels

Updated 26 March 2023

Language proficiency refers to someone's ability to speak a language. There are levels to proficiency, and speaking a second or third language proficiently may increase your prospects as a job candidate. If you are studying a new language or applying to positions with multilingual requirements, understanding more about languages and how to properly speak one may be beneficial.

Related: How To Include a Language On a Resume (With 5 Examples)

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What is language proficiency?

Language proficiency refers to one's competence in speaking a particular language. Being fluent in several languages can be beneficial for professionals, as it may make them more employable. Candidates who speak multiple languages provide more value than those who don't, as they can communicate with a broader range of clients and act as translators when needed. There are 5 levels of proficiency:

  • Elementary proficiency: Someone who has just started studying the language, and can possibly converse at a very basic level.

  • Limited proficiency: Someone who commands a sizable vocabulary and can converse socially.

  • Professional proficiency: Someone who has professional functionality in the language, and understands technical terminology specific to their industry.

  • Fully proficient: Someone who has full command over the language.

  • Fluent: When you're fluent in a language, you can speak it almost as well as a native speaker does. This means you have little to no discernible foreign accent as well.

Related: 10 Best Skills To Include on a Resume

Why is proficiency in multiple languages important?

Here are some reasons why being multilingual can be beneficial to you professionally.

1. Remain competitive in a foreign marketplace

You may one day find yourself in a country whose citizens are fluent in multiple languages. For example, Switzerland's citizens speak French, German, Italian and Romansh. Being multilingual yourself will help you maintain a competitive edge in this foreign marketplace.

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2. Company location

If you're bilingual, but a job opens up in the country that you're proficient in, then this is another incentive to apply. During the interview, the interviewer may test your language skills by engaging in nuanced dialogue. Your ability to speak to the interviewer in your non-native language can stand out more than other positions listed on your resume.

3. Growth mindset

If a company that is from your native country operates in another nation, your language skills can indicate your desire to grow. Communicating this on your resume and during your interview can display an alignment between your core values and the company you're interviewing with. During interviews or in your cover letter, you can explain your motivation to learn new languages and how it can bring value to your potential employer.

4. Diversity

If you decide to work in your native country, your language skills are still an asset in working with clients and driving new business from overseas. You can also help your coworkers learn a new language, which can be beneficial in interacting in the office or with clients. Communicating your ability to expand the workplace and increase diversity with your language skills may also be helpful.

Related: What Is Corporate Communications and Its Primary Functions?

How to include language proficiency in application materials

You can follow these steps to include your language skills in application materials like your resume and cover letter:

1. Test your proficiency

Find out how proficient you are in the languages that you speak. See if the company where you're applying has a language scale of its own for workers that aren't native to the country. The way you test your proficiency serves as a measure to see how you speak to people in conversation. Testing can allow you to assess your skills and determine how to express your fluency in your application materials. Here are some examples of proficiency tests you can take depending on the language you speak:

  • Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL): You complete this test on a computer and speak into a mic, so you may need at least basic com skills. There are no fail or pass scores; instead, you receive a score that ranges between 0 to 120 points.

  • Cambridge English Qualifications: Organisations value this qualification globally and it's more comprehensive than the Test of English as a Foreign Language. It's important to study and practise for this test, as you can fail a Cambridge certification.

  • Diplomas de Español Como Lengua Extranjera (DELE): The DELE exam is the most highly rated and widely accepted Spanish certification.

  • Chinese Proficiency Test (HSK): HSK is China's only official Mandarin Chinese proficiency exam and consists of HSK-Level 1 to HSK-Level 6. These exams are both paper-based and internet-based and also feature an oral component.

  • Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT): The JLPT is the most widely recognised Japanese language test and is available in 62 countries. Candidates earn a score on a scale of N1 to N5, with N5 being the most advanced level.

  • Diplôme d'études en langue française, and Diplôme approfondi de langue française (DELF and DALF): Students who pass DELF and DALF exams receive certifications by the French Ministry of Education. The DELF certification is for basic and intermediate students, whereas the DALF certification is for proficient users.

  • Goethe-Zertifikat Deutsch: This German certificate exam receives global recognition and is available at test centres all around the world.

2. Use a clear and measurable scale

After testing your proficiency, you can use the results to communicate your fluency in each language. Your potential employer may ask you about your fluency and how you tested, so it's important to keep a record of your test results. You can use the scale from not proficient to fluent to communicate your ability to speak the language in a work environment.

Related: How to Become an Interpreter (With Competencies and Skills)

3. Include languages in which you're most skilled

If you are proficient in several languages, it may be best to include those that you are fluent in or most skilled d in. This can communicate competency and value to the hiring manager. It may not be effective to include languages in which you only have an elementary understanding or can only speak a few words.

Related: What Is Nonverbal Communication (With Benefits and Types)

4. Emphasise proficiency in your resume

If speaking multiple languages is a unique and valuable feature for you as a candidate, consider including a section in your resume that shows your proficiency. Consider also the position you're applying for, because if the position doesn't place much emphasis on fluency, it may be more effective to include other information. If fluency isn't very relevant to the position, consider including it in your skills or education section.

Read more: How to Include Language Skills on Your Resume in 8 Steps

5. Highlight languages skills in your cover letter

Your cover letter offers you an opportunity to explain your proficiency and highlight how it can provide value to the company. Depending on the position you're applying to and the languages you speak, you may focus on international relationships and how you can facilitate them. Be specific about your skill level and the specific dialects you understand.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organizations mentioned in this article is affiliated with Indeed. This article is based on information available at the time of writing, which may change at any time. Indeed does not guarantee that this information is always up-to-date. Please seek out a local resource for the latest on this topic.

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