Draft: Fluent in Swedish and good communication skills in Japanese, other languages meritable

The challenge of defining proper language requirements

To establish some kind of strategy around language skills in a corporation does not seem to come naturally. Whereas larger, multi-national corporations might discuss an English language strategy, it is the local language of smaller firms which often acts as knock-out criterion for competent job seekers. Funnily enough, this also depends on the position to be filled. Where programmers might get along without speaking the native language, HR employees see themselves in the opposite situation. When you receive enough applicants, language can be a convenient and easy-to-apply gate-keeper. But does this gate filter for competent employees?

New employees need to do both, perform on the job and socialize with their colleagues. If they lack knowledge of the local language, they will never be able to do both, won’t they? Digging deeper, the answer does not seem as straight forward anymore. Defining, assessing and nurturing (not yet existing) language skills can be key to attract and retain long-wanted competence. This post analysis four scenarios. All of them line out challenges which can occur when language requirements are everything but not thought through.

What is a good command of German? – It depends.

As with all competencies, language requirements read differently depending on the role and the context of the job and the company.

How would you interpret “very good command of German” in a barista’s job description for a coffee-house franchise in Vienna compared to the same requirement for a corporate purchaser in a multi-national firm with their headquarter in Hamburg?

It all depends. The barista would need German to be able to read work and shift instructions and to communicate with (German-speaking) colleagues. For customers ordering in German, s/he needs to communicate with customers in a limited  and repetative context. Customers order a drink (mostly some sort of coffee), maybe a snack, might have their particular special (soya-free, low-fat, etc.), pay in cash or with card, and then wait for their order to be served. Someone with basic German knowledge (or even without any) would be able to learn the phrases needed within some weeks – as soon as s/he is motivated enough. The corporate purchaser has to negotiate with external vendors, has to understand terms and conditions as well as legal contracts. The vocabulary and communication skills are more advanced, also taking into account that some statements might be legally binding. Most likely, someone without basic German knowledge would not be able to do the job right away. The interpretation of the description “very good command of German” depends.

Scenario 1: Gate-keeper for competent applicants


Klara studies full-time and wants to apply for a barista position at a well-known coffee shop located in a touristy city in a German-speaking country. In the online application form, she is asked to judge her German language skills based on the scale “Basic”, “Advanced”, and “Expert”. As she has not been speaking German for a while she rates herself as “Advanced” besides her German A-Levels and half a year in Germany. The next day she receives a rejection e-mail. Half a year later, she tries it again with a new profile, this time rating herself “Expert”. One day later, she recieves a call from a store manager and a week later she starts at the coffee shop. During the interviews and the trial work nobody pays special attention if she speaks proper German. What matters is that she understands customers and that customers understand her. She is still employed at the coffee-house chain and makes one of the best employees. The only thing she wonders about is what would have happened if she did not change her self-rating from advanced to expert, and especially what happens to all of those applicants underestimating their German skills needed for the job.

Their are at least three noteworthy aspects in this scenario:

  1. There is no clear description of what the ratings basic, advanced and average in German mean. This makes it difficult to self-assess from a candidates perspective.
  2. The importance of clear descriptions is underlined by the fact that candidates are directly refused or proceeded with based on this self-assessment. As soon as language is a knock-out criterion in the recruiting process, time spent with specifying the assessment criteria is time well invested.
  3. A more fundamental question is if the German language requirements are essential for success in the barista role. As the coffee shop lies in a touristic city, other language skills could be meriting. Given the repetitive and limited vocabulary, this position seems perfect for German language learners to improve their language skills on the job. Customer orientation, genuine interest in coffee and motivation might be more important success factors for the role than knowledge of the native language.

Scenario 2: A question of motivation

Diana has proceeded to the telephone interview for a trainee position at a multi-national company. Besides Russian language skills, advanced English skills are expected of her and all the other applicants. Her English is a bit rusty and during the telephone interview she is nervous. She does not perform well and has to paraphrase several sentences with easy words. Nevertheless, she reflects honestly about her performance and expresses her motivation to improve. With an otherwise perfect track record, she proceeds to the personal interview. In the two weeks in-between, she brushes up her English quite a bit, learns relevant vocabulary and forces her friends to speak and write to her in English. In the personal interview she demonstrates way better English skills than before.

In non-native English-speaking countries it is often two languages which are required for positions. The native one, and English. In recruiting processes which are open to non-native speakers, this raises additional questions, for example:

  1. In which language should the application be handed in? What do you do if the application arrives in the “wrong” language?
  2. Will all applicants be tested in the native language? In which language will you have the interview in?
  3. What do you do, if an applicant (1) refuses to speak English during an interview, (2) does not perform as expected during the English part of an interview?

Scenario 3: Language attitudes are in the way

After a year abroad in the US, Jan speaks fluent English with an American accent. He aces his telephone and personal interview for a globally operating company with headquarter in Germany. He is happy to start his central key user position a month later. After six months his supervisor has a serious talk with Jan. Contrary to expectations (and contrary to his English language skills) it is hard for him to adapt his way of communicating with the colleagues around the world. As only two out of 30 direct colleagues are native English speakers, they have a hard time understanding Jan and Jan is not really able to adapt his English to a level where everybody understands him properly.

There should be an implicit association test for one’s reaction to different languages and dialects. They can affect the way competences are assessed and evaluated in recruiting processes. In line with Jan’s scenario, there are again several questions to be raised.

  • By defining language skills: do you refer to the linguistic skills or the communication skills of a candidate?
  • Are you and your recruiting team biased to any dialect or language which might influence your decisions?

Scenario 4: Send them all to language classes


Mia has finally made it – she got her new job in Barcelona despite her rudimentary knowledge of Spanish. Her peers are eager to support her and her supervisor gives her time to study Spanish twice a week during work-time. Every day, Mia tries to communicate at least a bit with her colleagues, but she realises soon that they either correct her in every sentence or do not consider her basic knowledge during mingles. They simply overlook her. After six months, the company decides to cancel the contract – from their perspective, they have done everything they could to support Mia’s integration.

In smaller locally operating firms the step to bring onboard someone without native language skills onboard can be a huge one. In these cases it is naive that language classes for the individual employee are enough to integrate a non-native speaker.

  • Is the team prepared to take on a language learner?
  • Are the roles in the process clear?
  • How can everybody play a role in facilitating learning?

3 thoughts on “Draft: Fluent in Swedish and good communication skills in Japanese, other languages meritable

  1. […] The third post about language requirements in recruiting became the first draft I published. It still is today because I try to condense so many thoughts and insights from a distance course I took about language, recruiting and diversity. It’s no wonder that a later blog post (post 7) is actually my final assignment for this course. (This post is – until now – the only post written in Swedish, too.) […]


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