Language proficiency — a tricky dilemma

One of the main questions that have been occupying my thoughts recently is that of proficiency and level of knowledge when it comes to languages. It is asked for on LinkedIn. How does one assess and do a fair judgement of this? In particular, I am thinking of the level of English. It is known that most jobs require English today, even courses at Swedish universities that use Swedish as the main language require you to be able to read and understand literature written in English.

I consider myself rather fluent in English, but if there is one thing I have learned after a year in England is that there is always more to know. And that there is more to a language than the words you understand or speak. So where does one put oneself in the levels of speaking a language? Even if you know all the words, you might not be aware of the nuances and context certain conversations and interaction require. This, further more, goes beyond English, the fact is true to every country, culture and context.

However, let us go back to what has been occupying my thoughts. What level of proficiency am I? My natural response would be what LinkedIn call “full professional”. With both my degrees being international, English was the working language. My academic English, or professional English, is greatly helped by this. But at the same time, I also realised during my studies in Manchester that I had problems with finding the right words for trivial things such as a certain kitchen utensil. I was also greatly embarrassed by being completely incapable of understanding a salesperson at IKEA, the accent just did not translate into the English I knew. But what situations are accounted for in “full professional” English? Writing an essay or finding a shopping trolley at IKEA? This is where the levels of proficiency become a challenge and a case of weighing situations against each-other.

During my time in the UK, I was told by several native English speakers that my level of English was impressive. Fair enough, it is a great compliment and I am proud of being able to express myself in almost every situation. When I would socialise with my native English speaking friends, I often ask for the right words for certain objects and situations. To my surprise, at several different occasions and people, I have not been able to get a correct or satisfying answer. Simply put, they do not know the correct word. Yet, they are native speakers and thus deemed in a league of their own. They are beyond “full professional” and reach the top level of proficiency on LinkedIn, the so-called native or bilingual level.

Now, this might seem like a complaint or frustration expressed from my point of view, but to be fair, there are certainly objects and situations I do not know the exact word for in Swedish, despite being a native speaker. Most of the time, a foreigner might be better at explaining grammatical rules for a language than the native speakers, because they did not treat for example English as a language of study, it was simply there from birth and grew with the people surrounding them. I never spoke about grammar or spelling with my parents, yet we are able to be the native speakers, the ones who reach beyond “full professional” proficiency.

Moving beyond explaining a certain word or situation to me, I also believe that a language proficiency ought to address the capacity to rephrase. With this, I think particularly of those native English speaking (or other languages) tourists we have all encountered on a vacation somewhere. They ask the hotel staff for a duvet or the train station, and when the person they ask do not understand or have the same proficiency, the tourist say the exact same thing one more time, but slower, in an attempt to get their point across. In these instances, I dare to argue that non-native speakers are more creative. Repetition does not help, but rephrasing does. And as I can sympathise with someone not understanding the word duvet, I might say duvet, blanket, something that keeps me warm, the thing I put in my bed, what I need to sleep and so forth. It is not duvet and D-U-V-E-T, it is duvet and a cascade of synonyms.

Looking at job ads, I would argue that many specifically require one to be a native English speaker. But for what reasons? My qualified guess is that it is about feeling confident to express and understand others regardless of the discussion and situation. At the same time, both you and I know that the EU clearly forbids requirements that are tied to a nationality or associated language. One might ask for “excellent level of English” or “confidence in expressing oneself”. But never for a nationality, or a native speaker. Simply because just being a native speaker says nothing about the level of proficiency in the end. You might think this is controversial, but I look back at native Swedish speakers I had around me in for example school, we all had different levels of confidence and capacity to express ourselves. Moving beyond the words, we also had different levels of adapting and being attentive to the social norms and expectations of a certain situation. The social level of speaking a language and not just the grammatically correct.

Talking about language proficiency is a tricky business. And it, along with most skills that we self-rank, are based on assumptions and perceptions of the people around us, including ourselves. So how does this affect my job hunt, one asks? Well, I am feeling cocky and changed my level of English to bilingual on LinkedIn, because why not? I am confident that I will be able to get my point across in every situation. Perhaps job ads need to ask for a certification or other objective take on language proficiency. My passport says nothing of the languages I speak, nor does it explain my level of capacity. Nativeness is meaningless, cultural experience and social skills on the other hand, are something worth asking for. And someone who is able to be creative, or flexible, with the language, might be worth ten times more than someone who is a native speaker. Especially if the colleagues and people around has the patience to rephrase or ask for clarifications when something does not come across right. I think speaking a foreign language takes more guts than speaking a native language, and it also changes the way I express and think.

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