As more organizations expand their global footprint and employees increasingly conduct their work from anywhere around the world, companies have a growing need for workers who can speak and write effectively in the native language of their clients and co-workers.
Whether the worker is in a customer-facing role in a call center, a leadership position at a multinational company or even a back-office information technology job, language proficiency for non-native speakers is a vital competency.
While the need is most acute in the language of international business—English—recruiters and HR professionals find their workforces need to become proficient in an expanding number of other languages as their companies enter new global markets and employees work remotely on virtual teams with colleagues from other countries and cultures.
New Technology Aids Language Skills Assessments
Recruiters sometimes struggle to accurately assess the language and communication skills of job applicants who are non-native speakers of given languages. Learning professionals, too, have sought more efficient and effective ways to close language proficiency gaps after workers are hired.
New technologies are helping on both of those fronts. Assessment providers are using evolving speech recognition and natural language processing technologies as well as machine learning to offer more accurate and efficient assessments of language skills.
One such assessment provider is Emmersion, a Lehi, Utah-based company that offers language proficiency tests in eight languages, with additional languages in development. Job candidates for customer-facing roles take a 10-minute assessment delivered through an integration with Emmersion's platform and a client's applicant tracking system.
"Most of our clients use both speaking and writing assessments, because increasingly both of those skills are needed for success in many job roles," said Jacob Burdis, co-founder and head of product and strategy for Emmersion.
The Emmersion assessment uses the process of elicited imitation, which asks candidates to listen and repeat language, and a question-and-answer format that collects spontaneous responses from test takers. The assessments are scored using speech recognition and natural language processing technology as well as psychometric tools, Burdis said.
Emmersion partners with speech recognition technology providers IBM Watson, Carnegie Speech and Google, and the assessments produce multiple data points depending on recruiter needs, including quality of sounds and words, vocabulary frequency and difficulty, pronunciation, and more.
The assessments generate scores on two different scales, Burdis said, and most companies conduct an internal calibration of the assessments with their own customer base to set "thresholds," or levels of job candidate performance that meet their specific standards. Burdis said Emmersion also performs regular quality-control audits of assessment data created by speech recognition technology.
While many companies have similar needs regarding the language proficiency of new hires who are non-native speakers, organizations vary in terms of what they consider "good enough" in speaking and writing ability for various job roles, Burdis said.
For example, if employees are close but not quite ready to be placed in the call center or on a sales floor, a company might enroll them in internal training for one to two months to improve their language ability. Then the company would test them again to ensure they can function at the level needed, Burdis said.
While evaluating English constitutes the bulk of language assessment needs, recruiters are finding they need to evaluate candidates in a growing number of other languages as business becomes more global. A French employee in the tourism industry may need to learn basic German, for example, or a Portuguese worker may need to master Spanish to accommodate a changing customer base. Universities around the world also need to use language assessments to place freshmen and transfer students who are non-native speakers into the appropriate courses.
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AI Personalizes Language Training
Non-native speakers frequently need language training as their job roles change, they are promoted or their organization expands into new international markets.
One language training provider is goFLUENT, which built a learning portal driven by artificial intelligence that helps assess employees' language proficiency in multiple languages and then curates learning activities based on workers' unique learning needs, job roles, business interests and more.
"We give individuals appropriately curated learning content at the time of need," said John Ambrose, president of goFLUENT, which has its global headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. "It used to be that e-learners had to go off and hunt for the content they needed. Now curated content can be delivered directly to them through use of technology like AI."
Employees can take goFLUENT language training in one-on-one virtual environments, as part of virtual groups or in person. Group classes, for example, allow learners from the same team or company to have language lessons together via video calls using platforms like Microsoft Teams.
Tamara Gerdej, an HR business partner for Bausch Health Cos. who's based in Eastern Europe, said AI-driven language training platforms like goFLUENT are a good fit for her workforce because employees can access personalized content within the flow of their daily work.
Ambrose said it's not unusual for up to half of employees in large multinational companies to be non-native English speakers. He believes language skills grow more important as those employees advance in their companies.
"Someone may initially be hired into a role where knowing English isn't the key or primary skill needed, but as they grow in their careers they might be passed over for promotion if they don't have the right level of language proficiency," Ambrose said.
DE&I: Language Skill Is Key to Inclusion
Some experts also say language proficiency is an oft-overlooked but essential element to companies' diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives. "There currently is no 'L' in DE&I, but there should be," Ambrose said. "When you talk about building inclusive environments, lack of language proficiency can be one of the most common ways people get excluded in organizations. If you have the gift of learning English from birth, you usually have a career and economic advantage that stays with you for life."
Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis.