How To List Language Levels On Your Resume (With Examples)

By Chris Kolmar - Nov. 13, 2020
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As a job seeker, listing foreign language skills on a resume can greatly benefit your career goals.

On the one hand, it demonstrates to prospective employers that you have experience working and socializing in various cultural contexts. It’s a quality that’s become extremely important to employers in an increasingly globalized business landscape.

On the other hand, it also proves that you have the talent and discipline to commit yourself to learning a challenging new skill (such as mastering a foreign language).

Finally, it will cause hiring managers to view you as a particularly valuable candidate if the role that you’re applying to will require you to travel abroad occasionally.

Multilingual job candidates, in other words, tend to stand out from the competition and impress employers.

But how, exactly, should job candidates who have foreign language skills list those abilities on a resume? And how do you know, specifically, which language level you fit into?

In this article, we’ll highlight everything that you need to know.

What are Language Skill Levels for Resumes?

Language skills – like all key skills – can be distributed across a spectrum. Generally speaking, we can break down most skill levels into three basic groups: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. But when it comes to assessing language skill levels, it’s common practice to use four basic categories: basic, conversational, proficient, and fluent.

To give you a clearer idea of which category you might fall into, here’s a breakdown of each of the four basic skill levels:

  • At the basic level, you’re able to speak and understand a handful of common words and phrases in a foreign language. However, at this level, you would not be able to engage in conversation with an individual who speaks that language as a native tongue.

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    Here are some examples of some words and phrases that you might be able to speak and understand at a basic level:

    • “Thank you!”

    • “Excuse me…”

    • “Yes, please!”

    • “Where is the bathroom?”

  • At the conversational level, you’ve acquired sufficient verbal skills to hold and maintain simple conversations in a foreign language. But at this level, your speech would be prone to grammatical errors, lengthy pauses, and uncertainty about using more complex words, expressions, or phrases.

    Here are some examples of simple conversation-starters that you might use at the conversational level (note that each of the four questions outlined below focuses on everyday topics that would be broadly relevant to many people):

    • “The weather is beautiful today!”

    • “Do you know who is winning the soccer game?”

    • “Can you please give me directions to the hotel?”

    • “Did you enjoy the movie?”

  • Proficiency in a foreign language essentially means that you’re generally comfortable using that language in a wide variety of contexts. Still, you haven’t quite mastered it at the level of someone who speaks it as a first language.

    Here are some examples of phrases that you might be able to use when you’re proficient in a foreign language (note that each of the phrases below incorporates some more technical details and complex information – temperature, team names, directions, emotions, etc.):

    • “I’ve been enjoying the sunshine, but I heard on the news that it’s supposed to be colder tomorrow.”

    • “Manchester United has defeated Arsenal ten points to seven.”

    • “To get to the hotel, you’ll need to walk four blocks east and then turn left.”

    • “I thought that the movie was funny, but it also made me feel sad.”

  • Fluency means that you’ve attained mastery over a foreign language. At this level of skill, you’re able to confidently and competently use this language to discuss virtually any topic in any context. Fluency would enable you, for example, to attend (and participate in) a university-level class that’s taught entirely in a foreign language.

    Here are four examples of some phrases and questions that you’d be able to comfortably speak when you’re fluent in a foreign language (note the fact that these are much more complex than all of the previous examples listed above):

    • “Entropy is the second law of thermodynamics.”

    • “Aristotle was a Greek moral philosopher who lived during the fourth century BCE.”

    • “Can you describe to me in detail how the greenhouse effect works?”

    • “I remain hopeful about the prospects for diplomacy and economic cooperation in the European Union.”

How To Determine Your Language Skill Level

You’ll need to complete three necessary steps to gain a clearer, more objective idea of your true language skill level. Completing these steps will, in turn, make it much more likely that you’ll end up including a fair and honest assessment of your language skill level on your next job application.

  1. Reflect on which skill level category you belong to. The first step to determining your language skill level is simply asking yourself: Which of the four categories outlined above – basic, conversational, proficient, and fluent – do you consider yourself to belong to? (Keep in mind that it always pays off to give yourself an honest assessment.

    Exaggerating your language skill level to a hiring manager or recruiter might get you noticed, but it won’t make you look so good in the long-term.)

  2. Assess your skill level using the four subcategories of language. Language skills are not unidimensional. There are four subcategories of language skills that you must carefully consider when assessing your language skills as a whole.

    These are:

    • Speaking

    • Listening

    • Reading

    • Writing

    Now, even if you’re at the basic level, you know that each subcategory is vastly different skills. You might have a talent for speaking a foreign language, for example, and simultaneously struggle to write down your thoughts in that same language. Even if you find it easy to understand others, you might find it difficult to put your responses into words.

    When it comes to foreign language skills, almost everyone has an unequal distribution of ability across those four subcategories. And that’s okay. There’s always room for improvement down the road. The critical thing to do now is to make sure that you’re aware of your own abilities and limitations so that you can communicate those to a hiring manager in a resume or job interview.

  3. Take an online language skill assessment quiz. After you’ve conducted a basic self-assessment of your language skills, the final step is leveraging a couple of online assessment tools. These will provide you with an unbiased perspective of where you currently stand on the language skill spectrum.

    To receive as accurate an assessment as possible, it’s wise to take more than one online exam. If the first exam gives you a lower score than you were expecting, don’t despair. Move on to another one so that you can compare your final results. In the same way, you should make it a point to get a second opinion if your first test yields far more flattering results than you had anticipated.

    Here are seven online language skill assessment quizzes that we recommend checking out. Each one will be able to test your proficiency in a wide variety of languages (though the options will differ for each), including Mandarin Chinese, German, French, Spanish, English, Japanese, Russian, Dutch, Portuguese, Italian, Swahili, Polish, Hindi, Swedish, etc. Before you begin, make sure you check subscription terms and prices – many online assessments are free, but some will come with a small fee.

When Should You Include Language Skill Levels On a Resume?

Although many employers may not always explicitly state it in a job posting, they will prefer to hire a job candidate who can bring some language skills into the workplace. Most industries do not require each of their job candidates to possess language skills. Similarly, it’s rare for an employer to include language skills as a mandatory prerequisite for all job applicants. At the same time, there are countless industries in which language skills can give you a distinct edge over the competition.

So as a job candidate, you may have to read between the lines a bit. Be sure to research the company you’re applying to, so you can find out if they have any offices or business abroad. If they do, that’s a good sign that they will value candidates with foreign language skills. On the other hand, you won’t always need to conduct that much detective work because many job postings will clearly state that they’re looking for candidates with particular language skills.

Here are a few more circumstances in which it can be beneficial to include foreign language skills on your resume:

  • You’re applying for a new job overseas. Suppose you’re an American citizen applying for a job in Estonia. In that case, it will be crucial for you to break down your current skill levels in conversing, reading, and writing in Estonian and Russian.

    No matter where the job that you’re coveting is located, make sure that you know which languages are predominantly spoken there so that you can acquire the necessary skills and update your resume accordingly.

  • Your prospective employer is looking for employees who are willing to grow with the company. If you’re applying to a small company that has grand designs for future international expansion, then your language skills could give you a serious edge. After all, any employer looking to expand overseas will eventually need employees to travel and act as scouts or representatives for their business. Pay close attention to these details regarding future growth within the company when you’re reading a job description.

  • You’re applying to a company with a multilingual workplace. Language skills can also make you stand out as a job candidate if the company that you’re applying to has fostered a multicultural and multilingual workplace. If you discover that a prospective employer places a high value on hiring candidates from a wide variety of backgrounds, this is an excellent opportunity to emphasize your language skills on your resume.

How to List Language Skill Levels On a Resume

Once you have a basic understanding of the specific language skills that will be valued within the role, department, and organization you’re applying to, the next step is updating your resume.

When you’re listing language skills on your resume, be sure to be as specific as possible. It won’t do you or the hiring manager any good, for example, if you simply write “proficient in a foreign language” or “skilled in understanding foreign languages.” Instead, be clear and concise in your descriptions.

Here are some examples of how you might include foreign language skills (using a bulleted list) on a resume:

  • “Fluent in Mandarin Chinese: Speaking, writing, and reading.”

  • “Proficient in speaking Spanish and French.”

  • “Conversant in German.”

  • “Basic skill levels in speaking and writing in Hindi.”

  • “Studied Spanish for four years at Columbia University – fluent in Spanish speech and writing.”

  • “Bilingual: English and Dutch.”

  • “Certificate in fluent French from Northwestern University.”

Resume Language Skills – Bringing it All Together

Here are the four key takeaway points that we’ve covered in this article:

  • Including language skills on a resume is a simple and effective way to make yourself stand out from the competition and to land a job offer.

  • Language skills are not unidimensional – they are composed of four basic subcategories: speaking, listening, reading, and writing.

  • To avoid misrepresenting your language skill levels, it’s essential to give yourself an honest self-assessment and supplement that with the results of multiple online language skill assessment exams.

  • There are several circumstances in which it can be extremely beneficial to include language skill levels on a resume. But before you insert this information in your next job application, make sure that you clearly understand the needs of the particular organization, department, and role you’re applying to. This will allow you to know exactly what information you should include, which will, in turn, make it much more likely that you’ll catch a hiring manager’s eye.

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Chris Kolmar

Author

Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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