Do you speak English? It’s complicated.

“Identifying the gaps in language proficiency for each individual is only the beginning”

Kate Bell is co-author of the EF English Proficiency Index. In this blog, Bell examines how subtleties in employee proficiency affect the types and depth of language training that employers must provide.

From the outside, foreign language proficiency looks simple—either you speak a language or you don’t—but anyone who grew up receiving calls from grandparents abroad or who has worked for a few years in a foreign country knows that most people’s linguistic terrain is more of a swamp than a soccer field.

This is because our language skills develop over the course of decades as a result of inclination, exposure, education, and practice.

For multinational organizations, these linguistic subtleties matter. Fast, accurate communication saves money. The costs of poor communication have been widely cited. Corporate leaders are well aware of the competitive advantage of sharing a language and many have adopted English—a significant first step, but to reap the benefits of such an initiative, employees must be retrained, hiring practices adjusted, and company culture shifted to embrace multilingualism. (Yes, multilingualism because these employees already speak a language or three.)

This is where an understanding of the uniqueness of individual linguistic profiles pays off.

Opening the black box

Teasing apart who will benefit from which types of corporate language training and how to motivate them is a complex process. Those who are most eager to sign up are not always those who need it most, and we’re all notoriously bad at judging our own competency.

Looking at the tasks a particular job requires and how linguistic profiles align with those tasks is a good start. This will deliver a list of things the individual needs to be able to do—reading client e-mails in English, meeting with colleagues in English—rather than the more common intermediate English designation.

Language teachers already use such techniques to describe individual linguistic profiles. They’re called can-do statements—essentially a list of tasks a person can and cannot perform in the target language.

For example, Mark can attend meetings in Spanish but he can’t give a radio interview. Sara can read e-mails in French but she can’t understand technical documentation. There are large, calibrated collections of can-do statements which can be applied to any language, but there’s no credentialing system for individual tasks.

From a hiring perspective, the simplest yardstick of language proficiency is biographical proxies. A candidate who graduated from an American university will usually have more experience reading academic texts in English than a candidate who studied in Italy.

Likewise, someone who grew up in London speaking Russian with a parent is unlikely to have the same level of written Russian as someone who grew up in Moscow, regardless of what language he spoke at home. Asking can-do questions in an interview is likewise more effective than discussing “fluency”: Would you be able to send an e-mail to an important client in Japanese? How comfortable would you feel appearing on Brazilian national television?

“A candidate who graduated from an American university will usually have more experience reading academic texts in English than a candidate who studied in Italy”

Language learning wins and pitfalls

Identifying the gaps in language proficiency for each individual is only the beginning. Retraining to fill those gaps will be a multi-year project, regardless of how much you invest. Most companies prioritize certain job functions or areas of the business, although some sweeping initiatives try to train everyone at once.

Any decent language services provider will offer industry-specific training with tailoring based on your company’s needs analysis. The most common mistake is choosing a cheaper, generic program instead. For high-priority individuals, short-term international mobility is another powerful and underused strategy. Working out of the Boston office for the summer will do wonders for their English.

Individuals investing in improving their own language skills (and in many countries, this is most adult language learners) also benefit from using can-do statements to direct their studies. You might set a short-term goal of being able to introduce yourself in Mandarin and a medium-term goal of being able to read a Beijing newspaper article.

“Any decent language services provider will offer industry-specific training”

It’s much easier to see value and measure self-efficacy against specific goals, both of which are key elements in motivation. For those who’ve been mired in the intermediate proficiency swamp for years, identifying the specific tasks they need to be able to perform in the target language is a lifeline.

English is the language of innovation, business, and trade and both professionals and multinationals are now painfully aware of the skill gap, but fixing it will require moving from a simplistic view of language skills to a more nuanced understanding of individual linguistic profiles. It’s time the tools language teachers use to describe what they were seeing in the classroom are brought into the boardroom as well.

About the author: Kate Bell is co-author of the EF English Proficiency Index, the world’s largest ranking of countries and regions by English skills.