It’s no surprise that when we comb through the job ads, a phrase that hits us in the face again and again is, “Bilingual a plus”, “Spanish/English Speakers Needed” or “Bilingual Employees Wanted”. Even if it’s not mandatory, boy would it be easier for everyone if the employee spoke a second language! Am I right?

On an almost weekly basis, we hear Human Resource Directors call us about getting their workforce fluent in another language. And while it’s commendable that companies are wanting to provide Spanish language training, or even cultural training to their employees, the reality is that it would take 600 hours or more per employee to make completely bilingual employees out of them. I’m talking about being able to hire, fire, interview, do conference calls, give trainings, etc. This would cost a lot of money and a whole lot of time, that the company just does not have. They need people who speak 2 languages today.

Advertise for Bilingual Employees First

Since 600 hours of private Spanish classes per employee is never something we recommend (unless you have a long term goal in mind), the true way to quickly get a bilingual workforce is to write on your job ad: Must be bilingual. This will allow you to start to grow this skill set in your workplace. Most companies that call us admit that only 1-2 employees are carrying the Spanish interpreter load for the entire company. So every time one of the office managers or HR personnel need to understand or train someone in the warehouse, this bilingual employee must stop the work he or she is doing, and go interpret a conversation. Many times this conversation should not be had with someone else in the room, but since there is no way to understand the employee, the sensitive conversation must be had with the HR personnel, the interpreter (who is not a professional interpreter, but just another employee!). We know that a lot of companies are going through this pain, because they call us asking for a solution each and every week. And interpreters are not typically available on a moment’s notice, and furthermore, they are very expensive, often costing $90 + per hour, and the minimum they will come for is 8 hours (a full workday). You don’t want to spend $720 every time you need to talk to an employee in Spanish!

Yet, if you had 20 bilingual employees, then this could take the interpreter burden off of the few.

Test Employees’ Language Level

Another challenge when you need more bilinguals is, how do you know a potential employee speaks the language if you yourself do not speak it? That’s where testing comes in. There are many online language testing companies like Transparent (online only – super simple!), ACTFL (online automated speaking test and also live person speaking test – good test!), and others that can help you get a general idea of what the employee’s level of Spanish, Japanese or another language is. Typically they cover the most common languages, and not the more remote or less-used in business languages.

I further suggest (if needed) sending out a very simple multiple choice Spanish test that can be found online, so that you filter out those who think they speak Spanish. An online multiple choice Spanish test will very quickly let you know if they any Spanish at all. But, you say, they could Google the answers. That’s true.

Screen for Bilingual Employees

At Fluency Corp, we have a member of our staff that speaks the language as a native speaker quickly screen potential instructors. This is a simple 5-minute phone call that can really save the HR director or the hiring manager a ton of time. The native speaker can know right away if the person speaks Spanish, and not only that, this person can also go through a few basic questions to make sure that a more formal interview is worth everyone’s time.

Screen Questions for Potential Bilingual Employees (phone interview done in the 2nd language needed only)

  1. How long have you been doing this type of work?
  2. Can you describe why you were successful in this work?
  3. Did you already send us 2 references from past employers? Not friends, not family, not coworkers, but rather, only supervisors or managers for similar work.
  4. When are you available to start?
  5. Have you worked with X software or system before? What did you find most challenging about it?

These questions will quickly let you know if this is someone who should be brought in for a more formal interview. A quick phone vetting will save you hundreds of hours over the course of a year of work.

Understanding your Employees’ Language Proficiency

I would not suggest any online tests that do not have a speaking portion. There is a big difference between writing and speaking – actually, there is almost no correlation. I know big time book translators that cannot speak the language, yet their entire job is to translate books. So make sure the speaking portion is a large or important part of the test, as that will truly tell you the level.

Test your Employee’s Business English Writing Level

Now, if writing is also crucial in the role, there are more serious academic tests like the DELE for Spanish or ACTFL for English that can be taken. I do recommend these if the employee will be writing emails, proposals, and interacting through email with companies abroad in their native language. You want to make sure they can speak in a professional manner in the language.

Interviewing Bilingual Employees

If you’ve vetted the employee over the phone, the online Spanish speaking test is not necessarily needed. But that’s up to you to decide. If you’re interviewing hundreds of employees, maybe the online speaking test by ACTFL would be more appropriate than having an employee vet each applicant. During the actual interview, I would also suggest that a bilingual person be present for part of the time, if you would like to see further how they act and speak in the 2nd language.

Many times we hear that someone might speak the second language, but they do not have a professional way of speaking in the language. Many monolinguals might not understand why this is. If someone became bilingual in a university (enough to work in the language), which is a very small number of people, then they likely would have learned the formal aspects of the language, but not sound or understand like a native speaker. The drawback to these people is that they are not native speakers, and will not catch as many nuances as a native speaker. The other group of bilinguals would be those who learned the language from their parents as a child, but were not educated in that language, so this was the language spoken in the home. This group is considered a native speaker, yet, since we do not speak to our family at home in a business or academic way, they might not have the vocabulary for a professional job.

In our opinion at Fluency Corp, it is much easier to teach formal language to native speakers, than to get a non-native speaker to the level of a native speaker in understanding all vocabulary and nuances. They do not have the decades of experience hearing the language, understanding the humor, watching TV, listening to songs, knowing the culture and so much more.

Both are good options, and you’ll have to weigh them out for your specific company.

If you ever would like to discuss bilingual employees or brainstorm about how to manage or create a multilingual workplace, Fluency Corp is a leader in multilingual workplace solutions. You can go to www.fluencycorp.com or call us at 1-800-401-3159.