‘Soy Bilingüe’ or ‘I Speak… a Little?’: Listing Language Proficiency Levels on a Resume

Aug 28, 2020 | Resumes

A title graphic featuring Arabic script overlaid with an alternate version of the article's title: "Listing Language Proficiency Levels on a Resume"

Whether you speak a lot or a little, here’s a guide on listing language proficiency levels on a resume.

By: Katelyn Skye Bennett | Contributor for Let’s Eat, Grandma

Language proficiency, if developed more than saying, “Jambo, Habari gani?” or “Je suis le grand fromage,” is worth noting on your resume.

So, calling all first-gen Americans: You have an advantage here! Trabaja tu bilingüismo. List that multilingualism on all your resumes as “fluent” or “native.” You rock, and your future employers should know it.

For the rest of us who have had languages passed down or have learned over time, let’s dig a little deeper. Let’s ask the why, where, and how of listing languages on your resume.

Should you list the additional language(s) you know on your resume? First, as always, consider relevance to the job you’re applying to.

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Does the job in question require you to be fully bilingual or to know a particular language? Absolutely list your language proficiency levels on the resume if so. Use accurate terms like “competent” if you’re intermediate or “fluent” if you’re a master.

But if you can’t hold a steady conversation or compose a document in those languages anymore, pass. As you’ll see later, you don’t want to stretch it.

And if you’re truly talented but the job doesn’t require that knowledge, list your language skills on the resume but don’t focus on them. (We’ll get into the placement in a minute.)

I have a friend who knows how to say “I am so beautiful” in more languages than his fingers can count, but that doesn’t help him on the job. It would be a lie for him to say that he knows French, German, or Japanese. However, his proficiency in Mandarin and Korean, having grown up as an American overseas, is certainly worth noting!

Let’s use him as a case study: If he was applying for jobs working with Asian communities, he should center that knowledge throughout his resume. If he’s applying for jobs that don’t require that particular language set, he can simply list it as another skill.

Terminology Tips for Proficiency Levels on Resume

On to the next question you’re surely asking: How should my friend describe his language skills on his resumes, and how should you describe your language proficiency levels on yours? 

Christian Eilers over at Zety shared this helpful list of terms you could choose based on your level:

  • Advanced: native, fluent, proficient, advanced, mother tongue, upper-intermediate.
  • Mid-range: intermediate, conversational, competent, professional.
  • Beginner: elementary, beginner, basic, pre-intermediate, limited working proficiency.

A graphic listing the ATCFL, CEFR, and LinkedIn/ILR scales, several tests helpful for determining language proficiency levels on a resume.To clarify where you fall, Eilers also shared some commonly accepted scales that allow you to see at what level you might rank, like the ILR (created by the U.S. and used for an equivalent scale on LinkedIn) or CEFR (a European scale that’s widely accepted). 

Again, beginner language skills aren’t necessarily worth noting, but if you’d fall in the “mid-range” or “advanced” area, terms or scales like these may be helpful to make sure you don’t come across more or less proficient than you are. 

Pick the best proficiency term or scale ranking based on your region and what would be easiest for the hiring staff to understand. If you’re stuck trying to pick a level, you can take an assessment for one of the scales! (The ILR offers self-assessments for speaking, reading, and listening.)

What’s more, you can distinguish between reading, writing, and speaking on your resume, if need be. Maybe you’re fluent in writing but not speaking — that’s cool. Just make it clear. 

Denis is a French bilingual agent at a call center. He grew up learning French overseas and can claim it as his native language; the job was his for the taking. However, anyone looking to join him in that position could qualify based on speaking the language competently over the phone and knowing how to write professionally in the language. Or, if they had a mixed skill set, they could say they were a fluent speaker and could write professionally.

It’s important to note, though, that you should never stretch or exaggerate your proficiency in any of these areas, even if the language is important to the job. Honesty on your resume will get you further in an interview, especially if the hiring manager starts speaking to you in the language you claim to know! Being straightforward initially will also make your hired life easier, as you’ll have to start using your language skills when you land the job.

Let’s Eat, Grandma suggests erring on the side of caution when choosing a fluency level term rather than trying to stretch it.

Language Placement: In Your Skills or In Its Own Category?

Fun fact: Language acquisition is important enough to merit its own section on a resume! You can create a small section titled “Languages” that goes along with your Skills section. And if being bilingual is pertinent to the jobs you want, you can even bump that baby to the top, after your summary but before your professional experience.

A screenshot of the top third of a resume featuring a

However, if the languages you’re listing aren’t crucial to the job, and/or you need to save space, you can instead list your language skills on the resume as a bulleted category in your Skills section (you can also title the section “Skills and Languages.”) Just make sure it’s clearly labeled, like this: 

A screenshot of a resume's skill section with a bullet labeled

A clearly labeled bullet in your Skills section is one way to list language skills that are impressive but not crucial to the job.

That said, being multilingual is a huge and highly practical skill. You can communicate across cultures and borders. You can communicate via email or phone, in schools or in groups, at Eminem concerts (yes, ASL is a marketable language too!), in waiting rooms or at construction sites. You can be a written or verbal translator, with and on behalf of new Americans adjusting to this new land, and interpersonally in the office. 

I don’t know what your grandma thinks about bragging, but ours at Let’s Eat, Grandma thinks language skills are the kind of asset you should definitely flaunt. If your skills are mature enough to merit it, give them their own space on your resume, and then back them up in the amount necessary to the job description, which may call for more than a single mention…

“Extra, extra, read all about it!” Emphasizing Being Bilingual on Your Resume

Some job postings will list something like “Bilingual in Spanish preferred.” In this case, don’t be afraid to list “bilingual” on your resume as a key descriptor for yourself in your summary of qualifications, as well as your LinkedIn About section and/or cover letter. That’s what they’re looking for, and you want them to know right away you can meet their needs.

If you really want to show your fluency, and if speaking this language is really important to the job, get it into your bullet points

Maybe you “taught English to 6 adult refugees and used Swahili to communicate with low-level learners” or “organized daily activities for 30 displaced first graders in French, Swahili, and Kinyarwanda in Masisi, DRC, amidst rebel conflict.

A teacher at a blackboard speaking to a classroom of students, illustrating that concrete examples like teaching can given in bullet points to show language proficiency level on a resume.

 If your language fluency is important to the job, be sure to integrate examples of it in your bullets.

Perhaps you “managed 12 Vietnamese staff at an immigrant-owned business” or “created a clean and safe environment for three Arabic-speaking children” as their nanny. You’re alluding to your language proficiency levels here in the bullet points and can explicitly state them in your Languages or Skills sections. You’re opening the door for the hiring manager to ask you questions that will allow you to shine.

By calling yourself bilingual in your summary of qualifications, weaving it into your bullet points, and explicitly listing your language proficiency levels on your resume, you’re creatively getting across the point that you have the necessary proficiency for a job that requires it

(As a final reminder, always highlight the most relevant information. The job description will determine how you arrange or focus your resume.)

By listing your languages strategically for specific jobs that require knowledge of a certain language, you’re maximizing the seconds that the hiring manager will spend on your resume.

And by knowing a second, third, fourth, or fifth language, you’re bettering your workplace and community by allowing for increased communication among coworkers, clients, students, and neighbors. You are helping others be heard, and that is worth celebrating, even on a resume.

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