Proficiency Meaning for Foreign Languages

Quick question about how skilled one has to be at a foreign language to be "proficient"

Do you have to be able to speak fluently or hold an extended conversation?
Do you have to know how to read and write?

Really, I am at the stage where my foreign language was native to my parents and they spoke it around the house, but my first language was always English. I can hold decent conversations (but am better at listening) and can read/write a small amount. What should I label myself as in terms of skill?

proficient definition for foreign languages on resumes

When putting your foreign language experience on your resume, it is important to not overstate your skill. It is better to be more conservative rather than less conservative.

In the case of the OP, our users shared that they would likely classify them as conversationally proficient. If you overstate your level of proficiency, an interviewer may be fluent in the language and call you out in an interview in that language. If you claim proficiency – you will be seriously dinged if you cannot respond.

Another user shared a site that can help you test your proficiency in a respective foreign language – you can use this to determine your level of proficiency for the purposes of your resume.

You can also use the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale to figure out your proficiency. The ILR scale gives a complete description of language proficiency levels which is more transferable to resumes. We've listed the common equivalent next to the ILR ranking. Examine the rankings carefully. An exaggeration of language skills could put you in a bad situation. Do not list "Full Professional Proficiency" or "Fluent" next to any language, unless you can proceed in an interview in said language.

ILR Level and equivalent Level of Proficiency
Elementary Proficiency / Basic Includes the only the basic functions of using the language.
Limitied Working Proficiency/ Conversational Ability to communicate socially with limited professional application of the language.
Professional Working Proficiency / Business Able to speak clearly in a structured manner. Good sense of the languages grammar. Broad Vocabulary.
Full Professional Proficiency / Fluent Can participate in any conversation with experience. Fluent use of the language.

Language Skills on Resume

You can check out how to list foreign language skills on your resume. Note that the applicant lists their language skills as basic in French and fluent in Mandarin.

Read more about this topic on another detailed thread on WSO.

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Comments (14)

Jul 28, 2011 - 10:34am

I always listed "proficient" when I knew more than 10 curse words in that particular languange. Not sure what the actual definition is but mine seems reasonable.

Under my tutelage, you will grow from boys to men. From men into gladiators. And from gladiators into SWANSONS.
Jul 28, 2011 - 12:58pm

Conversational proficiency. If you claim working-level proficiency, which it sounds like you're not at, and someone calls you out on it in an interview, you're fucked.

There's nothing to gain from overstating a language ability.


Probably one of the better assessment scales for proficiency.

I scored an Advanced-mid on this scale in Chinese. Called it working-level proficiency on my resume. It's enough to handle most work tasks, communicating with clients, sitting in on meetings, etc., but clearly not good enough to give a keynote address or write copy.

Jul 28, 2011 - 1:02pm

I learned it the hard way when I was starting my career... never overstate your language abilities...

Now days I like to use the term conversational for languages in which I can have a small conversation.

That said, given your description I would write Proficient.
Jul 28, 2011 - 2:07pm

Thanks for the feedback. I always thought the term "proficient" had a large range of possible definitions and was really at the discretion of the interviewer. The last thing I want to happen is for the interviewer to assume "proficient"
meant a higher level than my own definition, in which case I am probably screwed.

Conversational proficiency sounds reasonable, I think.

Anyone else have an opinion on the matter? Specifically people reading applications/conducting interviews?

Jul 28, 2011 - 3:58pm

Personally, I view it as meaning fluent when used by itself, but it's certainly subject to interpretation.

OED defines it as "competent or skilled in doing or using something." which doesn't really help narrow it down much.

Always underpromise and overdeliver.

Jul 29, 2011 - 1:00pm

I would say that I have the same level of a foreign language as you do. Was spoken at home and at family events though English was my native language. If you put me in that country, I can get by though I know my tenses sometimes might be off and what not. I list mine as "Intermediate Proficiency." And, lemme tell you, in interviews I do get a lot of "Intermediate Proficient, what does that mean?" And, then I describe just as I said, "Well, I am not fluent but I would be able to hold most conversations in X country and read/write at more basic levels."

If you do write just "Proficient", it sounds a lot more like you have a handle on the language then you may have and you may get a smart-ass who just starts peppering you with questions in that foreign tongue.

Just my two cents.

Jul 29, 2011 - 3:02pm

Conversational proficiency is a good way to describe it. Be prepared to answer to it though. At one of my internships there was an executive director who was an extremely smart guy; he spoke about 6 languages. There was a popular story around the office of someone who listed that they were proficient in German on their resume, and he proceeded to tear them to shreds. Not what you want to happen to you.

Jul 29, 2011 - 10:08pm

You have to remember the reason why you're putting it on your resume is because you think it will make you an attractive candidate/make you useful to the firm in a unique way. The only reason why foreign languages would be beneficial to your job is if you were talking to clients from another country or were doing business in another country. In this case, in my opinion, you really need to have your business terminology in said foreign language down to a tee or else what's the point?

Knowing business/industry terminology in foreign language (in addition to everything else) = proficient.

Jul 29, 2011 - 10:09pm

Languages - "Business Proficient" (Originally Posted: 11/28/2012)

I'm applying for a summer analyst program and one of the sections on the application is for 'Languages'

I speak a dialect of an Asian language, and learned Spanish in middle/High School for 7 years.

I can't apply without putting in something for languages, and I feel like it would be foolish to write English - fluent or English - native speaker. At the same time, I don't think I'm "Business Proficient" in Spanish.

What should I write for "Please detail language skills". Because of the set up of the application, you can't move on until you select something.

Jul 29, 2011 - 10:12pm

I don't think that many people do, but isn't it a given that someone who went to school and a target college in the US speaks English? I'm probably just going to put English down.

On my resume, it says conversational fluency in the two languages anyways

So . . .English - fluent or English - native speaker? Again, have to put one of the two


Based on this, in the asian language I'm basically at advanced.

Jul 29, 2011 - 10:13pm
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