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February 20th 2017

Are you bilingual? That depends on the level required…

By Katherine d’Entremont, Commissioner of Official Languages for New Brunswick

In this commentary, the Commissioner of Official Languages, Katherine d’Entremont, discusses the topic of second language competency levels. The Commissioner urges the provincial government to publish the required levels of language competency in all job postings for bilingual positions.

When a position requires bilingualism, there is a common misconception that it means a complete mastery of English and French. This is not the case. In fact, different positions require different levels of bilingualism. It is the nature of the job and the associated communication tasks that generally determine what is needed (speaking, reading, and writing) as well as the required proficiency levels in one or more of these categories. 

A matter of levels

The New Brunswick Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour (PETL) is responsible for evaluating the language proficiency of government employees as well as applicants for government positions. The Department uses a scale comprised of several levels to evaluate oral proficiency in each official language. Following is an overview of the main levels, summarized from government documents (see reference 1).

• At the Basic level (1), the individual can give simple directives and instructions. An office employee will be able to inform a resident that a program officer is absent and suggest another employee who can help.  

• At the Intermediate level (2), the individual can provide simple explanations and talk about past, present, and future events. For example, a manager will be able to explain the process to hire a temporary employee to a co-worker.

• At the Advanced level (3), the individual can provide detailed explanations and descriptions, defend an opinion, convey a point of view or justify an action. At this level, a senior official will be able to present the features of a new program to a group of people and answer their questions.

• Lastly, at the Superior level (4), the individual can persuade and negotiate and is able to use nuance and subtlety when speaking. For example, a lawyer will be able to defend his or her client in a legal proceeding and a director of human resources will be able to direct the bargaining team for a collective agreement. 

What is my level?

In New Brunswick, a person may obtain an evaluation of their second language proficiency by contacting Language Services at PETL (see reference 2). 

The oral proficiency evaluation assesses the general ability to communicate in professional and social situations. The evaluation method is the same whether it be for the evaluation of French or English. It consists of a 20 to 40 minute telephone conversation between the person being evaluated and a certified evaluator. During the conversation, the evaluator gradually increases the level of difficulty of the conversation until the competency level is reached of the person being evaluated. The individual evaluated then receives a certificate indicating the level of proficiency attained. 

Second language proficiency levels for immersion and intensive French students

In the school system, the scale of levels used in the oral proficiency assessment of students enrolled in French immersion and intensive French is very similar to the PETL scale described above.

Following the assessment, each student receives a certificate which specifies the level of second-language proficiency he or she has achieved. In other words, this certificate does not indicate by a simple ‘’yes’’ or ‘’no’’ – if the student is bilingual. 

The second-language proficiency certificate a student receives certainly does not mark the end of their second-language learning. In fact, among high school graduates who go on to pursue their studies, many of them also recognize the importance of continuing to improve their second language proficiency, whether at college, university or through other life pursuits. With a good grounding in their second language acquired in school coupled with continuous learning in the years that follow, they are well positioned to qualify for jobs that require competency in both official languages, in both public and private sectors.  

Bilingual government jobs: how bilingual is bilingual enough?

A few years ago the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages for New Brunswick conducted a study on the recruitment of bilingual staff in the provincial public service (see reference 3). At that time, we highlighted that provincial government departments do not publish the required levels of language proficiency in ads for jobs that require bilingualism, while all other essential qualifications are clearly stated in the ads. This practice is perplexing to say the least. By not publishing the level of bilingualism required, applicants are not able to determine for themselves whether they have the required levels of language proficiency. We often hear of candidates who would have the required language proficiency but decide not to apply because they assume, often wrongly, that they are not ‘’bilingual enough’’. Not publishing the level of bilingualism required for bilingual positions is like expecting someone to write an exam without telling them what the pass mark is.

The current practice of not publishing the required levels of bilingualism undermines the transparency of the recruitment process and casts doubt on its fairness. Some may wonder whether the required proficiency levels will be set or adjusted once applications have been received. Others may believe that the language proficiency requirements might be set to suit a particular applicant who satisfies most of the job requirements but does not have the required level of second-language proficiency. 

In the federal public service, the required levels of proficiency in each of the two official languages are clearly stated in job postings. Therefore, the rules are clear. It is high time for the government of New Brunswick to do the same.

 


References

1, 2 Language Testing – Website of the New Brunswick Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour

3 Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages for New Brunswick, 2013-2014 Annual Report, pages