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  • Writer's pictureShelley Purchon

How to hold a job interview in a candidate's second language

Updated: Oct 28, 2022

If you are looking for a talented new member of your team, you may be interviewing candidates whose first language isn't English. How can you enable these candidates to shine in the interview? They don't have it easy. Use our free tips to review your recruitment process and avoid missing out on candidates who could be an asset to your company.

Two kinds of mistake

When considering applicants whose first language isn’t English there are two ways you can get it wrong-

  • Recruit people whose English is not up to the job

  • Miss out on talent because your language checks are inflexible, too stringent, or focus on the wrong thing.

You don't want to employ someone you might regret, but if you are unnecessarily stringent you can turn away candidates with great qualities who could be an asset to your company.

Who to interview?

One option is to insist that all candidates hold a well-recognised qualification, such as Cambridge Proficiency or IELTS 6. Academic certificates like these do indicate strong language skills, but what about people skills, talent and specialist knowledge? These qualities are not revealed by language tests. Furthermore, the lexicon required required to pass academic exams may not be an exact fit for your workplace.

Are your standards too high?

It is harder for a candidate to sell themselves if English is not their first language, even if they speak it well enough to do the job. Could this lead you to overlook their skills?

As a non-native English speaker I saw how mediocre people were hired in a company only because they had a great level of English instead of trying to find the perfect fit for the role independently of the nationality.” Pedro Lozano, former CEO, Spain.

Academic qualifications are more commonly found among people who are well connected, well-travelled, and formally educated. What about the candidates who aren't?

Our tips will enable you to look beyond language certificates when making hiring choices. They will help you to avoid unpleasant surprises as well as widening your field of potential employees.

What if the CV contains grammar mistakes?

It probably means they wrote it without the help of an English friend. If a candidate lacks such connections, is it right to deny them an interview? If you hire a non-native English speaker, they're going to make the occasional grammar mistake. If their mistakes don't impede meaning do they matter?

Are you listening out for the right things?

I founded English Unlocked after a long career teaching English, and part of this involved assessing the English levels of people from around the world. A rookie error when doing this is to notice nothing more than their fluency and their accent. Download my free guide to find out what you should be paying attention to instead, so that you can pick out the most suitable candidates in an interview.

Download our guide

Get 'How to hold a job interview in a candidate's second language' for free.

How have you worded your interview questions?

Is there anything in the wording which could confuse a candidate whose first language isn't English? Send them to me and I'll check them for free. It won't take me long and if it helps to create a level playing field for all your candidates then I don't mind doing it. Email me a maximum of 10 questions a few days ahead of the interview, or catch me on LinkedIn.

Training for your incumbent team (especially the 'mother tongue' English speakers)

Once you've recruited a talented team member, your next challenge is retaining them. Even people who have learned English to a high standard might struggle to understand their new team mates, especially ones who have a regional accent or who speak quickly. This unique workshop is for fluent English speakers who would like to understand which parts of their speech trip up their colleagues from overseas, so they can have better workplace relationships with them.

By Shelley Purchon

Director of English Unlocked

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