How Language Testing Helps You Grow a Multilingual Workforce Fit for the Future


Developing a multilingual workforce in a global economy is a competitive advantage. Having people on your team, who can communicate with potential clients, partners, and customers in their native languages, can boost your bottom line and reputation. For some multinational companies, a multilingual team is more than an advantage. It’s a necessity.

In a session at the 2021 HR Exchange Live: Corporate Learning event, Dr. Jacob Burdis, head of Product and Strategy at Emmersion, an automated language assessment program, shared case studies and advice about how language testing can help you find, retain, and grow top performers. He explained how having a team with the ability to communicate in different languages can positively impact your business. In addition, he recognized the challenges of implementing a language assessment and provided suggested solutions. 

Importance of a Multilingual Workforce

“A key differentiator of companies is the customer experience,” Burdis said. “If any client-facing roles have the risk of communication barriers, then that is a huge threat to your customer experience, which means you’re going to build a reputation for having communication barriers and problems.”

Indeed, two-thirds of respondents to a 2018 Gartner study say the customer experience is one of their most competitive advantages. Eighty-two percent of them expect that the customer experience will be their main differentiator in the next two years.

Communication skills reverberate throughout an organization. Beyond the customer experience, communication barriers influence the internal team. In the United States, 65% of companies surveyed in a Forbes study said language barriers produced a loss of productivity. And 75% said it was much easier for internationals to come work in the United States than it was for Americans to go work anywhere else primarily because of the focus on speaking more than one language in Europe and other places.

Investing in language learning and development can also influence retention. Harvard Business Review recently surveyed 2,000 people across industries and found that companies engaging in strong social support of employees reduced turnover risk by 24%. Social support was defined as ways to engage employees with a sense of belonging, connection, and engagement with their work. Providing training in areas, such as language, qualifies as social support.

How to Make Language Testing Cost Effective

Despite all the known benefits of a multilingual workforce, the process for screening potential hires and current employees for their foreign language skills can be expensive, time consuming, and inefficient. The first hurdle is human error and bias.

“Human raters are time-intensive and require specific training,” said Burdis.

For example, a Big 4 accounting and consulting firm conducted language testing on 5,000 employees per year. The results of the three-hour evaluation came from a third party, and there was a two-week turnaround for seeing results. The entire process required teams of people, who had to be trained effectively, and hours of work, which was costly and cumbersome.

Many organizations end up utilizing a workforce that hand-rates employees for their language skills. Often, those teams are composed of people, whose primary job is something else entirely. In addition, human raters have built-in biases and can take a longer time to judge if one’s skills meet a certain set of criteria.

By turning to an artificial intelligence (AI) language assessment solution, the accounting firm was able to get the same results as it did with the human rating system. As a result, it reduced the language evaluation time per employee by more than 90%. The reduction in costs and time meant that the company had the resources to better focus on learning and development and training.

How to Justify the Cost of Language Testing 

Another common challenge with traditional language assessments is the difficulty of justifying the costs to executive leadership, who are looking to keep the company lean. As a nonprofit, the World Bank felt pressure to have a fiscally responsible language assessment strategy. Yet, best practices required a dual rater system, in which a third person would enter the picture if the first two raters diverged wildly in their scoring. Again, the process was time intensive and expensive. Costs weren’t just a concern for the World Bank; they were prohibitive, said Burdis.

When the World Bank opted for an AI engine with data-driven reporting available in real time, it was easier to secure the necessary budget. With this new language testing technology, the organization had reduced costs by 75% and could share results of the assessments and make direct correlation to positive business outcomes whenever an executive asked.

How to Remove Bias from Evaluations

Most importantly, typical language evaluations conducted by humans include bias and subjectivity. This became a real problem for The Office Gurus, a call center solutions company in South America. Those who were being assessed would make a video of their language skills and earn a rating that ranged from one to five and was determined by another party.

The company would let go of those with the lowest scores and promote top scorers. The process for determining the score was not transparent or consistent. Half the time the test takers could not make sense of the scores, and looks, gender, and race played into the process, says Burdis. This system seemed unfair, he added, and morale plummeted. Turnover was high, and recruiting was a struggle.

Investing in an objective third-party solution that was automated and provided immediate results made the process fairer, said Burdis. Retention increased by 20% because of the increased confidence in the assessments.

Ultimately, automated language assessments provide clear-cut solutions to the challenges associated with human rating systems. Automated tests help cut down costs, which make it easier to justify the expense to executives. In addition, AI assessments remove bias that is inherent when humans are conducting the tests and determining scores. Eliminating these challenges and focusing on removing language barriers can result in positive business outcomes, including better customer experience, improved teamwork and communication, and higher morale among employees.

Photo courtesy of Stock Photo Secrets

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