How bilingual is that job candidate really? Use this test to find out

Code-switching in a job interview

Have you seen the video of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaking in Mandarin at a Beijing university for a full 30-minute Q&A? His audience was stunned and the video quickly went viral.  As a non-Mandarin speaking viewer, his grasp of the language appeared quite impressive.

However, experts in the media later suggested that Zuckerberg’s Mandarin was actually similar to that of an articulate seven-year old – with a mouth full of marbles. I’m sure most of us would still like to give him an A for effort.

The lesson to take away from Zuckerberg’s video is that when it comes to bilingual skills, sometimes effort is not good enough – and job candidates may not always be as bilingual as they seem (not that Zuckerberg was trying to prove that he was bilingual with Mandarin, of course).

The challenges of filling bilingual positions

In Canada, there is a significant shortage of bilingual talent to fill positions that require the use of more than one language, especially when it comes to speaking both English and French. According to the 2011 Census reports, one person out of every five in Canada speaks a second language at home other than English and French. But when it comes to English/French bilinguals, that figure shrinks down to just 17.5% nationally.

I’ve seen many candidates exaggerate the depth of their bilingualism, all with good intentions – hoping to land one of those hard-to-fill positions. For HR and hiring managers, navigating through the various levels of bilingualism among candidates can be tough, especially when they don’t speak the second language. Written comprehension exams can help, but beyond that it’s always a good idea to test a candidate’s bilingual skills through someone who speaks the language fluently. To identify candidates that are true fluent bilinguals, they can use an informal test called “code-switching.”

What is code-switching?

Code-switching is catching the attention of both media and recruiters and HR professionals alike. This is a natural occurring phenomenon among bilinguals and multilinguals, where they seamlessly switch from one language to another within the same conversation. Many linguistic scholars believe true code-switching happens only when a person is completely proficient in two or more languages.

People naturally code-switch for a number of reasons:

  1. Sometimes one word or phrase in one language better captures the context or meaning of what someone is trying to communicate or it simply “sounds better.”
  2. Mixing two languages reinforces cultural identity within a conversation.
  3. Sometimes it’s simply an “unconscious transfer” of information from one language to another.

In some cases, the practice of code-switching comes with its own dedicated term. In the urban dictionary, the word “Frenglish” refers to English with traces of French words littered throughout. While in the South Asian community, the term that is used globally for code-switching is called “Hinglish,” which Wikipedia calls a “portmanteau of Hindi and English.” Hinglish can also refer to using English with words from other South Asian languages, such as Punjabi. This practice is so common that it is often used in advertising within diverse South Asian communities.

Code-switching in recruitment and hiring

As bilingual/French recruiters, we intentionally switch languages mid-conversation from English to French during pre-screening interviews. This prompts candidates who are fluently bilingual to also use their code-switching skills. Code-switching allows us to assess more accurately how comfortable a candidate is in their first language versus their second language (e.g. are they fully bilingual, proficient, or at the advanced or intermediate levels, etc.).

While finding bilingual candidates and testing their skills may appear complex at first, there is great value for investing in multilingual talent within the workforce. Beyond expanding the client/customer base of your organization through bilingual staff (and the direct potential increase in profits as a result), experts also suggest there are many intangible advantages to having bilingual employees.

For example, bilingual people may be smarter than monolinguals, thanks to various cognitive, social, cultural, psychological and health advantages. Other reported benefits of learning more than one language can include, quicker adapting and problem-solving skills, more effective multitasking, improved memory, and better decision-making skills.

Perhaps there is more value than we realized to the moment “when you start thinking dans les deux langues at the same time.”


Julie Labrie is the president of BlueSky Personnel Solutions, a recruitment agency that specializes in Bilingual/French placements. After a decade and a half of recruiting top talent, she is a veteran in her field. Julie works closely with both business and HR executives and job candidates, and offers insights into the strategies, nuances and psychology of the hiring process.

See also:
Choosing a job interview technique in 3 steps
Is your hiring process biased?


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