How much of another language do you have to speak or write to be considered bilingual?
• Maya Meyouhas, general manager of Sweetspot Quebec, says that “in Quebec, where most people speak at least two languages, I would consider someone bilingual if they can just as easily communicate (speak and write) in one language as they can in the other.”
• Grégoire Holtz, French professor at the University of Toronto, believes bilingualism means being as comfortable in one language as in the other, though you may sometimes hesitate or struggle to translate a thought. Bilingualism also demands a level of understanding where the other language’s humour or subtleties are concerned.
• Françoise Mougeon, associate principal of academics and research at Glendon College at York University, feels that one needs to reach “maximum efficiency” and “a thorough command of the language” in order to succeed in all forms of communication.
Glendon students are tested on this very notion; students who apply for a certificate in bilingual excellence must complete a bilingual written test focusing on their weaker language before advancing to an oral interview in which students must speak in both languages.
How much bilingualism is “enough” for a job?
Françoise points out that, depending on the job, you may be able to get by with only a few French words —and perhaps you will only need to speak the language and never write it, or vice versa — but a more thorough knowledge of the language is needed to truly express oneself.
This is especially true considering that a bilingual job may require you to work mostly in English one day and almost completely in French the next.
Christopher Leite, a teaching assistant at the University of Ottawa, occupies a bilingual role that demands just this sort of ability to switch from one language to the other.
“Here at the university, my department is a French-speaking one, so again, while I can speak to the administrators in English if I wanted to, they are all Francophone and all of the departmental correspondence is sent in French,” he says.
While his tutorials are held in English, some of his students speak to him in French. “This all means that my French has to be a little more nuanced to deal with both the department’s needs and to incorporate the more technical terms in the material I’m teaching.”
Different jobs demand different levels of bilingualism. Maya notes that “the word ‘bilingual’ has a different meaning for different people — in other provinces, having functional French may be enough to land you a ‘bilingual’ position.”
Is there a way to prove you’re bilingual to an employer?
“The best way to prove it is during the interview,” Maya says. “If bilingualism is important, the employer will communicate with you (test you) in both languages — they’ll know quickly enough if your language skills are right for the position.”
When Christopher applied to be a TA at the University of Ottawa, he was asked to share a copy of his high school diploma (he studied extended French) and university transcripts, which highlighted his minor in French. When working as a teller at the National Bank of Canada in Ottawa, his language skills were put to the test, but he was asked only one question in French. The bilingual demand varies with the job.
Maya adds another place where you can really shine: “If the job posting is in French (or if the company is based in Quebec), send your CV and/or cover letter in French.”
– Marisa Baratta is an editor and freelance writer who specializes in health and nutrition, the environment, and human and animal rights. TalentEgg.ca is Canada’s leading job site and career resource for students and new graduates