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Your foreign language skills - are they hard or soft skills?

If you answered hard, you were right. And if you answered soft, you were also right. How so? Let’s have a closer look at why both categories apply – and why each one depends on the other.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash.

What is language?

Linguists define language as a system of symbols, sounds, or signs with a set of rules for how to combine and use them.

Without rules, language would be random, and we would have a hard time understanding each other. Imagine, everyone coming up with their own rules for stringing together sentences, their own tense system, or their own spelling. Or if everyone just pronounced words the way they thought was best. That would be quite chaotic and result in a lot of misunderstandings.

A few interesting facts about languages:

According to Ethnologue, there are more than 7,000 languages spoken in the world today. Only 23 of them account for more than half of the world’s population. Many of the 7,000+ languages are endangered and have only a small group of active users left.

The purpose of language

Language is our main tool for communication. We need and use language to communicate with each other, especially, when we want to convey more complex information. Of course, there are other ways of communicating. We can, for example, use visuals to transmit information.

Think about a recipe. You can write down each step required in the cooking process. That’s what we find in cookbooks or in recipe blogs. You can, however, also create a video that uses no words at all to demonstrate how to make the recipe. Or think of furniture assembly instructions that use only drawings to explain each step of the assembly process. Visuals can be a great way to convey information.

While visuals work well for some things, a visuals-only approach is not a practical solution for everyday professional communication. Imagine having to draw the message of every email you send or being limited to showing only pictures in your sales presentation.

We need language to get precise messages across: to explain, to clarify, to persuade, to motivate, to express how we feel and what we want, and more.

Soft versus hard skills

When you think about the skills you possess, you can probably list a range of special abilities you’ve acquired in the course of time: certain software skills, woodworking or mechanical skills, time management skills, critical thinking skills, or creative writing skills. And maybe you speak a foreign language.

You can develop new skills through hands-on-practice and study. Many require quite a bit of effort and hard work. If we feel confident about our skills, we use them on our resumes or when we want to highlight our strengths. Skills can help us stand out.

A common categorization for our skills repertoire is hard versus soft skills. While computer skills would be categorized as hard skills, critical thinking skills would fall under soft skills.

Hard skills

Hard skills are often referred to as technical skills. They tend to be related to a specific discipline or career field and are necessary to be successful in that field. Hard skills can usually be quantified, measured, or assessed formally. People may have a degree or certificate as proof of their technical or content-specific skills.

Soft skills

Soft skills are not closely associated with one specific discipline. Rather, they can be applied to different disciplines and workplaces, which is why they are also referred to as transferable or non-technical skills. They are primarily about how we work and how we behave in interactions with others.

It can be challenging to assess soft skills, especially with standardized tests. Sometimes it is even hard to clearly define the soft skill itself. While there are plenty of courses for soft skills, the outcomes of these courses are a lot harder to measure.

Language skills are HARD skills

When we think of language as a system of sounds or symbols and rules, then language skills can clearly be categorized as hard skills, regardless of whether we talk about our mother tongue or foreign language skills.

Think back to your time in school. Most likely, you had to write spelling tests, grammar tests, vocabulary tests, reading comprehension tests, and more. These tests yielded scores that would tell you and others – your teachers, your parents, etc. – about your skill level.

We also have language tests outside of school. One that many non-native speakers of English are familiar with is the TOEFL® (Test of English as a Foreign Language), a standardized test to measure the English language ability of non-native speakers who want to attend university in an English-speaking country.

Then there are industry-specific language tests, such as business English tests, carried out by various organizations. In short, we have a host of tools to assess and describe someone’s language proficiency.

Some interesting facts about proficiency:

There are various systems for indicating a person's language level. In Europe, the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) organizes language proficiency in six levels, from A1 (basic user) to C2 (proficient user). Europeans frequently use these letter-number combinations to indicate their proficiency on resumes: English - B2 or French - C1. In the US, ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) describes five main levels from Novice to Distinguished. Including sub-levels, ACTFL actually defines 10 proficiency levels! And there are other systems and descriptors out there, such as elementary, intermediate, advanced, etc.

Language skills are SOFT skills

A high score on a spelling, vocabulary, or grammar test does not really say much about your ability to communicate effectively. For effective communication, it is important that you can apply your skills to the circumstances and know how to handle the interaction. Effectiveness is therefore closely linked to appropriateness.

And that’s where we’re getting into the soft side of language. While knowledge and abilities relating to grammar, pronunciation, or lexis can be considered hard skills, how we use language to communicate appropriately and effectively is a soft skill.

Photo by Jessica Da Rosa on Unsplash

Communication skills are frequently among the top soft skill requirements listed by prospective employers. They include sub-skills, such as being able to listen, show empathy, interpret communicative behavior, voice ideas, speak confidently, and be persuasive, to name just a few.

Another sought after soft skill is intercultural competence, which refers to the ability to work and communicate with people from other cultural backgrounds.

Communication – a symbiosis of skills

There is a symbiosis between the hard and the soft parts of language. In communication, hard skills must be complemented by soft skills. And soft skills must build on solid hard skills.

Today we have many tools at our fingertips that help us overcome language barriers. Online dictionaries, spellcheckers, editing tools, translation tools, and more recently also AI can be extremely helpful when it comes to drafting written communication in your native or a foreign language.

As far as our “on-the-spot” communicative soft skills are concerned – how to gain the attention of an audience, how to speak and be understood, how to correctly interpret what someone says, how to appropriately react and respond, how to build relationships, how to adjust your communication in an international team – the burden is still on us.

The good news is soft skills can be developed through coaching and training.

TransAtlantic Coaching & Training offers one-on-one coaching and group trainings that blend hard language skills, soft interactive skills, and intercultural insights in a highly personalized manner – a blend customized for you, your needs, and your goals.

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