How well do you really need to know the language for foreign language document review

Because I’ve done a few German language document review projects, I’ve had several people ask me how well you actually need to know the language.  Although I usually have a standard of “if you have to ask if you’re good enough you probably aren’t,” I think this is a good question to ask, because it’s not always specified in the description.  I’ll give my impressions, but keep in mind that every project and client will be different, and I’m sure even different languages will have different requirements.  So, in full disclosure, there’s always a chance I could be completely off base!

Basic Requirements

In most document review projects, your primary task will be focused on reading documents and identifying whether they’re relevant or not relevant to the issues given.  This will usually consist of e-mail conversations with a good amount of official documents thrown in there.  So, while all language skills are important, most of your responsibilities will be in reading the language. 

How Advanced

The question everybody wants to know is of course, how well do you really need to speak the language.  I’ll answer this in two parts–what I think is the absolutely minimum that you would be able to “handle,” and what I think you should actually have. 

For being able to read documents and scan for issues, I would say you should be at a B1 level reading comprehension (using the CEFR scale).  For those who don’t know, someone at B1 level in reading should be able to understand most of the language in an ordinary menu, brochure, or label, and follow simple instructions for using products.  In work, they should be able to read familiar, standard letters within their field, and can extract information from more complex materials such as reports.  Now, that, in my opinion is the absolute minimum where you should be if you’re considering foreign language document review.  This is usually going to be “enough” for reading e-mails and even extracting information from complex documents, especially if your language is one that shares a lot of cognates with English.  Now, personally, I don’t think this level is truly high enough–ideally it should be approaching the next level.  At that point, you’re able to handle non-routine correspondence and reports on predictable topics.  The “non-routine” is an important distinction, because it really shows that you’re able to function fairly independently in the language. 

Truthfully, you still miss a lot at that level.  There are many words you won’t know at first, and many of them will be specific to a particular industry.  But after a certain amount of time getting used to it, it really does become much easier to handle. 

I hope that this helps to clarify some of the questions people might have about foreign language document review!

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