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I am looking for a word (or a set of words) that can be used to reflect someone's level of proficiency in a language that they can speak (not fluently though) and understand (perfectly) but can't read and write.

"Fluent" does not work here, because the spoken part of the language isn't perfect. Let's say I am talking about Spanish. My speaking is at a level that a native speaker can totally understand, but my grammar, phrasing, and expression might not be correct. However, I totally understand everything when people are speaking in Spanish (whether among themselves or to me).

The level of understanding is such that one can understand pretty much everything going on in a fast-paced tv-show or movie but can't speak at that pace.

I have seen "conversant" used in resumes, but that isn't an accurate word.

conversant: familiar with, having experience of, or knowing

This doesn't really say whether the person listing "Spanish (conversant)" can read/write/speak.

What should I write if I am listing this in a resume? If I am in an environment where this language is commonly used in speech (and the written part is done in, say, English), then listing it is useful. So, no, "don't list it" isn't a great idea.

Does this work?

Languages: English (native); Alien (fluent); Spanish (speaking and comprehension only)

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    Someone who understands spoken language and can communicate with others, successfully, in said language, ought to be able to read it. If they cannot understand anything written in any language that is not their native one then they are illiterate. Not a great claim to one's CV. Semi-literate is less derogatory.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Oct 8, 2020 at 8:11
  • @Mari-LouA Yes, that is exactly what Eddie Kal was telling me in the chat, and I too thought "illiterate" would do more bad than good ...
    – AIQ
    Commented Oct 8, 2020 at 8:14
  • I could understand if the language written used a different script or alphabet, Kanji or Cyrillic for example, but if the script and alphabet are almost identical it would be puzzling to learn that the candidate cannot read a "word" in their second language.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Oct 8, 2020 at 8:19
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    I think your proposed solution has the advantage of being clear and unambiguous so I would go with that even at the cost of extra words. I do not think conversant works as well as your phrase.
    – mdewey
    Commented Oct 8, 2020 at 13:06

1 Answer 1

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I don't know that there's a common word for precisely what you describe. But I think conversant is a decent choice, especially if we're talking about a resume. You've cited a definition that kind of applies broadly and figuratively, e.g. I'm conversant in statistics (= I am knowledgeable in/familiar with/have experience with statistics).

However, when it comes to language and speaking, I think there's a slightly different usage. I was only able to quickly find one dictionary with this distinction (#2):

conversant
1 formal having knowledge or experience of something
conversant with
    Staff members are conversant with the issues.
2 American English able to hold a conversation in a foreign language, but not able to speak it perfectly
conversant in
    Kim was conversant in Russian.

(Longman Dictionary)

Now, this does not exactly suggest that you understand everything in that language perfectly (like you're requesting). We simply understand that you know enough to hold a conversation. Regarding the literacy aspect, I think the reader might infer that you lack reading and writing skills in that language because I feel like this is how the word is often used. Otherwise, you could've chosen a different word, like proficient, intermediate, or advanced. We would take that to mean that you have some respective capacity in speaking/listening and reading/writing (also see link #2 below).

Conversational seems like another decent choice for similar reasons (also see link #1 below).

Anyway, when it comes to resumes, you a have bit of leeway in how you communicate. "Spanish (speaking and comprehension only)" is understandable. "Only" seems superfluous as you typically state what you do have in a resume, not what you don't have. You could also switch "comprehension" with "listening" (common, explicit).

Whether or not this is "good" (or "bad") I am not trying to address (primarily opinion based/off-topic). Instead, here are a couple of resources from Indeed that contain common vocabulary and examples on this matter. I've also included a couple of examples here for reference. The point is that, in a resume, you can mix and match however you like to communicate your specific situation.

Template

Here is a template you can use when listing languages in their own section:

  • Fluent in [language] and [language]
  • Proficient in [language] reading and writing
  • Conversant in [language]
  • [number] years of high school and college [language] education
  • Certificate in conversational [language]

Examples

Here are a few examples of how you could list your language levels:

  • Bilingual - English and Spanish
  • Fluent in English and Spanish, conversant in Italian
  • Interned in Spain for two years after graduation
  • Four years of high school and college Japanese education
  • Certificate in conversational Spanish from University of Tampa

(How to List Language Levels on Your Resume)

  1. How to List Language Levels on Your Resume

  2. How to Include Language Skills on Your Resume (With Examples)

I'm sure you can find dozens more resources online.

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