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Let's say someone young (~PhD student stage, possibly earlier) wants to become a professor. He doesn't mind moving around and will go wherever the best offer is. He'll obviously need English, but he's also motivated enough to learn another language. What is the best language to learn that will open the most opportunities?

If we proxy the number of jobs available in any country by research spending, then according to Wikipedia the most likely destinations are the USA, China, Japan, Germany and South Korea in that order. The main language in the US is already English, but the other four have local languages. However, I don't know how easy it is to get an academic job in any of these countries (or the ones later in the list - India, France, Russia ...) without knowing the local language.

If the answer to this question varies by field, the I'm most interested in the sciences.

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    My answer would be Python, but that is a bit orthogonal to your needs. However, I don't really understand the point of your question. If you can read French or German, say, you can read old texts that haven't been translated. But if you go to one of those places most academics will understand your English. – Buffy Aug 7 '18 at 10:58
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    You're mixing up the order of things. First get the job, then move to the country where the job is, finally learn the language of the country where you just moved to. – Szabolcs Aug 7 '18 at 11:10
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    @Szabolcs That won't necessarily work. If the position requires teaching or other communication in the country's native language, then they will expect you to to be able to speak it well enough to do that part of the job, and will probably do something to verify your proficiency before offering the job. I've known French universities, for example, to invite candidates to give a talk in French both to get more familiar with them and judge their ability to teach in French (as the French speak it). – zibadawa timmy Aug 7 '18 at 11:24
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    Of course my comment was oversimplified, as it's just a short comment. However, I do think that this is the wrong reason to choose a language to learn. Personally, if I were to learn a language, I would choose one that I believe I would enjoy studying, where I am interested in the culture, etc. These things are important to keep up motivation, and have a better chance at achieving fluency. Statistically, you will likely give up learning way before you reach that stage. If you don't, maybe you'll end up developing a connection with the country of the language and looking for positions there. – Szabolcs Aug 7 '18 at 12:23
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    @Buffy In my (very limited) experience, it becomes more of an issue in informal group networking situations. Almost everybody knows English and is happy to speak it with me one-on-one. But if people are already chatting to one another in German, it's harder to enter the conversation and ask them all to speak English, or even to know whether the conversation's one I want to join. – Geoffrey Brent Aug 8 '18 at 1:54
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Learning a language is a huge commitment so it is important to be motivated to stick at it. Since English is almost universally the lingua franca for academic research, there are many opportunities for your career (even in foreign countries where English is not an official language). Many people postdoc abroad who do not speak the local language. There are labs that work in English in most countries, although options are more limited in countries such as Japan (where English is seldom used) compared countries such as the Netherlands (where many people understand English). There’s generally an expectation that a postdoc will try to learn the local language if they’re in a foreign country since it helps for daily life. Preparation helps if you’ve got a particular country you are seeking to work in but taking a career opportunity and showing up with no language skills is commonplace. Some countries will require administration and teaching in the local language so it is more important if you intend to be a professor in a specific foreign country. Of course, even a few greetings and cultural awareness will be appreciated if you are travelling or collaborating internationally.

Learning a foreign language is not needed for an academic career but there are several reasons to do so:

1) It will enrich your understanding of the difficulties of second language speakers working in English such as your future students and collaborators.

2) It will enable you to communicate with the locals in your daily life if you live in a foreign country (or visit for conference or sabbatical).

3) It will give you a better understanding of the cultural heritage of your people or the place you live.

4) It could enable you to read historical texts or understand terminology in your field (e.g., Latin, Greek, Hebrew, ancient Chinese). This is only beneficial in a few fields.

There is no one most important second lab for an academic career. It depends on where you where, where you want to live long-term, and what your interests are. It’s a long-term commitment, not something you can pick up over summer to fill out your resumé.

If you want to communicate with minorities in the US, learn Spanish or Navajo. If you want to teach in New Zealand, some Te Reo Māori skills will be beneficial. If you’re studying Chinese history, brush up on rare Hanzi.

For instance, I’m learning Japanese not because it will benefit my career: I could do similar research in another country and be just as successful or more so without the language barriers. I’m doing it for personal reasons: I want to understand my partners native language and culture. I enjoying living in Japan and sought a career here because I wanted this experience. You don’t need to have the same reasons and choose the same language as I did but you do need to have strong motivation and personal interest since it is very demanding on your time to get any useful level of proficiency.

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It depends on what kind of job we are talking about. For a PhD student, or for a postdoc, knowing the local language is not necessary in general. I know plenty of examples of people who got such a job without knowing any shred of the local language (in France, Switzerland, Korea...). The general expectation is that you make an effort to learn the language after some time, though. If only to have an easier time ordering food in restaurants and talking to your colleagues during coffee breaks.

For a professor job it depends more on the location. In some countries (e.g. Switzerland, the Netherlands, and many others) some classes are taught in English, so you don't need to know the local language immediately, although that is probably expected after some time. (In fact, I've been told it's a "disadvantage" to know the local language, because only lower-division courses are taught in it, and they are less interesting than upper-division courses.)

In some other places, courses are taught in the local language, but new professors get some teaching-free time (say, six months to a year) before being required to learn enough of the language to teach. (I know an example in Norway.)

In some other countries (e.g. France), you need to know the local language before getting the job, because teaching is mandatory in the local language. But I expect that if you are a good candidate, they will make an exception and arrange for you to only teach during the second semester, so you have time to take a crash course in the local language. But you would have to make it worth their while...

There exists some permanent or long-term research-only positions, all around the world (in France CNRS, in Germany Max-Planck...) It's often possible to get hired for one of these even without speaking the language, since you do not have the constraint of teaching.


In any case, it is impossible to give a general answer to your question. It is not helpful to look at global statistics, because a particular person is interested in getting a job in their own particular subfield. Which countries have the most jobs is not uniform. Even in "the sciences"...

But as you can see from above, learning a language in the hopes that it will land you an academic job is rather pointless. Your academic record is infinitely more valuable. You would have to be in an extremely specific situation for it to give you any kind of edge. Unless you have another reason to learn the language, I expect that your time is better spent on research. You will have time to learn the language later.

Also, most people don't approach the job search as "I'll take any job anywhere in the world". Most people have family, friends... that they like to see every now and then. If your whole world is based somewhere in Western Europe, will you take a job in East Asia or the Americas? Some people will, some people won't, especially if it's a permanent job. (Other make an effort for their postdocs.) So I'm not sure that you can approach this as "I'll learn the language where the most jobs are".


PS: it is not "obvious" that the person you are talking about will need English. In some fields, English is not the main language. For example in "history of [location]" the main language will probably be the language of [location].

PPS: Your Wikipedia link is about R&D, not academia...

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    Re France, already the job-talk must be in French (except maybe in some disciplines, like 'foreign' languages). – quid Aug 7 '18 at 11:31
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    Indeed, I meant this as a comment on becoming a professor in France not on the PhD and PostDoc (even more specifically for the 'usual' positions at French public universities) Sorry, this was not more clear. For the other part, I guess it'll be l'exception qui confirme la règle. – quid Aug 7 '18 at 11:58
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    @quid You're absolutely right. I don't know if it's really the law (I quickly skimmed the decree of the statutes of professors in France, it never mentions the language of the competition) or if it's more traditional / common sense, though. It would be an interesting question... – user9646 Aug 7 '18 at 12:11
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    This is the most direct I found: "25 - La langue de l’audition des candidats En application de l’article L.121-3 du code de l’éducation, la langue de l’enseignement, des examens et concours ainsi que des thèses et mémoires dans les établissements publics et privés d’enseignement est le français sauf exceptions justifiées par les nécessités de l’enseignement des langues et cultures régionales.// – quid Aug 7 '18 at 12:57
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    Ainsi, même si le comité de sélection intègre des personnalités étrangères, les dossiers des candidats et leurs auditions doivent se dérouler en français. Cette obligation impose que les pièces administratives composant le dossier soient rédigées en français ou complétées par une traduction en français. En revanche, cette obligation ne s’impose pas pour les documents scientifiques qui sont annexés au dossier." (my emphasis) My translation of the bolded part: "the application material of the candidates and the interview must be in conducted in French." – quid Aug 7 '18 at 12:58
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Probably the quickest & easiest benefit to learning another language will just be in giving you another item for your diversity statement in the US (with Spanish probably most valuable, particularly to teaching schools with large hispanic enrollments), or giving you some favor in other countries or with people from there (at jobs that are still in English). For example I know postdocs whose only distinguishing feature appears to be knowing a little Chinese due to spending a little time there, who landed jobs in the labs of Chinese profs in the US. It probably won't have a measurable benefit for a R1 TT job search though.

As for getting a job which requires speaking and writing in the language, some languages are much harder than others (for native English speakers). Japanese, for example, takes a lot of years. You can get functional in a shorter time with simplified Chinese, for example, though still years. And of course with the Romance languages and German you go much much faster because you can leverage similarities to English words and alphabet.

I'd suggest thinking about where you'd like to live first and look from that perspective, as a way to enrich your life. Because the time commitment will probably not be worth the payoff if your only goal is just finding a job. You'd get a lot more bang for your buck by devoting all that effort to building your technical skills or producing more work output.

  • Japanese grammar and reading kanji is very difficult to master so you won’t be passing JLPT exams anytime soon but you can learn to introduce yourself and order coffee in a few months. Chinese tonal pronunciation is very difficult so it’s no small task either. Either way, it will be a lot faster in a country where it’s the local language. Of course, they’re both much more challenging for English speakers than European languages with more similarities and loanwords. – Tom Kelly Aug 10 '18 at 0:57

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