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Should I write a bilingual email to a professor who can't speak German very well?

That's basically the question. I don't know if this is the right thing to do, because it could mean that I underestimate his abilities. His native language is English, but mine is German and German is the local language.

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    Can you just write in his language, rather than bilingual?
    – Buffy
    Commented Apr 3, 2020 at 11:44
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    Could you mention your own language skills and what the other language in "bilingual" is? Also, do you know how well they read German?
    – Tommi
    Commented Apr 3, 2020 at 11:57
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    If you speak English, why not write him in English? Commented Apr 3, 2020 at 12:13
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    Ok, I thought it's kinda weird if I write him in English, although I speak German. Well, I'm just overthinking it and it is probably the best idea to write in the language he understands the most.
    – Doesbaddel
    Commented Apr 3, 2020 at 12:23
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    I have quite a few German friends. We always communicate in English. Thankfully. My German would make them cringe. Their English is mostly fine. They sometimes confuse "loose" and "lose" but that is about the worst of it. I can order schweinshaxe in Bavaria, but that is about the limit.
    – Buffy
    Commented Apr 3, 2020 at 12:30

4 Answers 4

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English is the language of academia, so write in English. This is especially the case if his primary language is English.

In the reverse scenario where the professor is not very fluent at English but is great at German, still write in English, but feel free to sprinkle some German (e.g. in the salutation or signature). If he responds with more German, then you can use more German too.

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  • Ok, thank you for the informations!
    – Doesbaddel
    Commented Apr 3, 2020 at 12:56
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    Yes, English is used in Academia nearly everywhere, but it isn't universal. So, this mostly works, but be aware of exceptions. But, nearly every German academic probably has a good grasp of English, just as mathematicians in 1950 needed a good grasp of scientific German no matter where they worked.
    – Buffy
    Commented Apr 3, 2020 at 13:04
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What is your relation to the professor? If you are his student, following a course in German, then I would expect German to be the official language of the course.

In all other occasions, such as a research contact, I would suggest English, at least in the natural sciences/engineering (this might be field-dependent).

I agree with cag51 that a bilingual email is a bad idea.

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First, we're probably way overanalyzing this: just send the message in any reasonable form and it should be fine.

That said: as a best practice, I would not recommend writing a bilingual message in this case. Either the professor is working hard to learn German, or they find German annoying and avoid it where possible. In the former case, a bilingual message tacitly acknowledges that you didn't think sending a German-only message would be a good idea (a bit of an insult, albeit a minor and understandable one); in the latter case, they will ignore the German translation completely. Either way, better to write in English only.

My advice might be different if there was no language that you both spoke fluently (in this case, sending a translation might be a good idea to avoid confusion) or if there was any possibility that your professor was one of those people who get offended at being addressed in a foreign language. Sometimes, I have sent a message in one language and then added a note saying: "I do understand [another language], feel free to respond in that language if you prefer."

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Write to a person (including a professor) in the language they communicate in. To figure our which language they primarily communicate in, check their website, their research papers, videos, etc.

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  • That's a bit weird: what if you don't speak / understand the language in which their website / papers / other is?
    – Clément
    Commented Apr 3, 2020 at 12:43
  • Agreed. There are two possible exceptions. If you both speak a common, but non-native, language it might be good to use that. In medieval times clerics from different countries communicated in Latin, for example. The other exception is if neither speaks/writes any common language. Then a google translate version (or equivalent) might serve, giving both the original and the translation - bilingual. That might help the recipient get the proper gist.
    – Buffy
    Commented Apr 3, 2020 at 12:47
  • @Clément, seriously, if you don't understand the language of their papers, website, why do you want to communicate? I myself would be skeptical of someone who emailed me but who for some reason could not, or chose not to, write in English (or maybe French, third choice German). A practical point is about whether you think they'll want to take the time to try to figure out what you're saying by Google translate... oh, hey, and why didn't you take the trouble to at least see what Google translate could do? :) Some hilarious possibilities, so you'd want to say that you used Google translate. :) Commented Mar 25, 2022 at 0:59
  • @paulgarrett This answer provides an odd suggestion but I know of an actual possible exception: I do not speak French beyond something very basic, and have stumbled across important results in applied math from French academia. Turns out, the website and papers I was interested in were in French, but authors were also perfectly capable of speaking English. So there you have it, anecdotally: reasonable expectations of successful communication while the website and papers are in a language I'm not fluent in.
    – Lodinn
    Commented Mar 27, 2022 at 5:03

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