I was just wondering out of curiosity. Nothing relating to my own circumstances.

In what language do scientists in facilities like the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (whose campuses are there in Barcelona, Rome, Heidelberg etc...) communicate?

Do scientists communicate in German in the Heidelberg laboratory, or in Spanish in the Barcelona lab? I am assuming so because obviously the majority of the scientists in Heidelberg laboratory will be German and the majority in Barcelona will be Spanish and the majority in Rome will be Italians.

Is this true?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Sep 29, 2020 at 18:44
  • 7
    In the Barcelona lab, they might even have to decide between Spanish and Catalan. Sep 29, 2020 at 20:58
  • Related: workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/20474/…
    – jcaron
    Sep 30, 2020 at 9:39
  • 7
    Your question is based on two false assumptions. 1. The majority of people in EMBL Heidelberg are not German, somewhat more than 50% are international, and the same holds true for major research institutions throughout Western Europe. 2. There is no unique solution for all of Europe or even for a single institution, it varies even between teams within the same leader's group.
    – rumtscho
    Sep 30, 2020 at 13:49
  • Major European Research institutions are highly international.
    – SSimon
    Oct 2, 2020 at 10:59

8 Answers 8


From my perspective of working in multiple European universities in different countries:

In a "closed" conversation setting, it will exclusively depend on the people involved in the conversation. The prime requirement is to use a language that every participant understands and speaks. A secondary concern is to use a language that people are particularly comfortable in. As a result, a meeting of two German researchers and a German student in a Swedish university will usually be held in German.

In an "open" conversation setting, people usually prefer to use a language that will allow other people to understand and join the conversation (usually English). Exceptions happen and might be considered as rude by some.

  • 2
    I used to believe that English is the lingua franca of Europe in all places. Do European scientists have a good command of english in general? Sep 29, 2020 at 13:14
  • 16
    There is a lot of variety between different researchers (and the country of origin seems to be a relevant variable). Some seem to struggle more to get pronunciation and grammar right. But in most fields, since all noteworthy scientific literature and presentations are in English, a basic competency in English can be assumed. Sep 29, 2020 at 13:18
  • 67
    Not only before the conversation -- people will also switch during the conversation if people enter or leave the room, yes. That's indeed the default behavior I observe. Sep 29, 2020 at 13:19
  • 20
    @JosephJohnson Usually the language one speaks/knows is assumed by name and/or country of origin as well as work position. Many people are fluent in several languages too, their mother tongue, English and sometimes some other languages. To many changing the language they speak is not a hard decision, it is done to communicate with someone else and understand each other... Sorry to chime in, but I'm surprised by your shock, to me as a bilingual, and understanding 4 languages (which English is not even the second best language), it seems normal.
    – llrs
    Sep 29, 2020 at 14:18
  • 5
    @jcaron I don't know if my answer is idealistic, as it mirrors the experiences I actually made. But I do think that your experiences are valid and relevant as well. Possibly my experiences are biased towards the very open and welcoming cultures in the departments I've seen (which doesn't include a department at a French university, for example). Sep 30, 2020 at 10:31

I am in Norway in mathematics. I use...

  • Norwegian with the Scandinavians and Germans/Austrians. The people from Scandinavia also do this.
  • Finnish with the Finn(s)
  • English with the others.
  • The Germans/Austrians speak German with each other. I have also heard a bit of French, I think, and certainly a bit of Spanish from other foreigners.
  • Essentially, people speak the native language of some participant in the discussion when possible, and default to English otherwise.

Official announcements are almost always in Norwegian and often in English.

The situation was similar in Denmark: Danish was used with the people who could understand it (had been there for long or spoke a compatible language) and English otherwise.

Note that the non-academic people, especially older ones, might not be fluent in English.

  • 18
    People would speak in English to them. They might not understand all internal messages. But there are many people, especially postdocs and Phd students, who don't know Norwegian.
    – Tommi
    Sep 29, 2020 at 13:26
  • 3
    I assume (and hope :) ) that you would still speak English with Germans who do not understand Norwegian.
    – Carsten S
    Sep 30, 2020 at 13:52
  • 3
    @CarstenS although all Norwegians (except some old people in the country) have no problem whatsoever speaking English – typically better than Germans – they do prefer to use Norwegian in Norway if not explicitly asked to use English. (Unlike Germans in German institutes, who are much more likely switch to English as soon anybody's around they're not sure is proficient in German.) Sep 30, 2020 at 14:10
  • 1
    @CarstenS Germans who don't know Norwegian drop into the "others" category. They do pick up the language fast, though. (I am not a Norwegian.)
    – Tommi
    Oct 1, 2020 at 12:47
  • 1
    In Denmark most university courses must be taught in English, to enable foreign students to participate in the courses. This is sometimes a problem, since some professors are really bad at English.
    – Stefan
    Oct 1, 2020 at 19:03

I'm doing a postdoc in Europe, and my fellowship has me traveling around a lot. Also note that I do physics, not MCB, though I don't think there would be much difference.

My experience is that English is the official language of science, and all seminars, journal clubs, and talks (except outreach) are in English. Socializing will depend on the group. Also the language you hear the most at work has more to do with the nationalities represented in your group, not the local language. I heard a lot of Italian when I was visiting Switzerland.

  • 21
    In fact, I heard it say that "bad English is the official language of science" - and often observed that native English speakers will have the most problems understanding others in a mixed nationality group.
    – penelope
    Sep 30, 2020 at 10:44
  • 4
    Just a minor comment, Italian is an official language in Switzerland, so hearing it should not be at all surprising if you are in the right canton. Sep 30, 2020 at 11:56
  • 3
    Hah, true, but I was in Zurich, so the local language was Swiss German
    – Well...
    Sep 30, 2020 at 12:02
  • 10
    @penelope IME, that also holds the other way around: it's sometimes harder to understand a native speaker of English, due to any combination of their rapidity of speech, extended vocabulary (pertaining to words outside the jargon), and regional accent.
    – Oliphaunt
    Sep 30, 2020 at 16:47
  • 1
    @Oliphaunt-reinstateMonica That is quite common, actually. At least for me as a listener who did their postdoc in the UK. Oct 1, 2020 at 21:28

My experience is from the 1990's at a Dutch institute, so a bit dated perhaps. There were a number of people at the instutute from non-Dutch speaking countries, from across Europe, Asia, and the US (including me). And, the Dutch generally learned a variety of languages in school (the only Dutch people I met who did not speak any English at all were the nice couple in the downstairs apartment who personally experienced the liberation of Amsterdam in WW2).

All science was done in English, both to include all the visitors but, more importantly, they published in English language journals since they had the broadest reach. Almost all the Dutch science courses were taught in English, using English language textbooks. (It was really funny to hear Dutch trying to discuss science in Dutch - every other word was a technical English term). But, all the conversation at coffee or tea was in Dutch, unless there was a non-Dutch person involved. Ultimately, that was why I learned Dutch so they would not have to switch because of me.

  • 3
    Adding to the explanation of why Dutch people are indeed among the best English speakers in Europe: Like in Scandinavian people, people are exposed to the English language from young age, since movies and television programs are usually not dubbed. Sep 29, 2020 at 15:02
  • @lighthousekeeper - indeed, all the TV at the time was in the original language with Dutch subtitles if needed (well, on Dutch stations - the BBC did not add Dutch subtitles). One of my friends said he was really motivated to learn English well because he liked All in the Family, and noticed that the Dutch subtitles often diverged from the English, neutering many of the good jokes. Added in, most students took Dutch, German, French, and English courses in school.
    – Jon Custer
    Sep 29, 2020 at 15:15
  • @Jon Custer: Children's TV is dubbed, of course, and quite well, too - I prefer the Dutch Bert & Ernie and Fairly Oddparents to the American originals. Sep 30, 2020 at 8:48
  • 1
    @reinierpost - I suppose I didn't watch much children's TV (although, of course, that would have been good for learning Dutch).
    – Jon Custer
    Sep 30, 2020 at 14:41

Europe is a big place, with 50 countries, 10 million km², and almost 750 million inhabitants. What applies at an international research institute in Netherlands, Belgium, or Germany will not apply to a regional institute in Russia. There is no single answer that applies to all European institutions.

In much of central and western Europe, science groups are typically international and communication between scientists is often in English. This is not universally true: at the German weather service for example, all internal communication, including between scientists, happens in German, including with foreign scientists working at DWD (but with foreign visiting scientists they will speak English). I'm told it's the same at the French weather service. But even this is not universal, as I've seen some groups that try to accommodate for non-German speaking scientists. Elsewhere, there are scientists and engineers in Russia who understand (almost) no English at all (I don't have statistics on how common this is, but anecdotally it's not exceptional, based on experiences by a colleague who went to a spectroscopy conference in Russia).

In the end, any general answer will be too general to be useful. One way to find out for a specific institute or group is to look for vacancy notes, which may or may not include language requirements. For example: the Swedish weather service publishes scientists vacancy notes in (both Swedish and) English and include an encouragement to learn Swedish if hired. The German and French ones mostly advertise them in German or French respectively only and include a requirement for a moderate command of the language (usually CEFR B1 or B2, but I've seen everything from optional A2 to required C2). It's safe to assume that if they require to know the language of the country at B2 level, that communication normally happens in the language of the country.

  • 2
    Elsewhere, there are plenty of scientists in Russia who don't understand any English. Do you mean conversationally, or at all? I'd be quite surprised if it were the latter, because not having access to the vast body of English-language science literature seems like it would be a massive handicap.
    – dandan78
    Oct 2, 2020 at 9:11
  • @dandan78 Anecdotally, my impression is almost not at all. A colleague went to a scientific meeting on spectroscopy in St. Petersburg which was supposed to be international, but in reality almost all was presented in Russian. After the colleague gave his presentation (in English), a Russian scientist approached him and in very poor English told him he didn't understand anything he had said, but that the plots looked interesting. I agree that it's a massive handicap to lack access to English language science literature yet it appears that this does happen.
    – gerrit
    Oct 2, 2020 at 9:35

I'm British, and spent 12 months as a placement student at CERN from 1995 to 1996. I believe that everyone had to have a reasonable competency in either English or French. They were then taught the other. I was already very good at French, hence I was placed in the top class for French, in which we spoke almost exclusively in French, learning some quite complex grammar. My fellow British student spoke no French, was placed in the bottom class, and after 12 months could get by. Some of his classmates, one Austrian in particular had no interest in learning French, and spent most lessons doodling high energy physics stuff.

My office consisted of three Spaniards and me. Our immediate manager was a French-speaking Belgian. His manager was Swedish. His manager was British (and was an old boy of the local rival school to me in Coventry, by huge coincidence). Thus, most conversation amongst us was in English.

In the final week of my time there, the Belgian explained something to the Spaniards and a visiting Parisian in French, then came to explain it to me in English. I told him I already heard. This was the first time he realised I was pretty much fluent in French, and swore/laughed for a while, when he realised that he'd never once thought to ask. In the staff restaurants, most nationalities mixed a lot, and spoke either English or French, depending on the make-up of the group, with the preference tending towards English. The Spanish didn't mix so much, not for any other reason than keeping different working hours (MUCH longer lunch etc). Likewise for socialising outside of work. My "gang" was mostly British, Dutch, Belgian, French, Spanish, Austrian and German, and we mostly spoke English if addressing the whole group, but obviously the French and Belgians spoke to each other in French, and the Germans/Austrians used German.

For meetings and technical discussions, it was almost 100% English, unless it was known that everyone present was happier with another language.


I work in an international research institution in a German speaking country. The standard language on campus is English and all communication, meetings, events etc. are either in English or in English and German simultaneously. Private conversation usually depends on the languages shared by the people in the conversation, as pointed out by lighthouse keeper. With some people I even speak English in private even though we share other languages because, in my experience, once you get used to using a certain language with a person, that language sticks.


I've only been to such institutes, mainly ESRF, as a visitor, but English was the practical working language, used for a lot of conversations, and everything official (the latter in addition to French). Training was delivered in English. Almost every conversation seemed to have people of many nationalities, and took place in English. This was both for true work matters, and going to lunch with the group I was visiting, but it wasn't a courtesy to me specifically - other groups did the same. The only I times I spoke French on the site were getting food in the canteen, and a brief conversation in the bike parking with someone who turned out to be German anyway.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .