How does an exchange student go to another country for a year when the language of education is different? Doesn't the exchange student attend any lecture or course during the visit?

Except for negligible exceptions, the language of education is the local language, and almost every country has a different language.


  1. I feel the comments/answers are based on the large countries (e.g., many students can speak German or French). Consider small countries like Latvia, Estonia, etc. I doubt anyone learns those languages unless you already have a connection (e.g., a parent is from there, philology student). I think the purpose of exchange projects is to stay in/experience places you normally don't.

  2. I doubt if basic language skills learned in school is sufficient for understanding a course/lecture.

  3. If your choice is based on the language you speak, (formerly the UK), Ireland, (possibly The Netherlands) should be flooded with exchange students (or at least demands).

As a side note, I read somewhere (I will look for it), the popular destinations for Erasmus students are cities with beaches regardless of the country's language or the university's reputation. A popular destination country is Turkey.

I believe Erasmus is a cultural programme rather than an educational one. My question is how education quality assurance is managed/guaranteed.

  • 5
    Not posting this as an answer, because I don't know whether it is what actually happens, but have you considered the possibility of the student learning (enough of) the local language of the place they're visiting before they set off? Jun 11, 2021 at 11:39
  • 3
    "If your choice is based on the language you can speak, (formerly the UK), Ireland, (possibly The Netherlands) should be flooded with exchange students (or at least demands)." Do you think they aren't in extremely high demand? Also, many students learn French, German or Spanish as a third or even second language.
    – user9482
    Jun 11, 2021 at 12:38
  • 5
    @Googlebot many that have at least some programs/courses taught in English. All the universities I attended/worked at (four in three different countries not including the English speaking ones) had at least some courses in English, and some of that was over 10 years ago (there's a trend to increase this).
    – fqq
    Jun 11, 2021 at 20:38
  • 5
    this website study.eu lists thousands of degrees taught in english all around europe
    – fqq
    Jun 11, 2021 at 20:41
  • 3
    Why do you think humans can only communicate in one language? That seems like a very US-centric view of the world (and even in the US, knowing Spanish as well as English can be useful). FWIW I studied three different European languages as well as English in the UK equivalent of high school (and so did everyone else at that school who aspired to a university education).
    – alephzero
    Jun 12, 2021 at 13:01

3 Answers 3


Exchange students follow lectures in the receiving institution (apart from partying, which they of course also do). They do so by either:

  • knowing the language before going there (the number of bilingual and multilingual students has often surprised me)
  • Learn the language when they get there. The purpose of an exchange year is to immerse yourself in the new environment after all.
  • Limit themselves to courses taught in English. A lot of universities offer at least some of their courses in English.

Most exchange students will try to learn the local language. Whether it is enough to follow courses in that language is another question. But there are enough cases where that is certainly feasible: This is easier when the student already learned the language in secondary school, or when the language is similar to another language they already know. But some students are just very good at learning new languages (I can only envy them).

  • 4
    At least from a UK perspective: It is (was?) common for students to enrol on a course titled "<subject> with a year in <country>", which included some element of instruction in the foreign language in the years preceding the Erasmus year.
    – avid
    Jun 11, 2021 at 13:07
  • @avid that still exists
    – fqq
    Jun 11, 2021 at 20:25
  • Some of the books, lecture notes, etc. may be in a different language than the lecture. Jun 12, 2021 at 15:05

Erasmus students attend lectures and are evaluated like any other student at the host institution. Their home institution converts their grades, when they return, to the local grading scale.

For bachelor degrees institutions seem to mostly use the local language, but for masters degrees there are a lot of options in English. My school doesn't even allow Erasmus while doing your bachelors.

There are limits on how many students each institution receives. At my home institution, for instance, during the application period we're given a table with possible destinations and the amount of slots available for each degree.

For example, we could have 2 slots for computer science and 3 slots for mechanical engineering at Institution X, 2 slots for computer science at Institution Y, and 5 slots for aerospace engineering at Institution Z.

The home institution decides who goes where. If there are 2 slots for CS at Y and 10 students want to go there, they'll rank those students somehow and pick two for the available slots.

Why a student wants to go to a particular institution is going to depend on what that student wants: a university with good reputation, a city/country with beaches nearby and/or interesting places to visit, the availability of courses they like, maybe the opportunity to improve a second language they already speak, and of course money.

Money is important. For a cash-strapped student going to a cheap location (country where wages are low) might be the only option.

Courses for what I've seen you get some leeway when choosing. A CS master student might be allowed to take not only master-level courses but also bachelor-level courses (maybe they have machine learning at the bachelor level and you didn't at your home institution). This of course needs to be approved by both home and host institutions.

I've had colleagues taking courses because they found them interesting. And I've seen others take courses they thought were easier to pass thus giving themselves more free time for traveling.


For what it's worth, here's my experience studying abroad:


  • I'm French.
  • I was studying in France, in order to become an engineer.
  • I was able to speak English at an intermediate level.
  • I could not speak any other language.
  • Thanks to the T.I.M.E. network, I had the opportunity to get a double-degree from any partner university.
  • Studying in an English-speaking university would have been the easy choice.
  • I wanted to get the most value out of this experience, so I decided to study at the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, and learn Spanish there.
  • I had a few months to learn Spanish in France, but I'm really bad at learning languages in a classroom.


  • I arrived in Madrid 2 weeks before starting my studies there, with a very basic vocabulary. I could count from uno to diez, and... that was about it.
  • I explicitly avoided hanging out with French students (not too easy in Spain), or with anyone speaking English decently (that was much easier, at least 15 years ago).
  • So basically, I tricked my brain into having to learn Spanish. I had to travel, find a flat, buy food, and get myself understood, all in Spanish. It was hard at first, but many people were really helpful and patient.
  • I spent as much time as possible with Spaniards, or people speaking Spanish well.
  • I had heavy, literal headaches at first, but they slowly disappeared after a month. I could then understand most of what people told me. To be fair, French & Spanish have many words in common.
  • After less than 2 months, I had no problem getting myself understood. Once again, I simply had no choice : lessons were all in Spanish, and I had 14 exams waiting for me at the end of the year.
  • After a year, I was basically fluent, and some people didn't notice I was a foreigner during a short conversation.
  • I studied with many Erasmus students : the difference is that they flew back right before the exams. They didn't have to pass anything, I had to pass all my exams or I would lose both my French & Spanish degrees.


  • With the same goal of tricking my brain into learning a language, I went to Berlin after my studies, and learned German there.
  • Many German people speak English well, and are prompt to switch to English. That's really nice of them, but I explicitly asked them to speak German to me, slowly.
  • I had the exact same headaches as in Spain, and they also disappeared after a month.
  • 1
    Were these literal headaches or metaphorical headaches? I think the two make for very different stories. Jun 12, 2021 at 23:01
  • 1
    @DanielHatton literal headaches. My brain had basically no downtime during the day, and was always trying to process something. I was completely exhausted at the end of each day. That was completely worth it, though. Jun 13, 2021 at 1:46
  • 1
    That sounds definitely plausible: when I was abroad I found it extremely tiring to have a prolonged conversation. It really surprised me; I never felt that tired from a purely mental activity before. I can easily imagine that somebody else would react to that with a headache. Jun 14, 2021 at 7:36
  • @MaartenBuis: Yes, and Madrid and Berlin are cities full of life. It was really hard to find quiet places, without any Spanish or German to listen to, even inadvertently. Jun 14, 2021 at 10:52

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