Is it common for universities to admit graduate students who speak the language of instruction but not the local language? For instance,the program might be taught in French, but everyone in the community speaks Arabic on a daily basis. This question is sort of the opposite of this post.

For context, I am a foreign researcher living in a house with some other foreign students including "Bob", a recent arrival who does not know a single word of the local language. Bob's program is taught in English, but almost no one (including most people at the university) speaks English here, and knowing the local language is essential to pretty much every interaction and task you could think of. Due to this language barrier, Bob is basically nonfunctional without the help of me or the other English speaking student at our house.

Our university requires proof of local language proficiency for international undergraduate students and graduate students whose programs are taught in the local language. However, they did not require any proof of proficiency in Bob's case or even suggest local language training.

So, is this sort of situation common? Do universities assume that a graduate student in Bob's situation would take the initiative and start learning the local language before arriving?

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    I don't know what the university assumes, but when I moved to the Netherlands for a post-doc I started learning the language as best I could before moving, then took intensive language courses while there. Bob is missing out on a golden opportunity to learn a new language.
    – Jon Custer
    Jun 2, 2022 at 18:35
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    The question is very specific to the country and the locality. For example, I studied for five years in Indian Institute of Science, which is in Bengaluru, Karnataka. Bengaluru being a metropolitan city, I managed with English and Hindi, without ever requiring to learn the local language, Kannada. Whereas, if one studies in a small town in India, it may be essential to learn the local language to get non-academic things done (e.g., to buy things from a grocery store). Usually, all the major universities will accept any student who can speak English. Jun 2, 2022 at 18:39
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    I'm afraid that adding arbitrary admission requirements that have nothing to do with the study program would be seen as discriminatory at least here in the EU. Trying to regulate Bob's life outside of school could perhaps be reasonable for a secondary school student. However, a graduate student is presumably an adult, so why should the university care how they get their groceries? Bob is fully capable of deciding between learning the language, hiring an interpreter, or having all his groceries shipped in from overseas.
    – TooTea
    Jun 3, 2022 at 11:19
  • @TooTea - Shipping all groceries in from overseas or hiring an interpreter to do everyday tasks may be an option if Bob is wealthy. Those costs would be significant (probably tens of thousands of US dollars per year, although the interpreter fee could vary significantly depending on the country).
    – Obie 2.0
    Jun 4, 2022 at 19:08
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    @Obie2.0 Exactly, so choosing between the three options I listed should be easy enough for the average adult without requiring any hand-holding from the university.
    – TooTea
    Jun 4, 2022 at 19:41

3 Answers 3


From what I have seen in different places at least throughout Europe, the standard is indeed that the only language requirements are those for the language of instruction. However if the program is offered e.g. in English then at least everything directly related to it can normally be done in English as well. Even if there is some ancient part of university bureaucracy that is not able to do so, there is usually some department for international students to counter that. There is also commonly some way of taking language classes before or parallel to the program and a recommendation to do so.

That being said, the general idea is that everything else is your private problem and while sometimes that could be said a bit more directly, I think a university student should also be mature enough to realize that living in a foreign country without knowing the local language can be hard.

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    This is the right answer. It's not the university's business to tell someone that living in a place can be hard if they don't speak the local language. Besides, it might also be interesting: I've spent several months of my life (over many trips) in East Asia without speaking any of the languages, and I've always enjoyed myself tremendously. If I were to live there, I would want to learn the local language, but I wouldn't consider that a prerequisite to moving there. Jun 3, 2022 at 16:09

Yes, it's common. Graduate students generally need to know English because that's the language of academia, but the local language is not necessary even if it is highly advantageous. Source: personal experience and also the fact that student exchange programs exist.

On the other hand, going to a foreign country without knowing the language is risky, as Bob is discovering. So to actually go to the foreign country and to not attempt to learn the language is not common. It's more common to at least try to learn something.

That said, it's easier to manage a lack of language skills in the modern world with Google Translate. For example, I know someone who went to Japan and relied on Google Translate to communicate with the locals.

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    +1 for "more common to at least try to learn something", maybe you could go further and say "more sensible". I know about 500 words of the local language, which is really not a lot, but with some creative use it's enough to communicate quite a diversity of things. Things like colours, numbers and basic nouns are a good idea. People are very tollarent of my limited vocabulary, if anything they find the attempt rephrase things with limited words amusing. A minimal set of words is a really good idea.
    – Clumsy cat
    Jun 3, 2022 at 8:22
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    I definitely think your mileage may vary. My Norwegian physics class had a few foreign students. The professor's English wasn't strong, so he said he'd do it in Norwegian and explain in English along the way. He spent an hour explaining and writing out the Laplace transform, realized he neglected the foreign students, looked at them, pointed to the formula, and in English said "Integral." He then did the remaining hour in Norwegian. I never saw the foreign students in that class again. Jun 3, 2022 at 17:19

As others have stated, universities will frequently accept students who don't speak the local language (at least, I've seen this in much of Europe).

What I'll add is that there may be some requirements for graduation that require the local language in some way. In the Netherlands (at least at the University of Amsterdam), your PhD dissertation must have an Dutch-language abstract. (I believe the dissertation itself can be written in either English or Dutch; almost everyone I knew wrote in English.)

Of course, by the end of your PhD, hopefully you've either learned the local language or found someone who can help you translate the abstract!

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    Indeed, I think most Dutch universities require an abstract in Dutch. I've translated one for a fellow PhD student from Italy. However, at least in mathematics (and I think all STEM fields), literally all PhD theses are written in English. Jun 4, 2022 at 13:39

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