I am a PhD candidate in Teleinformatics Engineering and, during my academic career, I was required to learn English in order to write articles, communicate with partners around the world, read books, and so on. It has been a quite useful language. I suspect that it would not be mandatory to learn a third language, though. Some friend of mine learned a third language due to a situational case. After that, that knowledge seemed to become obsolete (I'm not sure, actually) since they came back to my country (Brazil).

I wonder whether learn a third language is really useful for scientific purpose in Engineering, or it is superfluous and it is better to concentrate on Mathematics only. If there is a third worthwhile language, what is it? I've heard that there are many books in German but, honestly, I've never needed to read anything written in German, it is always in English.

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    I came here expecting to hear about R, Python, C++, and Julia. Left disappointed. =P
    – Ian
    Dec 21, 2022 at 18:43
  • Also depends on which languages papers in your field are published in.
    – keshlam
    Dec 23, 2022 at 6:53
  • What part of the world are we talking about? The linguistic situation in Mongolian academia is probably quite different than that of the US.
    – cag51
    Dec 25, 2022 at 21:02
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – cag51
    Dec 26, 2022 at 17:11

9 Answers 9


There might be a lot of reasons to learn another language (love of poetry, say) but for purposes of work, I'd guess that it is probably a waste of time and effort to do so speculatively. After all, you might choose the wrong language and spend time and effort that might be better spent elsewhere.

If you have a need that can't be otherwise met, then yes, learn the other language. For example, auto translators seem to do a terrible job on math papers, not being able to deal with either the symbols or the specialized terminology. In other fields it is probably not so much of a problem.

And, I'll guess that translated poetry isn't very poetic in the result.

But don't let a "hobby" interfere with your mainline pursuits. There is no reason not to have a bit of fun in life, of course.

  • The most sensible answer. No doubts. Thank you for confirming my impression. Dec 24, 2022 at 0:50
  • Unless one is specifically into contemporary poetry, professional translations often exist. But, sure enough, the same work of art sounds different in different languages.
    – Lodinn
    Dec 26, 2022 at 7:39

I agree with EarlGrey's answer but have a few points to add. (Caveat: English is my fifth language.)

  1. The answer very much depends on the effort you need to make to learn the new language: if languages (or at least the specific language you intend to learn) come easily to you, the win/cost ratio is very good and you should go for it. If you had to make a huge effort to learn English, then you are in a very different situation.

  2. Beyond the advantages listed by EarlGrey, there can be subtle benefits to a third/nth language: it is easier to make connections and build your network. People often think of others who speak their language as more similar and likeable, it can start conversations. Obviously, speaking only English will not exclude you, but in my experience, other languages can make new opportunities appear.

  3. You do not need to be proficient for the benefits to appear: sometimes even being able to read an abstract or have a short conversation during a coffee break in a different language can be an asset.

+1 (this is personal and may not apply): for me, thinking is language-dependent: I think differently in different languages (because of the vocabulary, word associations, grammar, syntax, etc.), so I sometimes gain new insights and inventions when I translate ideas back-and-forth.


If you want to see it from the purely pragmatical point of view, there are few languages that are worthwhile because of the heavy investment in R&D from the respective cultural area: French, German, Spanish, Chinese (mandarin) or Japanese (no offense to the not mentioned ones, feel free to add in the comments).

Please note that Spanish (South America, Central America, Spain) is much more heterogeneous than let's say German (Germany, Austria, Switzerland).

If you learn one of these languages, you will realize how many technical and academic positions are available having prior knowledge of the language. Instead of competing with the "open to foreign applicants" excellent openings, you will be able to compete also with the "open to who can understand the language" very good openings. It is a fine balance between demand and offer. There are many more of such opening in Austria (offer larger than demand), with much less competition than similar positions in California (the demand is an issue: even if there are more openings, there are too many qualified potential candidates) or in Morocco (the offer is an issue: there may be few candidates, but openings are even less).

Of course then you can be perfectly proficient by relying only on "english knowledge", but you may end up in trouble when you have responsibility role and the language defining duties and rights is the 3rd language and no reliable informations can be obtained otherwise.

Final remark: please note that the discussion is quite abstract. although we are immersed in an English speaking world, it is very hard to learn English without an emotional bond. Learning the languages mentioned here above only on the basis of potential career: it is basically impossible. You need an emotional bond (for example, but not limited to: the country is hosting you as a refugee, your relevant other is mother tongue from one of the languages, you love the culture expressed by that region...)

  • I love German, but I am being rather pragmatic here. I am not up to learn German if it won't open possibilities in my career. That is the central point. You mentioned job opportunities once I get proficient in a third language. That is interesting since I didn't see motivations in my academic life so far, except the cases that you move out... Dec 21, 2022 at 16:03
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    @RubemPacelli : a new language can also be learned after you got a position in an industry and at a place you can see yourself staying long-term. Then, if your institution or company deals heavily with a specific other country, it can be worthwhile to learn that language in order to have better chances for advancing to higher positions within.
    – vsz
    Dec 22, 2022 at 13:29
  • "Spanish is more heterogeneous than German". I don't think so. Spanish is mutually inteligible all along the world which is often hardly true for German even within Germany.
    – Miguel
    Dec 23, 2022 at 7:50
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    @Miguel Apologies, I was unclear. I mean that the chances that Spanish languages open you are more heterogeneous: you may be in a country of extremes in South America or in a post-colonial country in Europe still having all the farces related to king & the chrony oligarchies related to the dictatorships (well, the last part is a common trend across Spain and South America, even portuguese-speaking Brazil). Swiss german is unintelligible for a german, but the swiss society and politics are (wrt to spanish cultural area) more homoegeneous.
    – EarlGrey
    Dec 23, 2022 at 9:08
  • @EarlGrey Ah... I see. Yes, with that view Spanish coul be extremely useful even in USA
    – Miguel
    Dec 23, 2022 at 9:46

In addition to the answers already given:

  1. Governments and universities may be keen to grow links with specific countries (e.g. China, as a lucrative source of students, or developing countries as a form of economic support). If you speak the relevant language(s) and are willing to invest time on networking and building the desired links, this can be an effective route to promotion and (one flavour of) career success.

  2. Certain research fields may benefit from knowledge of a specific language. For example, in many social sciences and humanities fields it may be helpful or even essential to be able to interact with people (and written sources) in their native language. More prosaically, with many telescopes being located in South America, it may be advantageous for an astronomer to learn Spanish in order to make visits easier and more productive (even if academic colleagues speak good English, one needs to interact with taxi drivers, hoteliers, facilities staff, etc.).

  • I see... Regarding you South America example, a more suitable country would be Brazil, which is a Portuguese-speaking country, btw... Dec 21, 2022 at 20:15
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    @RubemPacelli Well, I was thinking of Chile.
    – avid
    Dec 21, 2022 at 22:37

If you are semi-fluent (e.g. able to read paper abstracts) in German when you finish your doctorate, then you can apply to Germany, Austria, Switzerland plus parts of Belgium, Italy and Brazil for fellowships or non-academic research jobs.

It will be useful in getting stuff published in German-based academic journals.

A lot of your decision may depend on the extent of research compatible with your own interests in the aforementioned countries, as well as your own feeling about working and living in them.

Maybe you can find some PhDs or fellows in your current university that may be able to give you a better appreciation of work/life in those countries.

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    All students in STEM subjects have to get comfortable with using English for work anyway, at the latest when they need to read actual research papers for their bachelor thesis project. And it's certainly true that many tech companies value German skills, but many of those companies hire new people from abroad every couple of months, and it's understood that communication needs to happen in English. Dec 22, 2022 at 10:44
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    Mind, that's not to say learning German isn't important for somebody working in Germany; in fact IMO it's a shame that so many foreign researchers never bother. But it's most effective to learn in the country, where you have much more opportunity for practising. Dec 22, 2022 at 10:45
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    @leftaroundabout I'm one of those terrible immigrants who have failed to properly learn the language (so far). Honestly, if you move to an English speaking role in Germany, there isn't much opportunity to learn beyond restaurant/shop level. In order to effectively improve you need to develop a high enough level to usefully converse with people, otherwise you'll just speak English. Dec 22, 2022 at 10:59
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    @Trunk "All non-German Siemens graduate recruits spend a year mastering German communication." Siemens is an overly bureaucratic colossus, it may have many openings, but I am not sure you can extrapolate from that. I however agree on your point. German world usually requires german. Even if then you end up working in a team composed of international people and because of some particular candidates/employee you speak English.
    – EarlGrey
    Dec 22, 2022 at 12:14
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    @leftaroundabout reg. Switzerland "much of the country is Francophone": maybe in terms of (inhabitable) area, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_Switzerland#/media/… , surely not in terms of politics nor economics. You are however right in that the most international part (i.e. all the UN and associated bandwagon) is based in the french-speaking Geneva.
    – EarlGrey
    Dec 22, 2022 at 12:17

If you ever intend to move to another country earnestly (i.e. to actually live and work there for a significant time, not only for a few months or a year), I certainly do recommend to learn the language as well as possible. Definitely well beyond the level required in the coffee kitchen.

I work in a German IT company (but a subsidiary of a global concern), and we have a great many employees from abroad; both as employees locally, as well as frequent partners in mixed-shore projects. Yes, we use English wherever necessary, but at some point there always are situations where failing to have a rock solid grasp of the local language is difficult for all involved. In IT, with our skills shortage, it's not really an issue, but in an industrial sector with less splendid job chances, this might just be the tipping point where your favourite company takes the other applicant who may not be as great as you, technically, but who has a firm grasp of the language.

Regarding when to learn that language, I'd say as early as possible - so as soon as you know that there's a certain chance that it may happen. The effort you would put in should of course scale with the certainty of you ever needing to actually use it. But starting early means you'll be younger (everything is learned easier when you're young), have more time until you need it, and can learn with less pressure (which is very valuable). You might simply start viewing movies and reading books in the language; things like that.

If you just want to open up possibilities, you can also simply pick any language of a country you like for vacations - even just chatting with the locals can make a stay that much more enjoyable.

Finally - after 3 or 4 languages, learning even more seems to get easier and easier, as you can transfer knowledge from one to the other to some degree. So even if you don't actually need that additional language now or ever, if you ever should come into a dire situation where you must learn a further one, you might be very thankful.

All of this assumes that you find something, even if it's just a tiny aspect, that is somewhat interesting to you. Do not waste effort on learning something you're not interested in whatsoever - that would just be futile anyways.

  • Thank you for you contribution, but I am restricting it to academic career. Dec 24, 2022 at 0:46

It depends on how easy you find the language to learn, whether you have people around to help you, how much of a struggle it is and how much benefit you will get from it. If you find the language extremely easy to learn and it is beneficial to know it, I really see no excuse not to learn it.

If it is genuinely painful for you to try to speak the language and you genuinely don't enjoy learning it, I guess it's forgivable to skip learning it. For example, I studied Arabic as a third language to live in an Arabic-speaking country and did not find it that difficult, as my natural ability to pronounce it seems to be quite good. Also, learning Arabic wasn't that bad after studying both English and Spanish, as Arabic has a lot of sounds which transfer over quite nicely from those two languages.

Other people truly struggle to learn Arabic or find it impossible, and if it's not strictly necessary to use it at the university where a lot of staff are foreigners who don't speak much Arabic any way, then it's forgivable to not expend a lot of time and effort learning Arabic which could be put into research. I still know for sure that those people who do not learn must run into problems quite a lot when they travel around the country outside academia without knowing the language. I personally think the effort put into learning the language outweighs the problems which occur if you don't speak it.

I have put a lot of effort into learning Spanish in the past and I have to admit that it has not really had a big (or even any) impact at all on my scientific career, as an extremely small number of articles are written in Spanish and I don't even travel much to Spanish-speaking countries. The main benefit has been that I can read famous novels from those countries in the original language, listen to podcasts and radio shows in Spanish which offer different perspectives from those which I usually hear and that I have made good friends from those countries.


I am bilingual and have been using English as my main written language for 20+ years (not that it makes me a better speaker of English, but it hopefully adds specific vocabulary).

The main advantage I get from these languages is that I often know a word in one of them but forget it in the other(s) (having known it before). A quick trip to Google Translate resets my memory. Since GT is good but not excellent, checking both "Language_I_know_the_word_in_1Language_I_want_to_use_the_word_in" and "Language_I_know_the_word_in_2Language_I_want_to_use_the_word_in" sometimes helps to identify/recall the best match.

This works best when you actively use all of the languages, ideally in different contexts (professional, hobby, family, extended family, books, TV, ...). Your brain is then wired to some words in some languages and you can afford to temporarily forget them in others.

The key word here is actively (or proficiently). I also somehow speak two other languages I was forced to learn at school and, well, apart from helping me to buy bread (when I am lucky) it never really made any difference.


Recently on the job hunt as a manager \ Lead engineer. I got disqualified in one case because I didn't know Hindi and in another because I didn't know Spanish. So a conversational level of a language may help a lot later in your career. World's getting smaller by the day. Employers are looking world wide for talent and find it all over. The more languages you speak the more potential talent you can tap. The reign of English I fear is coming to an end. Might want to consider Mandarin.

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    Thank you for you contribution, but I am restricting it to academic career. Dec 22, 2022 at 0:28

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