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When I went to college, an old-schooled teacher of mine insisted that, because I was interested in chemistry, I needed to work on my German as it was the lingua franca of that trade. It turns out, there is absolutely no need to speak German anymore to be a successful researcher in chemistry.

I somewhat thought that, since at least two decades, English was the only language required to be a researcher in any field (excepting, maybe, literature). However, seeing this question made it apparent that some graduate programs still have requirements for other languages. How useful are they?

In a word: are there some fields where reading/writing/speaking a language other than English is necessary to perform research at an international level?

(Let's exclude fields related to literature and linguistics. Let's also forget about teaching, and focus the question on research.)

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    Was there ever a need to speak German in that trade? If you can read and write the lingua franca of your trade do you really need to speak the language? – emory Oct 17 '12 at 14:58
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    I was under the impression that most PhD language requirements focused entirely on reading skills. – emory Oct 17 '12 at 15:13
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    I've tried it. Google Translate works reasonably well for nontechnical text written in common modern European languages like French and German, but it's bloody awful at 17th century Latin. – JeffE Oct 18 '12 at 3:43
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    @KonradRudolph that would be Angewandte Chemie… the English edition has identical content to the German one, and according to Wikipedia that is the case since 1962. You can submit to this journal in English (as I have), and the publisher takes care of translation into German. You don't need to know a single word of German. – F'x Oct 18 '12 at 9:19
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    How broad/narrow are you defining a field? Are you interested in required or beneficial? For example, research projects in Film Studies can probably be done exclusively in English, but if you want to study French Cinema, French is going to be required. Assuming Film Studies is a field, is French necessary? – StrongBad Oct 19 '12 at 15:44
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Are there some fields where speaking a language other than English is necessary to perform research at an international level?

It depends on what you mean by "speaking" and "necessary". In mathematics, there is no need to speak any language but English and the language of the country you are working in, but there's a real benefit to being able to read other languages. It's not strictly necessary, and its importance varies between fields. In my case, I don't use other languages on a daily or even weekly basis, but probably read French on a monthly basis and German a little less frequently.

In my view, the reason for language exams isn't that these languages are required to be a researcher, but rather that they are helpful. The best argument I've heard for requiring language exams is as follows. Learning how to read mathematics in French or German is not very difficult, but it's still a burden if you just want to read one paper. Usually you can get around it by finding another exposition, finding someone to explain the paper to you, or just deciding the paper is not relevant enough to bother with. However, even though this is a rational solution to a one-time dilemma, it's a bad idea if you are going to be faced with these dilemmas repeatedly. At that point, you'll gain a lot in flexibility and convenience if you can read the papers you want to read. The purpose of language exams is to keep people from repeatedly making short-sighted choices.

I'd guess that language skills are more important in mathematics than in most scientific fields, because the mathematics literature has an enormously longer half-life. In my work, I frequently use and refer to papers that are 50 years old, and sometimes quite a bit more. These results have not always made it into textbooks, and even when they have the original papers sometimes contain valuable insights.

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    I understand that many good and important mathematical papers are still being published in French, including those by Canadian authors. – Joel Reyes Noche Oct 18 '12 at 0:58
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I'm going to cherry pick a bit.

In the area of robotics, the Japanese have one of the best journals and conferences (their journals were about 10%-20% acceptance rate about 3 years ago). Yet, many of those journals are written in Japanese. Here in Japan, students in robotics do not need to present their work at international conferences or journals, since they consider theirs good enough.

Many of the best robotics work in things like ICRA and IROS (from the Japanese) was presented in some form about 1-2 years ago.

That said, I do not think knowing Japanese is necessary for a successful tenure in robotics, but it certainly can help to have some competitive advantage.

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In my field (mathematical physics), it is certainly true that most research is published in English, although there certainly is a non-trivial amount published in French, for example. Although being able to read French might not be required in many institutions, it still is very useful. I expect that for the other sciences the picture is similar (for the humanities on the other hand, I expect it may be very different).

Another issue however that becomes more important when looking for tenure(d) (track) positions are the teaching requirements. In many countries almost all teaching is done in the native language, at least at the undergraduate level. So it is important that you will be able to teach in this language, or at least be willing to learn the language in the near future.

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    Some universities allow new-hired foreign professors to teach only English (graduate) classes for 1-2 years to let them learn the local language properly. That said, it takes quite some effort to go from 0 to "can give a lecture" in a new language in 1-2 years. – Federico Poloni Oct 17 '12 at 10:23
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+50

Let's exclude fields related to literature and linguistics.

I would say that in most Academic Departments you can find a research topics that can be done exclusively in English, but that in many departments you could also find topics that cannot be done exclusively with English. Even with Computer Science (e.g., speech recognition in a non-English language) and Biology (genetic mutation common in a foreign country where you need to collect samples) there are projects where a foreign languages is required. I would venture to say there are more departments where a foreign language could be critical than ones where it couldn't. I am hard pressed to think of a Chemistry or Pyshics research question that would require a foreign language.

Choosing the College of Arts and Sciences at UPenn as a random sample of research fields the following broad categories become apparent. There are language studies (e.g., French, Spanish, German), which to me do not fall into the literature category, where there is an obvious need for a foreign language. There are cultural studies (e.g., Asian Studies and Latin American Studies, but also things like Anthropology, Archeology, Art History) where you are likely required to live in a non-English speaking country for at least a while. I would expect language studies and cultural studies to have language requirements. Then there are research areas in which you may be studying a non-English speaking culture (e.g., Criminology, Economics, Environmental Studies), for which languages are essential for some individuals, but unlikely to be required for all. There are also art topics (e.g., Fine Arts, Cinema studies, Music) where your research topics may not be in English and foreign language skills may be required. There are "old" topics (e.g., History, Classics, and Folklore) where sources are unlikely to be in English so programs often have language exams.

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    If it can be "critical" to speak the language of a country from which you need DNA samples, then presumably it can be "critical" to speak the language of a country in which you're operating a telescope (e.g. Spanish for Chile) or to stretch a point where you're launching a micro-gravity chemistry experiment (I presume Russian rather than Kazakh for launch via Baikonur). I suppose a telescope is a large enough project to hire people to deal with the local authorities, whereas grabbing the local DNA might be for a very small project that's simply a no-go if the researcher can't do it? – Steve Jessop Aug 19 '14 at 22:13
  • @SteveJessop I think your examples are little bit of a stretch, but reasonable enough, and I would never have thought of them with my narrow view of chemistry and physics. – StrongBad Aug 20 '14 at 6:59
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I do research in chemical engineering. The journals one submits to depend on field. For the most part, work related to systems, simulation, optimization, etc., are published in English. I am pretty sure its that same way with health/biomedical/medicine type research, since a lot of that is funded by NSF and/or NIH.

The only foreign journal I've heard of anyone submitting to was Angewandte Chemie (I think that's German for Applied Chemistry). But, I do not think they submitted in German. Those people did research in the field of self-assembly and nano-scale systems.

I am pretty sure English is fine for publishing — but hey, a second language is always helpful to know, if you've got the time and commitment it takes to get fluent.

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    “a lot of that is funded by NSF and/or NIH”? Well, for sure I expect that US researchers publish in English, yeah… But the world is somewhat larger than that :) – F'x Oct 17 '12 at 13:19
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Let's approach this question from another direction: When is it ever a disadvantage to know more languages?

Every translation is already an interpretation and beyond mathematics I don't see any field where interpretation would not matter. In other words: You are always closer to the original meaning when reading a paper in its original language than when reading a translation of it.

I'm in philosophy and theology right now and it is for either a must to know English, German, French, Italian, Latin and Ancient Greek. The works of Plato, Nietzsche, Luther, Macchiavelli, Sueton, etc. are simply not the same anymore once you translate them.

As an academic you should never wonder why you should put any effort into learning something new - learning new things is your daily job! That's what you chose to do. Therefore the need to learn a new language should be seen as a chance. Expand your horizon!

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    When is it ever a disadvantage to know more languages? All the time and energy spent on learning a new language are not spent on doing something else. – user102 Sep 18 '14 at 11:58
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    It's like financial investments: You have to invest to earn. Sciolism is a particularly big problem in our area. E.g. somebody writes an article about what he thinks of certain Nietzschean thoughts based upon a translation. Then you have already two steps of interpretation: The translators and the article author's. Beside mathematics there is nothing really free from interpretations coloured by one's personal background. Cutting out as many of these interpretation steps as possible is of high importance and enhances outputs to an extent where it makes the initial efforts worth it. – Patric Hartmann Sep 18 '14 at 19:08
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It depends on the field.

My ongoing PhD work is in applied mathematics, where English is pretty much all you need. Sure, knowing some Russian, French and German can be useful, if you want to read various older seminal papers in their original form, but the actual results from those papers have usually been widely reproduced (often in a more modern and readable form) in textbooks written in English. For more modern research in my field, English is pretty much the universal choice of language, perhaps the only halfway significant contender being Chinese.

(In pure mathematics, the situation is somewhat different, partly due to the "longer half-life" of pure math papers noted by Anonymous Mathematician in their answer. Indeed, typically the non-English papers one occasionally encounters in applied math tend to be on the theoretical side.)

I'm also an amateur cryptographer, and within that field the dominance of English in academic writing is even more complete. This is partly due to historical reasons: the modern academic study of cryptography, as opposed to clandestine military research and occasional hobbyist dabbling, is a relatively new field, and emerged from applied mathematics and computer science at a time when especially the latter field was strongly dominated by the U.S. and other English-speaking countries. Basically, within crypto, the only thing you may need languages other than English for is historical (meta)research.

On the other hand, in the last few years I've also dabbled in the humanities, specifically in assyriology. Within that field, at least rudimentary knowledge of French and German is all but essential (some of the central reference works and dictionaries are written in those languages), and Latin isn't completely useless either. And of course, you also need to learn the ancient languages that you're studying (for me, that's Akkadian, some Sumerian and a bit of Hittite so far), and familiarity with their neighbors and (ancient or modern) relatives can be pretty useful, too.

So, yes, that's at least one field where knowing only English would be a significant impediment. I'm not saying it would completely prevent you from studying the field, but it does deprive you of access to some fairly useful sources and references. And besides, the general attitude in assyriology seems to be that a researcher should be polyglot as a matter of course. For example, the Reallexikon der Assyriologie (an important encyclopedia of the field) happily mixes together entries written in German, English and French, depending on each contributor's preferred language, and expects the reader to be able to make sense of any of them.

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    Ps. I noticed after writing this answer that you wanted to "exclude fields related to literature and linguistics." Still, even if you discount the fact that you (obviously) need to learn e.g. ancient Sumerian in order to study it, the point remains that you also really do want to know some French and German too (which, just to be clear, are no more related to Sumerian than English is) just to be able to understand modern academic papers and reference works written in those languages. – Ilmari Karonen Feb 21 '17 at 14:58

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