For example, Let's say an American person wants to attend a French university F. F explicitly states that French is the main language of instruction. Why would they require the student to take a language proficiency test for admission? Any prospective student should be aware that he or she has to know French in order to follow the lectures or when taking oral/written exams. Why don't they simply trust the student? And when he or she thinks to attend even without knowing one single French word, then it's his or her own fault. (And it doesn't even matter if it is undergraduate or graduate school)

There are 4 spoken languages in Switzerland (mainly German, French and Italian) and all Swiss students can take an exchange semester at another Swiss university. Swiss universities don't require for example a French-speaking person to show German language proficiency, if he or she wants to attend a German-speaking university. They explicitly state that it's in a student's own responsibility to know German (in this case)

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Feb 2 '17 at 9:09
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    Why do they require them to have good grades in supporting subjects from school/college? If the student thinks they are good enough to do the course, and turn out to be ill-equipped it's their own fault. Right? – Tom Bowen Feb 2 '17 at 14:36
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    It's not a full answer in its own right, but one reason my institution insists on this is that a lot of the work involves high containment pathogens and if someone misunderstands a protocol or risk assessment they're putting lives at risk. So there are health & safety considerations (and legal liability issues) with taking students/staff with poor English language skills. – arboviral Feb 2 '17 at 14:54
  • Courses have limited places. An institution wouldn't want to turn away fluent French speakers (who would benefit from the course) only to realise those who had enrolled were struggling and not getting the full benefit. – TripeHound Feb 2 '17 at 15:33
  • Incidentally, as universities (as least some here in Canada) become more profit-driven and business-oriented, these proficiency tests become less and less reliable. The one I went to benefited a lot from raising international students' tuition fees (more than enough to make up for lacking gov't subsidies for those students). Many classes had ESL students who had been led to believe that their English was good enough for university material by the university due to passing a proficiency test, but they were severely unprepared and it showed in class. Their education suffered. – Luke Sawczak Mar 29 '17 at 3:20

10 Answers 10


The short answer is that when people want something, they often experience cognitive distortions that prevents entirely accurate assessments. Dunning-Kruger is a good example of one of these effects, where a student thinks, "Oh, I'd love to study in Paris - and lots of people speak French, so I'm sure I could pick it up!" Learning a new language to a college-level of proficiency in reading, writing, and speaking is incredibly challenging, yet some people inevitably misjudge this.

Sure, the student would eventually figure this out and face the consequences, but in the mean time there are lots of reasons the institution wants no part in such a situation. For one, it's sad - a student will struggle, feel isolated, and most people end up blaming others for their situation and don't take complete responsibility ("why did they let me in if they knew it wouldn't work?!"), so it can be really unpleasant. I saw a student from China try to make it in English-only classes, and I couldn't make out if he even understood more than a few words in English - he only ever nodded, looked confused, and looked back down at his paper. It was just sad to see, and I can't imagine how this was helpful to him - the only way he could succeed was to have an interpreter (he didn't have one), or cheat, and that's just a terrible situation to be in.

Most institutions also have various statistics like drop-out and graduation rates, as compiled by an office like Institutional Research, often reported to the government (for "public" institutions, and others who take government money). Institutions have a lot to lose for regularly taking on students they have a very good reason to think will fail in their program, or will require disproportionately high resources to support. So they want to try to avoid such situations, when possible. Finally, positions in a class/program/institution are often limited, and accepting one student can mean necessarily rejecting some other student, which makes administrators even more keen to be careful of offering a spot to a student unlikely to succeed.

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    Just to add on, there are also two sides to the Dunning-Kruger effect; just like you might have some students that overestimate their abilities, you might have someone who can speak French at a more than sufficient level, but who is also keenly aware of their incomplete knowledge of all idioms, domain-specific vocabulary, etc, and therefore underestimate their ability. Regardless of direction, the take away is that self reports are unreliable. – Bryan Krause Jan 31 '17 at 21:14
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    Re "...lots of people speak French, so I'm sure I could pick it up!", the flip side of this is that once people realize you're American, they use you to practice their English, which is why I can read French pretty well, but can't speak it :-( – jamesqf Jan 31 '17 at 23:10
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    I remember proofreading a few papers written by foreign peer students, some of which were barely comprehensible. Surprisingly, not a single student failed that class, which indicates that a lack of language proficiency may also lead to the course instructors lowering their standards rather than increasing the drop-out rate. – helios35 Feb 1 '17 at 15:07
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    @BryanKrause, although you've accurately summarized the Dunning-Kruger effect as it's defined, I believe a slightly modified statement would be much more accurate: Self-reports are unreliable for use by others in making their decisions. – Wildcard Feb 2 '17 at 21:56
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    @Wildcard Yes, since the topic is why universities require demonstration of language proficiency, my statement was shorthand for "Universities cannot rely on the self-reported language competency of applicants when deciding whether their language skills are sufficient to complete the required coursework." – Bryan Krause Feb 2 '17 at 22:09

A language proficiency requirement is no different from any other proficiency requirement. Universities will typically ask you to prove your subject proficiency through grade boundaries in lower qualifications and require you to present proof of this rather than simply accepting any student who thinks they are good enough.

The reason for this is simple: it is difficult to effectively teach a class to students who do not meet consistent expected levels of competency. The absence of enforced standards means that there will be am increased number of people in the class who do not meet the required level of competency and thus effective teaching will be limited.


The accepted answer is good but from an analytical point of view a large language barrier is very bad for any university. You want a student's grades to reflect the area that they are studying, not their basic language ability.

I went to a US school that had an open program with Spain. Some of the students that came over had great English skills. But the ones that didn't either did really poor or were given (way too much) leeway in courses. I remember reading some of my roommates papers that he would get a low B or a C and I was like "what the hell!" I mean just jumbled English to the point where you weren't even sure what point he was making.

Now he was a smart guy. But in these same classes I would get a paper back with markings for super minor grammatical edits, to the point where the teacher is asking for a different like word. So the language barrier has a huge impact on any class unless it is pure mathemtatics/programming and even in those fields you could mistake a questions point.

So simply a university wants to measure how a student did going through their courses. They cannot accurately do this if that person can't convey the language correctly. And on the opposite side of this the university doesn't want to flunk out smart students that actually know the subject matter because they can't express it right.

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    "So the language barrier has a huge impact on any class unless it is pure mathemtatics/programming" I daresay language is potentially more important in maths and programming given the wide range of very specific technical jargon involved. Determinants, matrices, functions, Interfaces, inheritance, composition etc. In fact, programming is arguably all about languages (even if most are context-insensitive languages). – Pharap Jan 31 '17 at 23:07
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    Are you assuming programming courses are graded by code produced and not by accompanying essays? My point is that maths and programming courses should theoretically be harder for someone with a language barrier because of the very specific terminology and highly abstract concepts involved - i.e. I fail to see how such subjects should be impacted less by the language barrier than other subjects. – Pharap Feb 1 '17 at 2:47
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    Concerning mathematics, graduate students in that department often have to teach, making speaking and listening to English well important skills for such graduate students outside of the classes they themselves take. – KCd Feb 1 '17 at 7:19
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    @Pharap The domain specific part of the language is not tested in IELTS/TOEFL that are usually used for students to prove English language skills, and the domain specific part of the language is often similar between English and at least the Latin-based languages. – gerrit Feb 1 '17 at 10:54
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    @Pharap Technical vocabulary is often similar between English and other languages (at least, European languages). I speak only basic French and very basic German but I occasionally need to read mathematics written in those languages. What trips me up is the simple, ordinary words that any competent speaker of non-mathematical French/German would know; the technical terms are usually completely obvious. – David Richerby Feb 2 '17 at 10:46

Education is more than just a degree, and university education has a social component that is enriched by engaging students in team projects, discussion-based classes (including presentation) and through respectful exchanges of ideas rooted in different traditions.

None of these important objectives can be achieved in a classroom where students cannot easily communicate.


This is an edge case, but there is at least one field of study where English language proficiency is mandated by law: aviation.

In the United States, for example, an individual must demonstrate that they can read, write, speak, and understand the English language before they are allowed to become a student pilot. This applies to students both at flight schools and at universities which grant degrees in aviation.

The International Civil Aviation Organization requires the same for pilots who operate internationally.

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    As both a pilot and someone who possesses a graduate degree (in Comp Sci,) I'd actually say understanding English well is even more important for a graduate student doing research than it is for a pilot. In aviation, there's a relatively standard phraseology (though some situations can require deviating from it somewhat.) No such luck in academia. You need to be able to read and write English well to succeed in a research-based graduate program. Passable English will usually do for a pilot. – reirab Feb 2 '17 at 5:10

Language proficiency is often an immigration requirement (for example, it is in the UK). Governments that want to be "tough on immigration" want to prevent people entering the country claiming to be students when, actually, they have no intention to study and just want to live and work in the country. Since any legitimate student who is going to fully benefit from their course will need to be fairly fluent in the language it's taught in, governments introduce language proficiency as a formal requirement for granting a student visa. This makes fraudulent visa applications more difficult but shouldn't have much of an effect on genuine students who are going to get good grades.

  • "any legitimate student who is going to fully benefit from their course will need to be fairly fluent in the language it's taught in" <-- That's what universities require it. That immigration can also use it is more of just a convenient side effect. – reirab Feb 2 '17 at 15:47
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    @reirab But universities also require it because courses are typically oversubscribed and they don't want to offer places to people who can't study at the university because they can't get a visa. – David Richerby Feb 2 '17 at 15:57

If classes will require that the student will be writing papers, as they tend to do, the ability to write acceptably well in the target language is a prerequisite skill.

My wife already had a degree in China, but when enrolling in some classes here in the US she took ascessments and found that she couldn’t write. By that I mean that how to organize an essay or even a paragraph was not taught at all where she’s from: emphasis was placed in reading what the experts wrote, not on writing. Meanwhile, here this is taught in high school.

It was under the general umbrella of English requirements. But the needed prerequisite classes were not ESL or vocabulary building or “basic proficiency”, but rather indicated a “composition” class.

So, having a degree in a different school system can’t be assumed to give all the needed skills that are taught earlier in this system. Even if that’s the only thing they wanted to test for (because it happens!) it would also diagnose if the person can’t read and comprehend college-level writing fast enough. So, add a few vocabulary questions and you’re set to “place” in the needed class if the results are less than satisfactory.


A very practical reason for requiring language proficiency in the US at the PhD level is that in many universities, funding is provided in the form of teaching assistantships. In order to be a TA, you need to proficient in English.


One line of thinking….

  • Often universities are paid a lot more for taking oversees students (they are in the UK)
  • Universities will therefore spend a lot of money on marketing to possible oversees students.
  • There are publications that list the degree grade that oversees students get from each university.
  • I think it is common for Chinese students to avoid any university that does not give 1st to most Chinese students. (Therefore Universities have to show they are not lowing standards for Chinese students to keep their local students happy. Often the Universities are not very convincing.)
  • Universities only wish to take oversees students that are likely to get a good degree; otherwise it is bad for marketing.

This is speculative and would of course vary from country to country.

If you are not a US citizen or legal permanent resident (i.e., green card colder) and you want to study at a US university, then you will need a student visa. The same is true for most other countries.

When you go to the embassy to get your visa you will probably have to show language proficiency.

I suspect the reason universities require international students show language proficiency is because of student visas.

  • It really has nothing to do with getting a visa. A translator can be used for that. It has to do with the fact that you will fail miserably if you don't understand the language in which your courses are being taught and in which you will be expected to both read and compose research papers on complex topics. – reirab Feb 2 '17 at 5:11
  • Visas are often obtained by agencies, not by the student, in which case the student never even goes to an embassy. – bubba Feb 2 '17 at 5:58
  • @bubba A personal interview is typically required for US visas. An agency can help prepare your application for a fee if you want one, but they can't be interviewed on your behalf. – Zach Lipton Feb 2 '17 at 8:11
  • @reirab For a US student visa, you will need to bring "Original TOEFL scores and SAT, GRE, GMAT scores (as applicable)." – emory Feb 2 '17 at 9:29
  • @emory That's presumably in order to show evidence that you actually do meet the admissions standards of the university into which you claim to be enrolling. Otherwise they wouldn't also require the GRE scores, etc. – reirab Feb 2 '17 at 15:44

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