Consider an international scholar X, fluent in English, who currently holds a postdoctoral position in science (say, in particular, the fundamental science: physics, chemistry, math or biology) in the US.

If X wants to apply for a tenure-tracked (junior or senior) faculty job in a country A outside the US, does acquiring fluency in the language of country A help in applying for a faculty position in the top ranking universities/institutions in that country?

I am mostly, but not exclusively interested in the situation in Europe.

The key point to ask is that suppose X is a highly qualified candidate in all aspects academically, would X be ruled out from the candidate short list due to the lack of fluency in the language of country A?

  • 1
    I don't understand what you mean by "native language capability". By definition of the word "native", you can't become a native speaker of a language if you aren't already (unless you are a baby). Do you mean "fluency equivalent to a native speaker"? Apr 18, 2017 at 22:47
  • yes, please help to adjust it to adequate.
    – wonderich
    Apr 18, 2017 at 22:49
  • Can you also take out the $ signs? They don't do anything to the formatting and just make it hard to read. If you insist on italics, use *A*. Apr 18, 2017 at 22:50
  • This question and a previous question academia.stackexchange.com/questions/88010 try to gather what factors matter for applying for a faculty position in a foreign country.
    – wonderich
    Apr 19, 2017 at 1:04
  • Why not learn a second language that is spoken in more than one country e.g. German? // FWIW, here in Wales I think there is preferential hiring of native Welsh speakers, or at least bilingual Welsh and English (i.e. it's very beneficial if you can speak Welsh) Apr 19, 2017 at 7:20

4 Answers 4


This is going to vary a bit from country to country, but I think on the whole, the answer is obviously yes. In most institutions in these countries, not only is teaching in the country's usual language, but so is the life of the department in most important respects. I spent 6 months in France as a visiting scholar at Paris 7, and had a fairly rudimentary command of French (enough to navigate life in France, but not good enough to carry on a conversation), and leaving aside teaching, most conversations in the department, and most academic talks were in French. In my situation, things were basically fine, but I could not have functioned as a staff member without improving my French very quickly.

France is something of a special case (though I suspect Spain, Italy, Poland, etc. would be similar). The Netherlands and Scandinavian countries are more used to expecting nobody speaks their language (and can expect greater English fluency from students), but even there, I'm sure knowing the language would be necessary for many positions, and a big advantage for the rest. If nothing else, it shows a commitment to being there which would be appreciated.

EDIT: You can also see examples of how this is dealt with by looking at job ads from the season that's winding down now (I'm going to use examples from MathJobs, since that's what I know; since that's a US-based site, it's going to be slanted toward ads looking to recruit English speakers). Some will make it clear that functioning in the local language is not a professional requirement or at least don't specify it is:

  1. https://www.mathjobs.org/jobs/jobs/10239
  2. https://www.mathjobs.org/jobs/jobs/9749
  3. https://www.mathjobs.org/jobs/jobs/10164
  4. https://www.mathjobs.org/jobs/jobs/10127

Some will specify that there is a transition period:

  1. https://www.mathjobs.org/jobs/jobs/10154

Some seem to expect that there already is language fluency:

  1. https://www.mathjobs.org/jobs/jobs/10004
  2. https://www.mathjobs.org/jobs/jobs/9973

That's actually more slanted toward English speakers than I expected, but of course, posting on MathJobs is a very biased sample, since it's mostly a North American site, and I think you only post there if you want recruit North Americans (that's including students or postdocs from abroad currently in North America). It's notable that from a lot of countries (Israel, for example) there are many postdoctoral positions on MathJobs that don't expect the ability to teach in Hebrew, but no permanent positions.

  • 1
    Even in Scandinavia many (or even most, depending on the university) undergrad courses are (required to be) taught in the native language. Since these are usually also the least desirable to teach for most researchers, I can imagine that an applicant with the proficiency to teach these courses has an advantage (though I have no idea how much of one). Apr 19, 2017 at 6:03
  • Good answer. I would add that in French speaking University in Canada (at least in the ones I know), the selected professor is given a certain number of time to learn French.
    – Emilie
    Apr 19, 2017 at 12:32

In France, teaching is almost universally in French, but the situation is dual since there are two kinds of starting faculty positions (both tenured, or more precisely under French civil servant status which is possibly more protective): maître de conférence (MC) and chargé de recherche (CR).

What follows applies for my field, mathematics, but should be true in some (probably not all) other fields.

For MC positions, in most places (including most large research universities) you are expected to speak French well enough to teach in French (without being too demanding on what that means), or you can be discarded altogether. However I have seen at least one exception, where someone with no teaching experience and a very limited ability in French was hired in one of the very top universities, on account of an extremely good research record. My guess is that his teaching duty must have been hard to fulfill.

For CR positions, your research record is all that matters (there is no teaching duty, these are research-only positions). Note that for foreigners with more than 4-6 years of postdoc, you are expected to (also) apply to CR1 positions which brings you at a slightly more advanced stage of the career.

Currently there is a scarcity of positions, and I would say that in math MC positions are very selective, and CR positions are extremely selective.

  • 1
    In France, and I have seen it more than 1 times, especially in Paris, they hire MdC and they give a period of 1-2 years to "master" the french language. The reason is that everything is being taught in french and French students have generally very low knowledge of English.
    – PsySp
    Apr 19, 2017 at 10:29
  • @PsySP: in what field(s) was your observation? What did the hired MC teach during those 1-2 years? Apr 19, 2017 at 12:14
  • It was in Applied Maths in a university in Paris. The 1st year did not teach anything. The 2nd they gave the MdC to teach the "most easy" course.
    – PsySp
    Apr 19, 2017 at 12:28
  • @PsySp: this seems most unusual to me: it is at odds with the status of the position, I don't even see how it was possible with a MC position. Apr 20, 2017 at 14:07
  • I am not sure what would be the problem. They had a great candidate and they did not want to loose that candidate for something that is fixable in a year. That MdC did a great job in learning the language and everyone was happy at the end. In the meetings they noted they would do their best to secure the candidate.
    – PsySp
    Apr 20, 2017 at 15:05

I knew and heard before, at least in the case of top universities of China, Hong-Kong and Taiwan, they recruit foreign academic professionals/professors (e.g. Italian, Japanese, American, German, etc) who cannot speak and cannot write nor read their native languages (Chinese mandarin or Cantonese), but those academic employees can do research, or may at least teach special courses/seminars in English.

Some of these Universities are: Tsinghua University, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Fudan University, National Taiwan University, etc.

  • I know this to be correct. But even then, there is at least an expectation that one, over a reasonable period of time, learn at least enough to participate in the department's life. Realistically, though, this will never be enough to write papers or grant proposals in Chinese, and that is also expected. Apr 19, 2017 at 3:31
  • I agree with @WolfgangBangerth. Yes, those universities recruit foreign academic professionals. I personally know some of them in Taiwan. But, please note that the OP is mentioning apply for a tenure-tracked (junior or senior) faculty job
    – Nobody
    Apr 19, 2017 at 7:33
  • I was talking about a full professor position. Apr 21, 2017 at 2:20

In Germany, I've never heard of a professor who didn't speak German at least on a decent level. There are no "research only" faculty jobs, and lectures (at least in undergraduate courses) are normally held in German.

  • Thanks +1, so in Germany, one cannot teach in English?
    – wonderich
    Apr 19, 2017 at 1:02
  • I think there may be some rare cases of study programs being held entirely in English, but in the large majority of all cases, no. Apr 19, 2017 at 1:40
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    I have. This is not true, especially for the top universities that the OP seems to be interested in.
    – xLeitix
    Apr 19, 2017 at 6:00
  • @xLeitix Interesting. In my subfield it's definitely true, but I've now checked some websites of top universities to see if it also applies to related subfields. And indeed, I found a few professors from non-German speaking countries who only give lectures in English. But these few professors seem to be the rock stars in their field anyways. Apr 19, 2017 at 10:09

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