One requirement in academia, especially as an early career scientist, is the the willingness to study or work in different countries.

Personal motivation for the question: Apart from the professional side (having a job, developing as a researcher,...), the positive aspects of going abroad are clear to me: I really enjoy getting to know new countries, their mentality, culture, nature, etc. It is also a great opportunity to meet new people and make new friends. But on the downside: I only speak English and German, and I’m really bad at learning new languages, I might add. Also, I’ve seen a lot of non-German speaking colleagues struggle with learning German at my home University for years (and I assume that a lot of people in academia must have the same problem).

I’m currently in the third year of my PhD and doing a medium-term research stay in Norway. Not understanding most of what is said around me makes everyday life more difficult and also somewhat more lonely (even though most people do speak English in Norway, so I am able to get by). Moreover, I feel that I really miss out by not learning the language while I’m here. But for my job it is not required to know the language, which makes it not immediately necessary.

Thinking about PostDoc options for after my PhD, I don’t want to limit myself to only English/German speaking countries. However, I hesitate to take a longer position, knowing that I might not be able/willing to learn the language. Knowing that I will always force people around me to either be impolite or to not speak in their native language.

If an academic doesn't learn languages easily apply only to jobs in countries where s/he already speaks the local language?

I’m specifically posting this here as opposed to some language forum. I’m interested in how other people in a similar position deal with this situation. I'm aware that it is in theory of course possible to learn every language but I'm interested in in opinions and experiences from real life.

  • 11
    Is this not, in essence, a boat question? There is a massive amount of information about learning new languages available through a cursory Google search. Fortunately for you, the work needed to learn a new language can easily be divided into many small chunks, so that you can do it whenever you want and can (e.g. commute, lunch break, right before bed). As for tools, have a look at Anki, I think it is great for memorising words and whatnot. Commented May 8, 2017 at 14:27
  • At many universities they offer a broad selection of language classes. Maybe you can join one so you can have (1) an actual teacher, (2) fixed dates to practice and get feedback and maybe (3) other students to help you practice outside of classes. If you put in some extra effort using apps, books, etc. this will give you a pretty solid start within a semester.
    – asquared
    Commented May 8, 2017 at 14:33
  • I am facing the same situation, I am doing my PhD and just started learning German, although it's not required for the job but everyone around me is always talking in German and it makes me feel left out and lonely. I am finding it quite difficult to learn it at the moment since I am learning all by myself. I did go to a German language course for beginners but it was being taught in German so I could not understand or learn anything. I was in Norway for a few months so really didn't need to learn the language apart from some basics like ha det bra!!
    – Das
    Commented May 8, 2017 at 17:07
  • 6
    I’m voting to close this question as off-topic because it is not specific to academia. Either narrow it down to ask for possible solutions that are exclusive to academia or ask (more specific questions) on sites dedicated to this, such as Language Learning.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented May 8, 2017 at 19:44
  • 1
    @StrongBad - I've been both and it's not the same. But if the question needs more work to reopen please feel free to help fix it! Commented May 9, 2017 at 19:55

2 Answers 2


Learning a language is a lot of work, particularly if it is not that similar to languages you already know. So it's not an endeavour to undertake just because you might get a job somewhere later. You need real motivation to learn a language properly. The main reasons I see for an academic to learn a language properly are: because you enjoy learning languages, because you plan to spend a lot of time in a place it will be useful, or because you need it for your academic work.

If you are serious, in academia there are resources that may be easily accessible to you. The main ones are:

  • take/audit language classes at your university before going there

  • take language classes for foreigners at your destination university

Universities get a lot of foreign visitors, and depending on the university, they may have other support besides their own language classes.

I did a 1-year postdoc in Japan, and one piece of advice I got from someone who was doing a postdoc there before me was start learning Japanese as soon as possible. So I studied Japanese for about a year beforehand both by taking university classes in the US, as well as some extra studying on my own. I also took lessons in Japan, as well as studied on my own. While my Japanese is still far from a native level, after a couple months in Japan, I could handle most non-technical communications on my own in Japanese.

I do want to stress this requires real effort on your part, and it's hard if you don't really enjoy it or aren't serious about it. I met several foreigners there who just attempted to learn Japanese by osmosis and maybe some small efforts on their own, and even if they had been their many years, they couldn't have a real conversation in Japanese.


I had a similar situation back when I was a post-doc from America in the Netherlands. All of the science was done in English, all the talk at coffee was in Dutch. After a few months settling in to the work side, I went to my boss and asked for two weeks off to take an immersion course in Dutch at a local Dutch language institute. I followed that up with several night courses at the same institute. Coupled with making sure I spoke Dutch during coffee, reading a Dutch newspaper every day, and reading general book in Dutch, after a year or so I was pretty fluent. The trick is, of course, that you have to work hard at it. Fortunately, the language and my science were different enough that one would be a break from the other.

Now, twenty-odd years later back in America, my Dutch is pretty rusty. But, I still think it was well worth the time and effort to integrate in while I was there. (Note the biggest problem was getting many Dutch to speak Dutch with me - they could tell I spoke English from my accent, and wanted to speak in English with me to practice their English. It led to some interesting conversations where each side spoke the other's language.)

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