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Foreign Language Most Useful for Physics Major

  1. Aug 15, 2009 #1
    I will be entering University next month as a new freshman. Through AP testing, I already have 19 credits going in. For this reason, I no longer have to take some of the courses I was scheduled to take first semester. I am thinking of filling the open spaces with Psych 101 (social sciences requirement) and an intro foreign language course (which would help fulfill my foreign language requirement).

    *An important note- I plan on going for my grad degree in Physics

    My school requires that I study a language up to the intermediate level.

    So, I have 3 options:

    1) Complete 2 year-long course sequences in a language (4 courses)

    2) Complete 1 year-long course in reading French, reading German, or speaking Chinese

    3) Finish my study of Spanish (I studied it in high school) and take 1 year long course in that

    I am at a loss as to what I should do. Which of these options would be most useful to someone majoring in Physics? A few people have suggested German and this seemed like a good idea. Someone else told me that many grad schools require at least reading comprehension of a French, German, Spanish, or Chinese--is this true?

    My primary interest is getting into a great graduate program, but I am also interested in opening up my options for my career after getting my doctorate. Therefore, I am contemplating getting an internship abroad/ studying abroad in one of these countries. The possibility of going to a graduate school in a place like Germany has entered my mind.

    PLEASE let me know of any good ideas you might have!!

    Sorry for the length of this post :tongue:
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 15, 2009 #2
    My experience doing research in physics suggests that knowing a foreign language, while helpful, isn't terribly important. All of the papers I've ever read were written in English. Sometimes you'll get funny translations, I once read a paper in which the titled asked the question: "how transparent is really the universe?" But I've never had trouble as an English speaker.

    My guess is that German might be a good language to learn. I say this because my advisor, the other professor in my group, and many of the professors in my department, are Germans. There are also a lot of Chinese in physics, so learning Chinese might be helpful too. But again, personally I've always been fine just knowing English.
  4. Aug 15, 2009 #3
    If you are interested in using your physics degree (PhD, Masters, etc.) in government work, a family friend told me good information. They're looking very hard to find any students with science majors, mostly chemistry and physics, that speak arabic. If you fulfill these requirements, you're basically a shoo-in to get a great job with the CIA. I don't know if this is the direction you're looking, or if you're at all interested in learning arabic, but I just thought i'd pass that on. Good luck!
  5. Aug 15, 2009 #4
    Just to simplify the original post a bit--

    My question comes down to this: if you were a physics major and you HAD to learn a foreign language given the requirements in my post above (i.e. French, German, Chinese, and Spanish would take half the time to do relative to any other language), which language would you choose?


    Huh, that's comes completely unexpected to me. Why is arabic such a prized language in the government?
  6. Aug 15, 2009 #5
    I think it's mainly that the language is so rare for an English-speaking scientist, then the addition of all of the events occuring in the middle east with oil competition and nuclear 'arms races' if you will, that it'd help them greatly to have fluent Arabic speaking scientists. I found it really interesting!
  7. Aug 16, 2009 #6


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    I'm doing a PhD in physics, and German and Spanish would have been the most useful for me to have studied (unfortunately, I took Russian - mostly for fun, because like some people said, I didn't think any other language was really necessary). I'm spending a few months a year now in South America at major observatories (doing observational astrophysics) and at least a month a year in Germany (doing the same). If you want to do particle physics, French might be the best way to go (CERN, LHC and all that).
  8. Aug 16, 2009 #7


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    There is no answer to that question. You do not need to learn e.g. German in order to be able to work as a physicist for a while in Germany (e.g as a post-doc); and since nowadays all papers (with the exception of some internal reports etc) are written in English there is no need to learn another language for that reason either.
    That said, knowing the local language will of course make you life OUTSIDE of work easier if you move to another country; but unless you already know that you will eventually work in e.g. Germany it is impossible to say which is the "best" language to learn.

    Just think of it this way: Most scientist from non-English speaking countries learn ONE foreign language well: English. The reason is that English is by far the most important language in physics (and science in general), regardless of where you work.
  9. Aug 16, 2009 #8

    That makes a lot of sense. I may never even put the language to great use even if I work in that country, given that most scientists know English.

    I guess I should just focus on picking a language that could be useful, i.e. not something bizarre like Egyptian.

    German, French, and Spanish seem like the best options
    Last edited: Aug 16, 2009
  10. Aug 17, 2009 #9
    :rolleyes: that would be arabic - after spanish the fifth most common spoken language
  11. Aug 17, 2009 #10
    I wasn't thinking of Arabic when I said Egyptian...I actually didn't realize that Arabic was the language there...admittedly very foolish of me.

    The only reason I didn't list Arabic as one of the more viable options was because I am more interested in either working for a private institution or a research university, i.e. not the CIA or similar gov't organization where Arabic WOULD be incredibly useful.
  12. Aug 17, 2009 #11

    Chinese universities are on the cusp of being competitive with US schools. Very soon schools like Tsinghua will have a better reputation than some of the US state universities.

    Currently Chinese journals are mostly printed in English. As the Chinese universities rise in prominence, I anticipate seeing many of these switch to Mandarin.
  13. Aug 18, 2009 #12
    hi there
    could anybody tell me whats wrong in this sentence? :)
    (im not a native english speaker)

    thank you
  14. Aug 18, 2009 #13
    The word "really" is an adverb that modifies "is". Normally we put the adverb either

    (1) In start of the sentence:

    "Really, how transparent is the universe?"

    (2) Between the subject and the verb:

    "The universe really is transparent."

    In the given example, because the subject and verb have reverse order, I don't know how to apply this. I can say that what is written is wrong because it is attaching "really" to "the universe" instead of "is transparent".

    (3) At the end of the sentence:

    "How transparent is the universe really?"


    The truth of the matter is, that the word "really" should be left out of science writing. A statement "How transparent is the universe?" has a clear meaning. "How transparent is the universe really?" carries with it nuances that are meaningful to native speakers, but not to most others.
  15. Aug 19, 2009 #14
  16. Aug 20, 2009 #15
    I'm bilingual - Polish and English - but when I do math and physics, if I need to show my parents something, it's amazing that even though I know almost no math or physics vocabulary in Polish, we can understand eachother through the math I write or the physics diagrams I draw. The beauty of math is that it is a language in itself!
    If I HAD to learn any other language in order to better my hypothetical career as a mathematician, it would be Mandarin, and traditional Chinese writing. But also German, and since I already know Polish, I'd continue that, and school teaches me French so I'd learn that too.
    .... <_<;; I want to learn every language..
  17. Apr 4, 2010 #16
    I'm not questioning this part, but how exactly do you know there are many Chinese in physics? I wish to know so I can decide if it's worth learning Chinese with my physics major. Thanks.
  18. Apr 4, 2010 #17
    Wow, I hope this will be true. How did you conclude/predict this? If you looked at articles/statistics, then I might be able to find out if chinese is useful to learn to become a physicist working on future nuclear fusion projects. (I'm english-speaking.) Thanks.
  19. Apr 4, 2010 #18
    I've read that the Chinese are gaining ground as far as the percentage of published physics-related articles is concerned, as well. And I guess the sheer population is a strong indicator that there's bound to be a hell of a lot Chinese doing Physics.
  20. Apr 5, 2010 #19
    Actually out of the choices, Spanish is the LEAST helpful.

    Chinese is the most spoken language in the world, English is second.

    But I am still going have to go with French or German on this one.

    Don't get discouraged by Chinese, last year's Nobel Prize Winner was a Chinese guy.
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