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Languages for Engineering - unsure what to study

  1. Jun 2, 2012 #1
    I am being offered subsidised language courses with my BEng Mechanical Engineering including a free first year, and need to decide soon what language I want to study.

    I can choose from French, Spanish, German, Arabic and Mandarin Chinese.

    I am female and live in the UK, though I am very much open to working in other countries when I am qualified.

    I studied French and Latin at school, and my French is ok-ish (spoken) but I still struggle with the grammar if producing written French, though it's still my best language by far.

    The thing is that I want something useful for work as well - a friend who is an engineer said they did German but barely used it as most of the Germans they met professionally spoke better English than they did German anyway.

    I have no idea if my sex would mean Arabic would be more limiting, or if I should build on my French and try to get it to a higher level. And then I've been told that grammar-wise Chinese is fairly easy, but is any level of Chinese likely to impress an employer?

  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 2, 2012 #2


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    Hey sketch and welcome to the forums.

    I guess my question for you boils down to what you would like to use the language for if you did end up pursuing it?

    Languages are good for professional and career reasons if you choose this route, and if you decide to either work overseas or end up having to either travel or meet international clients, then this would be of great benefit.

    If you decided to learn it just so you could read textbooks, journals, and other material written in other languages, then this too would be a good reason and provide benefit in this way.

    If you wanted to learn it for the sake of learning it, then nothing wrong with that as well. You might be interested in a particular country, it's culture, maybe it's music, movies, TV shows, current affairs and so on and learning a language would help you also be able to understand these kinds of things and also communicate to other people who speak this language.

    If you are interested in going into a business role later on, especially in a company that either does business in other parts of the world with a significant language other than your own native one, or that has subsidiaries or a HQ in another part of the world (i.e. a multi-national), then this is definately something to think about.

    The thing is that if you are doing business in another culture, then speaking the language, knowing the customs, and understanding the culture plays a very big role and becomes a huge asset.

    Engineering and other non-technical advances on top of this are not uncommon, so the idea of getting into a situation like the above is not a far-fetched one.

    In terms of using it for work purposes (based on this emphasis in your post), I would think about the industry you would like to work for, and also any further specializations that help you define the areas of interest if it is particular to that industry and other details.

    But even then it's not a good idea to only do it for this reason if you don't have a major interest since you will burn out.
  4. Jun 2, 2012 #3
    For the most "useful" language in engineering, that would probably be Mandarin.

    But as chiro said, choose the language that interests you the most. Mandarin might be good but you will hate it the entire time if you don't have a genuine interest in it. Learning to read/write/speak it is going to be difficult if you don't have experience with those characters and a tonal language. If you are genuinely interested in China and Chinese culture, then take Mandarin. If you aren't, then don't and choose the language you like the most.

    Choosing a less "useful" language and getting straight A's is better than getting less than A's.
  5. Jun 2, 2012 #4


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    While it is certainly true that most Germans speak much better English than foreigners speak German, if you are also looking for social events, then knowing German would be very helpful. For example, if visiting a German company and going out with the employees etc. The reason for this is that Germans have a strong tendency to speak to other Germans in German, even if people are around which cannot understand it[1]. This might easily get you excluded from conversations, because you just lose track of what is going on. However, the important part here is understanding German, not being able to speak it. If you end up in such a conversation and say a sentence in English, everyone will just switch back to English without even noticing it.

    If you look for something useful for work in engineering, German or Mandarin will likely be most useful. However, Mandarin is very difficult for Europeans, and unless you put in massive amounts of effort, you will likely not even be able to get to the point where you can hold your ground in a elementary day-to-day conversation.

    [1] they also have a tendency of not speaking German with anyone who is clearly not a native speaker. Getting to a level of language proficiency where a German will not simply answer in English if addressed in German by a non-native speaker takes a long time... (but again, the important part is understanding it, not speaking it)
  6. Jun 2, 2012 #5
    I wouldn't classify Mandarin as particularly useful. Whatever else the Chinese may be, they tend to have a good command of English as a general rule, and unless you're working in China (for whatever reason), you won't be using Chinese. I would actually say French or German is the more useful language - most likely French. If you ever get the itch to go to another country and work, you're likely to stay within Europe since most European countries are happy to let other Europeans in. France and Germany both have quite a manufacturing industry that would benefit from having another mechanical engineer.

    Just my two cents. I'm studying French, myself, largely because France has a solid aerospace industry in which I might want to involve myself one day.
  7. Jun 3, 2012 #6
    I'm a Chinese and I don't suggest Mandarin.
    First of all, as a senior college student majoring EE, I can tell you that you can communicate with any of my classmates in English without any difficulty. Majorly because Chinese schools(including primary schools) consider English as a very big deal. In fact we are not allowed to graduate if we didn't reach a certain level in English.
    Secondly, Mandarin is not a language for engineering because there's no accuracy in it, if you know what I mean. We took most of our important courses like DSP and Fourier Transform in English because it would be very confusing to learn in Mandarin.
  8. Jun 3, 2012 #7


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    Skip the language class entirely. Take more engineering courses.
  9. Jun 4, 2012 #8
    Do not worry about how useful a language is. Like others have already said, pick whatever language/country interests you most. The reason being is that in your working environment, chances are you will speak in English or have the opportunity to speak in English.

    Right now, I am in my fourth year bachelor's engineering physics and I am studying German. The reason being that I am on exchange in Germany right now. I could definitely see myself living/working here one day as it is an awesome country. However, I never have to use/understand German at work. The only use I get out of knowing German is for going out to social events, or going shopping etc.

    If a country/language does not interest you, then you will probably never live there, and thus never need the language. I think that is all you really need to know.

    That said, if you already have a good understanding of French, it might be easiest just to build that up to a working level, then start a new language.

    Also, if you are English I recommend you stick to languages that use the English alphabet or similar versions. Much easier to pick up/speak.
  10. Jun 5, 2012 #9
    Thanks for all the replies, I'm definitely veering towards improving my French at this point as I already have a firm basis for it. I have until the 21st of June to decide though.
  11. Jun 5, 2012 #10
    what school did you go to? My classmates from Beijing University of Posts and Communications which is a 1st tier school were essentially illiterate in English (below 400 on GRE, 3.0 analytical writing), couldn't speak at any useful level and got into USC for EE grad school.

    There is very little correlation between passing the CET4 and actual English skill. 99% of the people in China seriously do not know English beyond a few words. I know, I am Chinese too.

    There's no point in learning small market languages so I'd suggest first cut French and German, and pick from the rest.
    Last edited: Jun 5, 2012
  12. Jun 5, 2012 #11


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    Um.. small markets? Have a look at this:
    Germany alone is exporting almost as much value as China or the US. Of course the general public would not notice that, because most of the exported stuff is *engineering equipment*. If you additionally take into account that German is much closer to English than any of the other languages (both being in the same language family, after all), I cannot follow your conclusions.
  13. Jun 6, 2012 #12
    I speak English, Chinese, and Japanese. Frankly speaking, I don't see how Chinese and Japanese are going to be of any use to me in terms of career development. But here's the thing: I enjoyed the actual process of meeting people who are equally passionate about languages and learning with them so much that I never regretted learning those languages. Even though they may not be of much practical use to me, the friendships forged with my classmates and native teachers (I used to go to a language school every week) were invaluable. My point being, whatever language you decide to pick up, mostly likely you'll just end up having a great time learning it.
  14. Jun 6, 2012 #13
    Matlab, c++, fortran.
  15. Jun 6, 2012 #14
    I am an American Physics student and I choose to study German for my required language. I too had Latin in High School and would prefer to continue studying it, but the scheduling would be too tight at my University - there was a chance of a conflict since each latin class was only offered every other semester (Latin 101 and 201 in the fall and 102 and 202 in the Spring). Mandarin (or any less popular language) is likely in this same boat. Depending on the size of your university some of your upper division engineering classes may only be offered once every other semester - because of this I would suggest picking a 'popular' language which will always have a few sections open and there is less chance that your infrequent upper division course conflicts with a just-as-rare language course. French or German definately fit that bill. Between the two: I would say German is more useful for some of the reasons listed above. Most multi-national industrial companies that I can think of, for instance, have their European HQ in Germany.
  16. Jun 7, 2012 #15

    People languages obvs.
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