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Second Language for Physics

  1. Mar 2, 2008 #1
    I am about to learn a second language and was interested in what your opinions were on a good path to take with physics in mind. Initially I thought Latin would be a good option for nearly all sciences. But then I thought about it and realized that, although it may be useful, maybe not as much so as it would be for Biology or many other sciences. And that is when German, French and even Chinese came to mind. So my question is.

    Which language (besides english) do you think is the best to learn with a career in physics in mind. And why?
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 2, 2008 #2
    I've been asking myself the same thing. There are a lot of good Russian scientists, so I thought about taking some Russian. Although I know Polish, so even though it's different, the roots are the same, so I don't think it would take too long to get the hang of. I hope to go to grad school in Europe somewhere, so I thought maybe German would be good. Then again, I might end up in France, Sweden, Denmark, etc., so that's also a gamble.

    I took 3 years of Japanese in high school, but don't see myself going to Japan any time soon. I haven't thought about Chinese, though, but then again, are we talking Mandarin or Cantonese?

    So to answer your question: I don't think it matters too much in the long run.
  4. Mar 2, 2008 #3
    I'd say whichever language interests you the most. Don't do it for physics.

    I am not a physicist and know very little about physics, so I could be wrong, but I'm fairly sure that physicists in every country write in English anyway.
  5. Mar 3, 2008 #4


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    Russian physicists do publish in Russian from time to time (although never anything really important, mainly conference papers etc) but even then the papers are usually translated to English after a while* . The same is true for Japan, Germany and a handful of other countries.

    However, almost all books, papers etc are published in English.

    *but not always, I am actually a co-author of a paper published in Russian that has never been translated to English, the only part of I understand are the figures:shy:
  6. Mar 3, 2008 #5
    If it's important, someone will translate it...probably...plus, many of the cool bits are usually written in math, while the rest can be figured out with the help of a dictionary and making friends with other people that speak various languages in case you run into a tough spot. ;)
  7. Mar 3, 2008 #6


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    If you want to go and learn a second language then go for it (I wish I could speak more than English) but I wouldn't do it solely for physics. Certainly don't learn Latin: I see no point in learning a dead language, and it will be of little to no use for you in Physics. I'd pick a European language to learn first, rather than one with a different alphabet!
  8. Mar 3, 2008 #7

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    I am also co-author of a paper in Russian, a language I can neither write nor read.

    I think the question of "what language do I need to know to follow the literature" has been decisively answered: English. If one is motivated solely by practical considerations in learning a second language (which may not be the only or best reason to do so), I would ask where you might be visiting often and to learn the language. I tend to work with French speakers, and had I learned French in college, that would have been a plus. Other colleagues work with German, Japanese or Chinese speakers.
  9. Mar 3, 2008 #8
    Go learn German. There seems to be a bunch of top German physicists these past centuries.
  10. Mar 3, 2008 #9
    You don't say where you're from - which influences the answer a little bit. (I would certainly tell a Canadian to take French!) French, German, Spanish, Japanese and Chinese are all very good options. A lot of people speak these languages and they are spoken in places that are interesting to visit!

    One of my friends is an astronomer at a telescope in Chile - so she is learning Spanish. I have other friends who work at CERN - so for them French is very handy for purchasing delectable little croissants at the neighbourhood boulangerie. I also have another friend with a physics background who moved to Hong Kong and started a business - so his proficiency in Chinese is very helpful!
  11. Mar 3, 2008 #10
    Depends greatly of your geographical location, your field of research and if you plan to go aboard.
    I'd choose french or russian.
  12. Mar 3, 2008 #11
    Learning French seems to be a good idea.
  13. Mar 4, 2008 #12
    It's funny you mention this. The other day I was studying for my exam in graduate quantum. I needed to find a book on second quantization, so I went to the library. I found one that seemed pretty thorough, the problem was that it was all in French! Fortunately I knew barely enough French/physics to understand a few words, but it was still annoying to not be fluent.

    So there you go, one practical reason for a physicist to learn French.
  14. Mar 4, 2008 #13
    I'm glad to be able to speak French (and English) very well :smile:. Although I hate writing in French, too much grammar and all the stuff...
  15. Mar 4, 2008 #14
    In my research, I had to read a few articles published in German between WWI and WW II. However, I have enough German to only order food at a restaurant.... so I made extensive use of the Google translator ....
  16. Mar 4, 2008 #15
    Greek seems to be sensible
  17. Mar 4, 2008 #16
    Perhaps Latin would make equal sense too. Once you learn Latin, you'd have a large part of the grammar and to some extent, the vocabulary of many romance languages within grasp.

    Like the word for "daily" is "quotidianum" (Latin) and "quotidienne" (French) ...
  18. Mar 4, 2008 #17
    Latin and Greek are the classical languages of science, moreso Latin. But the best books are in German.
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