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What Foreign Language to Learn?

  1. Apr 16, 2015 #1
    Dear Physics Forum personnel,

    I am a college sophomore in US with a major in mathematics, and I am also an aspiring number theorist. My math advisers strongly recommend me to learn an additional foreign language, preferably one from Russian, French, Chinese, or German); I am proficient only in English and Korean. I am actually thinking about pursuing another major within one of those foreign language since I have three more years before completing my degree. Currently, Russian Language & Literature (major in my university) is what I have in my mind as some of greatest mathematicians (Kolmogorov, Paul Erdos, etc.) are from USSR, but I am not sure which foreign language is best to learn and major in the field of number theory, algebra, and combinatorics. Would you provide me your advice and experience?


  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 16, 2015 #2

    Vanadium 50

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    Erdos was from Hungary.
  4. Apr 16, 2015 #3


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    • German if you want to read Leibniz, Gauss, Weierstrass, Dedekind etc. in the original language (mathematical analysis)
    • French if you want to study the collected works of the Bourbaki seminar and Galois theory (algebra).
    By the way - Paul Erdös was Hungarian, not Russian.
  5. Apr 16, 2015 #4
    Thank you very much for the suggestions and typo! So is Russian language not useful to learn for algebra and number theory? My particular interest is in Russian language but I am willing to pursue another language if French or German is better to learn than Russian.
  6. Apr 16, 2015 #5
    I'd say for mathematics and science German and English are almost definitely the two most important languages to know, and seeing as you have English I would recommend German as a first choice, particularly for number theory (mainly because of Gauss and Leibniz). However you will find it hard to learn a language if you aren't interested in it, so your interest should take first priority. If you'd enjoy Russian significantly more, take that, but if you would enjoy German equally or near equally I urge you to take that. The two languages are relatively similar is pronunciation but near opposites in sentence structure, writing and more or less everything else, if that makes the choice any easier.
  7. Apr 16, 2015 #6
    It depends, Chinese would be a good choice if your career plan is commercial/Industrial, and work available
    Any European language, ( and I'm including Russian), is better to if your career plan is more academic/educational, and work is there, but not guaranteed,
  8. Apr 16, 2015 #7
    German is the second most widely used language in the science world. French is the third most used, and remains an official language in a lot of global organizations.
  9. Apr 17, 2015 #8
    Thank you very, very much for all helpful comments! I have not yet decided whether I should go for pure or applied number theory/algebra (I love both aspects!). If I decide to go for the applied route, I want to work for NSA or military intelligence service and research the effective factorization to decode and manipulate enemy's coding system; in that case, Russian or Chinese will be helpful since they currently are biggest rivals to U.S. I am still deciding whether to major in Russian or German.
  10. Apr 17, 2015 #9
    Keep in mind you do not need to major in the language to achieve fluency, or a working knowledge in the mathematical and scientific realm. The best way is probably to simply take the language for a few years and study abroad if you can afford it and it will fit into your schedule. By all means major in it if you are interested in the culture, but a major will probably be unnecessary if your primary goal is to work in mathematics with number theory.
  11. Apr 17, 2015 #10
    Math is a language ,
    English, German, French, Chinise is a language.
    What is good about math is that i has the same meaning in any language.
  12. Apr 18, 2015 #11
    I have to disagree here. These languages are vastly different phonetically. Russian even has an 'r' pronounciation that is similar to the spanish one. I am also not sure about this but I think that russian doesnt have anything similar to the umlaut sounds ö and ü in german, but I might be wrong there.
  13. Apr 19, 2015 #12
    Do you have to study another language? Because I always got by fine with my knowledge in english. I don't think it is actually important to learn another language. But granted, it can occasionally be useful.
    What language you should study is a question whose answer depends greatly what you're going to do. For example, if you were to do algebraic geometry, then french is probably a language that might be worth knowing due to the works of Grothendieck which have (as far as I know) not been adequately translated. That said, you can always learn algebraic geometry pure from an english point of view. There is really no need for another language honestly.
  14. Apr 19, 2015 #13
    You're probably right about that, my only source is hearing someone speak both of them one after the other.
  15. Apr 19, 2015 #14


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    Your original post shows what your should choose according to your interests. Choose any of those that you want, and you will find it or them less stressful, easier to learn, than Mathematics courses, and easier to earn A's, in case grade point average is generally something you want. Think how great is it to be able to communicate with people whose language is not your own native language! The foreign language courses ( which are also culture and literature courses) are a great way to learn Humanities and are well, very well suited to Mathematics and Physical Science types of people.
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