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Which foreign languages to learn as a mathematician?

  1. Sep 26, 2011 #1
    So I have some time on my hands and I might as well learn another language. I'm currently fluent in English and Vietnamese, proficient (4 years) in Spanish, and basic (1 year) in French.
    I plan to improve my French and pick up another language.

    Since I only care about math, I'm thinking German, Russian, Mandarin, Latin, or (Ancient) Greek.
    1. German and Russian are standard along with French. But I don't see them being useful since papers are rarely written in those languages anymore (while the French seem more obstinate).
    2. Mandarin seems useful when China takes over. Though on a more serious note, there doesn't seem to be many international collaborations with the Chinese (what's even going on over there?) and breaking the language barrier could certainly help.
    3. Latin and Greek seems useful in general and would help me brush up on my classics. Not to mention that I get to be more pretentious in my papers by adding obscure Greek symbols and Latin phrases (who wouldn't love to do this?).

    Just as a note, I'm definitely planning to learn Mandarin, Latin, and Greek at some point in my life.
    What languages would you personally recommend? And just out of curiosity, if you had time for another language, what would you want to learn?
    Last edited: Sep 26, 2011
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 26, 2011 #2
    I have committed more than 3000 hours of time to studying Mandarin and I still have a long way to go. In your case, since you are fluent in Vietnamese,you may have a leg up in listening and speaking, but it won't help much when it comes to reading.

    I've studied alongside people who grew up speaking the language. After our course of study, they were no better off in reading than those who had never been exposed to the language before.

    If you plan to learn it in the future, you might as well start putting in the time for it now, assuming you can spare it. However, I have no idea if it would at all be beneficial for reading mathematics papers.

    I strongly support your learning of Latin and Greek for the potential comedy than you can produce by using it. Life is one gigantic joke and the more you can get in on it the better you can enjoy it.
  4. Sep 27, 2011 #3
    ^ Not sure if that last statement is serious, but thanks for the advice overall. All jokes aside, I'm hugely fascinated by Latin and (ancient) Greek and they'd help immensely, even for learning languages. And they're just awesome in general.

    How far have you gotten in Mandarin?
    Last edited: Sep 27, 2011
  5. Sep 27, 2011 #4
    Learning Latin will certainly help you to learn other languages with a little more ease. It's not a long shot from Latin to Greek or Latin to Italian. You will also find that your English grammar will improve if you learn Latin.

    As for which ones to learn for a mathematician, I do not know. Maybe someone with more experience may help you. Good luck :)
  6. Sep 27, 2011 #5


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    All the languages mentioned are 'useful' for some wider cultural 'purpose'. Not particularly for someone who, in your words, 'only cares about math'. For such a person they are a waste of time. But then, such a person risks being himself a waste of time. I am sure there is hardly a person who cares only about math; maybe there are a few too many who are getting that way.

    But if the interest in language is utilitarian your arguments are still mistaken IMHO. I wouldn't bother with Chinese if the reason is it may take over in some future. It may not. If it does everybody will have to adapt and you can join everybody. Surely the most important math journals will be translated as for a long time the most important Russian ones in the sciences I was familiar with have been. Mind you that means a need for mathematically knowledgeable translators so if that attracts you... but then again you can see reasons why that might be a dwindlingly lucrative sector.

    And it is also mistaken for this reason: you say papers are rarely written in German etc. (correct). Are you at the level, research or near, where you read papers in a big way? I doubt it or you wouldn't "have some time on your hands". But although papers may not now be written in German, papers and books were written in German and French, so these are still valid and of some interest. Einstein's or Klein's or Cantor's &c. &c. But I guess they have really been taken up and subsumed in later points of view available in English. You can judge the usefulness of this material by asking how often do you delve into nineteenth or early twentieth century books in English? On the other side if the reward is after all is not that great, the effort isn't either, since scientific and especially mathematical German and French have pretty stripped-down vocabularies etc. I would keep up the French since you have started, read some math in French and you should see it's not that difficult I hope.

    Perish the thought of wanting to blind with language erudition, the arte di arzigogolare voli Pindarici in andere Sprachen is tutt'altro che a sine qua non - bien au contraire it would be plutôt mal vu as rien que de la prétension.
    Last edited: Sep 27, 2011
  7. Sep 27, 2011 #6
    You don't need to know Chinese to find out what's going on here, at least for now. There's nothing mysterious about China.
    ...... I have committed more than 30,000 hours of time to studying ENGLISH and still have a long way to go.
  8. Sep 27, 2011 #7
    My post was slightly playful. I don't "only care about math", but I was curious in which languages were useful for math itself. After all, I'm planning to learn Mandarin, Latin, and Greek at some point simply because I find them fascinating (I would've been a Classics major if not for math or music). And I would learn all the languages I listed if I had time, and I expect at some point in my life I will at least try. But just not now; some languages have a higher priority for me and the goal of this topic was to find out which they were.
    And surely I wasn't being serious in many of the other ridiculous statements I made too. But then again, this is the internet so it's harder to detect sarcasm.

    And by "time on my hands", I mean when I'm eating and doing activities where I can multitask. I learned a year of French simply by reading a textbook during the time of my meals everyday. Surely, no mathematician can do math all day. At some point, your brain just gets too tired and you need to do stupider things (eating, sleeping, socializing), or to simply use a different part of your brain when it's overworked in one part (this is where languages come in).

    I apologize if you weren't able to take my post lightly. I believe for now, I will continue my French and start Latin. I was talking to one of my Math professors about this and he ended up lending me one of his Latin texts (the good ol' Wheelock) as his recommendation for which languages to start brushing up on. Latin seems like a pretty good start since I plan on transitioning to more languages anyways.

    Exactly what I was thinking. :)

    True, but networking is an integral part of academia, so knowing the native language comes in handy. Also, I'm part Chinese so I might as well know my ancestry right?
    Last edited: Sep 27, 2011
  9. Sep 27, 2011 #8


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    If you definitely want to learn one of Greek, Latin or Mandarin at some point, I would probably pick one of those three. No sense spending a lot of time learning a language for the purpose of scientific or mathematical collaborations. They're going to speak to you in English, anyways. =P I would just pick whichever you think is most interesting and would be willing to invest a lot of time in. If you don't think the language is super-interesting, you're probably not going to become very good at it.

    If you still can't choose, start dating someone who speaks one of the languages you want to learn. There's nothing like a pushy SO to motivate you to learn a language! (If you are already involved and your SO does not speak any languages you want to learn, the next best thing is a good friend who also wants to learn a language so you can learn it together)
  10. Sep 27, 2011 #9
    ^ Thanks for the advice. I'm interested in all languages in general, so I don't really have a problem motivating myself to learn a language (as a kid, I had the hopeless dream of becoming a modern Renaissance man).

    So the interest in the language's usefulness for mathematical purposes was more secondary than anything. It's simply my way of ranking which language to learn first. Basing it solely on interest is like choosing chocolate, strawberry, or vanilla. If I like all the flavors, what can you do? :)
    Last edited: Sep 27, 2011
  11. Sep 28, 2011 #10
    Certainly learn Latin over the other two. Latin is the gateway to all European languages, given the historical influence of the Roman Empire. It teaches you so much about English. Even the infinitesimal shred of Latin that I know has benefited my language and communication skills more than I can express (looking at this statement again; the irony amuses me...)

    But yes, while Chinese certainly seems like it might be useful on the surface, there really is no threat of a takeover of the Chinese language. The Chinese culture is a submissive one, like many Asian countries. They will learn English before we learn Mandarin. Plus, the idea of China putting out enough research in any field to dominate English-speaking western countries is laughable and absurd even in the most far-fetched dreams of Chinese supremacists.

    Mandarin has a billion speakers because China has a billion people. In a few decades when China has five hundred million people (give or take), Mandarin will decline as well.
  12. Sep 28, 2011 #11


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    What a ridiculous thing to say. Chinese speakers are learning English for the same reasons any non-native English speaker learns English - it's just practical. English is already the working language of business and science, so if you want to do business and science on an international playing field, of course you'll have to learn English. Don't think for a second that if Chinese speakers had the option to either keep doing things in English or force everyone to start using Chinese they wouldn't pick the second option.
  13. Sep 28, 2011 #12
    If graduate programs in math are any indication of what is useful for mathematicians, many US math grad programs require proficiency in either French, German, or Russian. MIT also includes Chinese as an option. I'm surprised that no one posted this already.

    This post is somewhat racist. Totally agree with Mute on this one. Your argument on not learning Chinese can be made against any language that isn't English. Just because English is the dominant language, doesn't mean that other languages are not useful to know (hence language requirements in graduate programs). Also, what makes you think that China's population is going to decrease by over half in a few decades?
  14. Sep 28, 2011 #13
    Guess I disagree. Asian cultures do emphasize the team over the individual, and I believe that extends to nation-states as well. For evidence, please see the Americanization of Japan and South Korea compared to that seen in non-Anglophone countries. And my point wasn't entirely focused on Asian cultures either, but also on the American culture: we are bullheaded, pigheaded people who don't often think about other cultures. We are not a bilingual people at all. We are a dominant people who think about the individual over the team. I pass no judgment on whether 'dominance' or 'submissiveness' is more acceptable.

    'Racist'. Feh. Just goes to show how willing people are to throw such terms around.

    The fact that their total fertility rate is 1.54, which is far below replacement population, and the sex ratio being so heavily biased towards males as a result of the one-child policy. It's a crude estimate, one that is not based on any rigorous model, but I do hold that China's population will decrease in the coming decades - significantly.
  15. Sep 28, 2011 #14
    Says the guy throwing around arguments based on generalized stereotypes..
  16. Sep 28, 2011 #15


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    What you see as Americanization or Westernization, the rest of the developing world probably just sees as modernization. Since the west modernized first, other countries are of course going to copy the west (especially those rebuilt by the US after WW2). After all, there's no need to reinvent the wheel. So, it shouldn't necessarily be taken as evidence of the US's enduring dominance over other cultures - everyone copies the master until they get a chance to overtake the master.

    Bull-headedness only works so long as no one has an advantage over you! If some non-English country were to gain some advantage over the US and the rest of the English speaking world, those bull-headed western countries might just have to learn to swallow their pride a bit, and possibly brush up on a language other than English. That said, I don't see this happening any time soon, if at all. This is just to argue that even though it's not likely, being bull-headed doesn't stop it from being possible.

    Well, that and the cultural preference for males being incompatible with the one-child policy.

    Anyways, this isn't the place to have this debate. The thread is about which language Anonymous217 should learn. Debating over whether or not Mandarin will ever become a major global language is besides the point. There are other reasons to learn it, or any other language (or not).

    Again, I think the best reason to learn a language, Anonymous217, is that you're most interested in it over your other options. This is why I suggested an SO or good friend with skills in one of your languages of interest - it's a darn good tie-breaker. If you wanted to live in China or Taiwan for a while, that would be a good reason to study Mandarin, or if you wanted to live in Germany it would be a good reason to learn German, etc. Or else, if you're really interested in your Chinese heritage, that's also a good reason to study it. Ancient languages would be a good pick if you're interested in the history of English, for example, as AngryCitizen suggested.

    Ultimately, as has been suggested, utility is a tricky thing to measure when it comes to languages, so if you can think of reasons the languages interest you, that would help you make a decision (and perhaps we can give more input).
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