Can you work internationally if you only speak English?

Don’t assume that if you only speak English, you are always at a disadvantage in the academic job market.

Secondly, if you speak French, German, Spanish or Mandarin (or all of the above) as first language, with English as a second language, there are many, many opportunities open to you.

If you’ve been job searching in your county of residence for a while and have begun to look further afield, you may be wondering what the language requirements are for academic jobs in other countries.

Many of us are intimidated by the thought of learning a new language – particularly if it’s to a teaching-level standard – but the reality of language expectations may surprise you.

It is important to recognise English is one of the most widespread academic languages globally, but by it is no means the only academic language of instruction.

In South America the primary academic languages are Spanish and Portuguese, in China Mandarin dominates, and the French language remains the medium of official use and teaching in 84 countries worldwide.

The relatively high output of German and Russian language research publications (particularly in STEM subjects) accounts for the continued high usage of both languages in an academic context.

Depending upon your primary language, you may view this as either be a blessing or a curse – however, it does go some way to narrowing your expectations for language requirements.

If English is your first or second language, you will have a competitive advantage. Many institutions offer postgraduate and research courses instruction in English. This is good news for early career researchers and academics open to progressing their careers on the world stage.

If English is your mother tongue, but you lack proficiency in a second language, this need not be a barrier. There are many English medium universities in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa.

Native English language pronunciation is a highly sought-after skill for teaching roles, creating opportunities for academics from Anglophone countries, such as the United States, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Australia.

Vacancies at international universities generally advertise the language requirements clearly within the job description. If this information missing, you can usually get verification on the university’s website. If the university’s web-page is in another language, with no alternative language offered, this probably indicates that the written language is a requirement.

Even if a university’s website is in two or more languages, it is a sure indicator that both are regularly spoken in the institution – two languages may (or may not) be a requirement of the role, but do expect a multilingual environment.

If you are offered a teaching position (or a position that involves teaching as a side-role), you should be informed of the language requirements in advance.

Many international postgraduate courses are taught in English (the de facto language), while undergraduate classes are often taught in the regional language or a combination of the lingua franca and English (often directly related to the entrance requirements of the university or college itself).

The range of ‘official’ academic languages varies from country to country. Countries with high numbers of second language speakers (for example, Switzerland, Scandinavia, The Netherlands, Saudi Arabia etc.) may prefer you to have at least conversational ability, if you are applying for a new role .

Despite all of the above, there are very few academic disciplines where a second language will not be an advantage. Specialisation languages differ, depending upon the area of study – for example, within Classical Greek and Roman studies, much academic discourse is conducted in French and German.

A supporting language may not be widely spoken in the country you’re considering. It’s worth considering what may be most useful, if you’re deliberating learning an additional language to further your research career.

In short, if you’re deliberating working abroad but unsure whether only speaking English will reduce your opportunities, there’s little reason to fear. Moreover, if you don’t speak English to the internationally recognised Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) standard of B1 or higher, it is worth investing in this skill.

Strong spoken and written English will you an advantage when applying for international academic positions and additional languages will always make a valuable contribution to your academic resume.

Nevertheless, there are several very good reasons for learning the native language of the country you’re moving to – even if it is just at a conversational level.

Firstly, it will make navigating the country easier (and much more enjoyable!) – it is far easier to work out the logistics of transport and accommodation if you are able to at least understand some basic phrases. Secondly, it will further the social aspect with your colleagues – an attempt to be involved in conversation will often be appreciated and further your integration into your new workplace.

Finally, it deepens your understanding of the culture. If you will be working abroad for a considerable period of time, you‘ll become immersed in the culture of another country. It’s both enriching and respectful to attempt to learn the local language, which may reveal facts of the country’s history and culture you hadn’t before considered.

There’s no reason to think that you need to be fluent in another language before you begin your job search – if the language isn’t essential, starting language lessons once you’ve landed the job may be sufficient. Furthermore, learning while surrounded by native speakers often expedites the process. In conclusion, whichever language you feel most comfortable in, don’t let fear get in the way of starting your international job search – you’ll discover opportunities you never realised were there.

Further reading

The Hidden Bias of Science’s Universal Language

Bringing into focus multilingual realities: Faculty perceptions of academic languages on campus

The Language of (Future) Scientific Communication

Where can you study abroad in English?


Katherine Knight on Twitter
Katherine Knight
Katherine is an undergraduate classicist studying at University College, Oxford. She is a part-time freelance writer who can be found at @codaevermore on Twitter.

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