Should I learn French or Chinese?

What foreign language skills do engineers need?

English, French, or even Chinese? Foreign languages ​​are almost indispensable these days. But at what level do engineers have to master them? And what are the best methods for learning and maintaining languages?

Which foreign language is most important for engineers?


Globalization is the most comprehensive economic trend of the past decades and it brings with it new requirements. Because a world that is moving closer together also demands new ways of communicating. Professional interpreters and translators are helpful in negotiating and contracting, but they are not enough to accomplish what we call social interaction. The human component is particularly important for equal business relationships. A simple example: Everyone prefers to work with a colleague who laughs at the same jokes. However, this assumes that you are able to tell jokes to each other.

There is also another aspect: in China, for example, it shows that you have respect for the person you are talking to if you master the common politeness phrases. At least you should be able to greet and say goodbye appropriately in Chinese. When it comes to foreign language skills as a key qualification, it is about much more than just understanding the content of the concept for a new project. But which foreign languages ​​are actually important for an engineer's career?

English is not a foreign language for engineers

There are hardly any German engineers who don't speak English these days, and for good reason. English is the recognized worldwide language base among academics and a very important hard skill, i.e. a key qualification. In international corporations, many meetings are held exclusively in English - even in Germany. Technical articles are also almost always, sometimes additionally, published in English. In other words: those who do not speak English will sooner or later lose touch with innovations. In fact, it is now unlikely that an engineer would have a career without this key qualification. Fortunately, English is not a problem for most academics either. They learn it in school and are already confronted at university with having to read secondary literature in this foreign language.

Since English is the most important international language, both in academia and at specialist congresses, an engineer’s skills should go beyond the usual conversational level. We have listed the different skill levels in the article "Language skills in the application". For your career, it is advisable to acquire the most important technical terms that are relevant for the respective industry; special business language courses are suitable for this.

Methods for maintaining language proficiency can be found below.

Which foreign languages ​​should engineers be able to speak?

Of course, it's good to be able to converse in as many foreign languages ​​as possible. Anyone who grew up multilingual or who has a high level of language skills will certainly have an advantage. But engineers usually have to limit themselves to 1 or 2 foreign languages, as learning and practicing takes a lot of time. In addition, good language courses are expensive. Concentration on the essentials is required and that is English.


In Europe, next to English is certainly French the most requested language. This has to do with France's economic strength on the one hand, but also with the fact that the French usually speak poorer English than the members of many other European nations on the other. It is therefore very helpful in business relationships to master a little French yourself. Other languages ​​have little relevance, at least in Europe, as Spaniards, Dutch, Swedes & Co. have to speak English in order to survive on the international stage. Basic knowledge, however, is undoubtedly a good support if you have frequent contact with the residents of neighboring countries. However, engineers only need to be fluent in these languages ​​if they decide to work as expatriates abroad and relocate their center of life there for a limited period of time. So the bottom line is that when it comes to French, it makes the most sense to brush up on any basic knowledge you might have from school.


With the non-European languages ​​it is noticeable that Chinese has come more into focus as a foreign language. Time and again, young professionals ask whether they need to learn Chinese, as it is an economic power that is becoming increasingly important. This affects engineers in particular. The bottom line, however, is the same for Chinese as for Russian, Arabic and other languages ​​that you may want to learn new as an adult: The selection should be based on personal needs and professional goals. If you are likely to come into contact with representatives of a certain country a lot in the future, you should develop appropriate foreign language skills. Make yourself aware that a focus on languages ​​is likely to result in increased travel activity in your later job.

This can be the case, for example, because a sales market is particularly important for your industry - like China for sales engineers in the automotive industry - or you work for a company whose headquarters are located in another country. Then skills in the respective foreign language are probably indispensable for their career and possibly even a key qualification. Because small talk is an important soft skill that you should not underestimate and that will also be of great value to you when networking.

Is another foreign language associated with a higher salary?

In general, it can be said that engineers have a hard time building a career if they do not master the key qualification of English. This foreign language is generally required. More knowledge, such as French or Spanish, does not usually mean a higher salary. The situation is different if very extensive language skills are required for a position and are explicitly required: "We are looking for a sales engineer with business fluent French". Or if a language is only spoken by a few engineers and is also a key qualification for the advertised position, for example Arabic or Chinese. Since an applicant must have both the technical qualification and the required foreign language, he can make higher salary demands.

A tip for applications: Are you very interested in an advertised position, but you do not have the required knowledge of French or Chinese? Inquire about intensive courses and write to your employer that you have already drawn up a plan to learn this key skill. You are demonstrating commitment and great interest in the position. Of course, this assumes that you are actually willing to learn another foreign language for your career.

How can engineers learn or improve foreign languages?

There are different ways to learn foreign languages. You don't automatically have to go to school for this, but you can't avoid learning vocabulary.

Classic language course

If you want to learn a foreign language completely from scratch and do not yet have any basic knowledge, a classic language course is certainly a good start. There are big differences in level. A higher level of learning is always associated with a greater expenditure of time. In one Adult Education Course For example, the group usually progresses very slowly. This can be combined well with everyday work and family. However, it usually takes several years to achieve a reasonable level of proficiency in this way.

Courses at private foreign language schoolswho specialize in professional development enable faster learning, but also mean that you have to work regularly at home so as not to lose touch.

Intensive course

If you have the opportunity to take time out to learn a foreign language, it would be a good idea Intensive course from 2 to 3 weeks ideal. It takes place all day. In addition, you need to repeat the fabric in the evening. It would be perfect to attend such a course abroad. For example, if you learn French at a language school in Paris, the material will solidify faster because you can apply it directly in your environment. Check immediately whether you can apply for educational leave for this purpose.

Self study

Distance learning, where you will be sent documents and have to work out the language yourself, are another way of learning foreign languages. This can be perfectly supplemented with audio CDs. Nowadays, of course, online courses are also offered for foreign languages ​​and there are apps that can at least support learning.

stay abroad

The perfect way to learn this qualification is without question a longer stay abroad, for example a semester abroad during your studies. It is best to attend a language course there at the same time. Speaking anchors the foreign language more intuitively. You will also learn common idioms and a feeling for the colloquial language.

As an engineer, how do you manage to acquire foreign language skills?

There are a few simple tricks that will ensure that you do not unlearn a foreign language as a key qualification so easily and that you may even improve your skills on the side:

  • Seize every opportunityto apply your language skills. Talk to foreigners in their native language. Important: It doesn't matter if you make mistakes! If you are missing words, ask. The practice comes with speaking. Anyone who breaks down their inhibitions and uses the foreign language regularly can easily access it in a professional context.
  • Read regularly in the foreign language. If your skills are sufficient, then on the one hand read technical essays to review the specific vocabulary of your industry. On the other hand, reading novels and non-fiction books is a good way of keeping the everyday use of the language in mind. For a lower level, children's books are an alternative that can be very relaxing.
  • Watch films in the original sound. Tip: First switch on the foreign language subtitles (not the German!). Once you've listened better, skip the subtitles. This helps a lot for understanding the foreign language and you also record idioms.
  • Put on a vocabulary book, in which you write down important technical terms, for example. Of course, you also have to check it out regularly.
  • Conversation courses can help you additionally. Attend those where participants practice conversations above all else.
  • A stay abroad About vacation travel is a perfect complement. Visit small restaurants there, go to markets for locals - anywhere you meet people who themselves do not speak any foreign languages. In this way you practice understanding and lose inhibitions.


Also read:

Educational leave

Language skills in the application: How do you formulate them correctly, what skill levels are there?

Small talk can be learned

A contribution by:

  • Nicole gap

    Nicole Lücke does science journalism for research centers and universities, reports on medical congresses and looks after customer magazines for energy providers. She is a shareholder of content qualities. Your topics: energy, technology, sustainability, medicine / medical technology.