Is English Still the Universal Language of Electrical Engineering?March 20, 2020 by Ingrid Fadelli
A growing number of EEs are based in countries where English is not the first language. That said, is English proficiency necessary to excel in the field?
A key requirement of most electrical engineering (EE) courses in the US and UK is English language proficiency, supported by high scores in TOEFL, IELTS, or other standard examinations.
While a good knowledge of the English language remains a requirement, the EE community and workforce are becoming increasingly diverse with more students and graduates deciding to move outside of their home countries.
As the field of electrical engineering becomes more international, one may wonder whether English proficiency is still necessary to thrive within engineering-related learning and working environments. In this article, we share the perspectives of electrical engineers working in both academic and professional settings on the importance of English in electrical engineering.
Why Basic English Skills Are Useful
All the EE experts we interviewed underscored the importance of students and graduates gaining a basic knowledge of English.
“Getting a good grade in a typical EE course in the US probably does not require an extremely high level of English proficiency,” says Biao Chen, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Syracuse University in New York.
“This is especially true for technical courses, where communications are often secondary in importance to math proficiency. Then again, being able to communicate well, orally and in writing, never hurts.”
Semiconductor suppliers value international talent. English is a common language that helps these professionals from around the world communicate. Image used courtesy of Texas Instruments
According to Professor Chen, a basic level of spoken and written English is necessary to understand lectures, complete assignments, write up research papers, and prepare job applications.
“Students taking engineering courses in the US need a high level of English proficiency covering a variety of aspects, including listening, speaking, reading, and writing,” says long-time AAC contributor and PhD graduate in microelectronics, Steve Arar.
The Language of Supply Chains
Arar explains that while basic English language skills can get university students by, those language skills must be more refined when engineers reach a professional level and begin communicating with peers around the world.
English tends to be the most common language for communication across international supply chains, rendering English fluency an invaluable skill.
Although many electronics-focused conferences occur internationally, like the Mobile World Congress pictured above, English is often the most common language spoken at such events. Image used courtesy of the GSMA
“Electrical engineering is an international field, and it depends upon an increasingly extensive collection of specialized terminology that exists primarily in English,” says Robert Keim, AAC's Director of Engineering. “Proficiency in English opens the door to a more diverse and satisfying collection of educational and professional opportunities.”
Will Learning Non-English Languages Put EEs at an Advantage?
Overall, all of our interviewees think that English remains the most useful language in the EE space. Keim feels that currently, most English-speaking EEs have no compelling career-related reasons to learn other languages.
“English is dominant and when international exchanges occur, people from any other linguistic background will be expected to know it,” he says.
“I’m not saying that this is fair or desirable; it’s simply reality as I see it. Should EEs learn foreign languages? Yes, absolutely! Language learning is beneficial on multiple levels and is a uniquely and profoundly human endeavor. But if we speak strictly from the perspective of professional or educational success within the domain of electrical engineering, I do not think that most English-speaking EEs will see significant benefits from proficiency in a second language.”
While English may be the primary language for EE communications, the recent rise in international teams and collaborations introduces interesting new challenges and opportunities for engineers. Arar feels that having a common language, in general, can greatly minimize ambiguities in communications between engineers, allowing them to focus better on more technical aspects of their job.
“We might occasionally observe that a word in a particular language explains a technical concept better than the corresponding English terminology,” says Arar.
“However, in general, I believe that the English language includes a wealth of vocabulary and has powerful grammatical structures. These two features can make technical communications clear and concise.”
Unlocking New Knowledge
Currently, most EE textbooks, academic papers, notes, webinars, and other technical communications are in English—though many semiconductor manufacturers strive to provide materials in a number of languages. English proficiency ultimately ensures access to this knowledge, allowing engineers to learn more about their areas of interest, share their ideas with others in different parts of the world, and come up with better solutions for problems they are tackling.
Many semiconductor manufacturers, like Japan-based ROHM Semiconductor, provide their materials in a number of different languages—catering to a diverse user base. Screenshot used courtesy of ROHM Semiconductor
“Learning a new language opens a door to a new world that would otherwise remain out of our reach,” says Arar. “Occasionally we stumble upon helpful resources about a given subject in a particular language, but without being proficient in this language we wouldn’t have access to this valuable information."
Moreover, as most research is now interdisciplinary, being able to communicate with people trained in other fields is vital and can ensure smoother collaborations. Perhaps it was once true that researchers could lock themselves in their lab and design electronic components on their own, but most projects today involve close collaboration with others.
“I think that English remains an important language in science and technology generally, and electrical engineering is no exception,” says Andrew Flewitt, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Cambridge in the UK. “English is dominant in scientific literature, and therefore, in a research and development area, being proficient in technical English is important.”
Keim explains, “I suspect that the benefits deriving from English proficiency will intensify over time. We’re talking about a long-term investment here. It’s hard work, but there are many free and low-cost resources that can help.”
Lost In Translation
Keim notes that some terms might translate better than others from English to other languages.
“In general, foundational terminology translates better because it tends to originate from a more international context,” he says. “Newer and more specialized terminology doesn’t translate as well because it emerges from and evolves within a linguistic environment that is dominated by English and in some cases, it reflects grammatical features that are not common among other languages.”
Throughout his career, Professor Chen also observed that writing and speaking can pose different challenges for non-native speakers. For instance, speaking at public venues or in front of other students can be more intimidating if one is expected to do so in a language that is not his or her mother tongue. Written communication, on the other hand, can be useful to work around language barriers, particularly in teamwork or research collaborations.
A speaker presenting at ETH Zurich's "Master Your Master's" event for prospective graduate students. Like many events on the Swiss campus, the event was conducted in English. Image used courtesy of ETH Zurich
“Empathy, patience, and self-awareness are key to overcome language barriers,” says Keim.
“On a more practical level, it is essential to develop the habit of speaking more slowly, pronouncing words carefully, and using simple, straightforward vocabulary and sentence structures. Many people do not realize how difficult it is for language learners to understand ‘normal’ speech produced by native speakers. Both speaker and listener must actively attempt to facilitate successful, comfortable communication.”
Does your experience with the English language reflect those of the engineers we interviewed? Or have you found that one or several non-English languages are important for your work environment? Share your experiences in the comments below.