Which Second Languages are in Demand in Engineering?

July 1, 2013

Which Second Languages are in Demand in Engineering

The modern engineering marketplace is increasingly global. Corporate structures and supply chains span continents, while an increasingly team-centered, networked approach to problem solving places a premium on communication skills. Which second languages are most useful (and lucrative) for today’s engineers?

Learning a second language has quantifiable cognitive benefits, from increased task switching times to increased resistance to dementia and Alzheimer’s. Today, more than ever, it can be a serious asset to your engineering career as well.

Which Languages Boost Earnings the Most?

Speaking generally, there is a supply and demand relationship which affects the salary boost for second-language proficiency. The more widely your alternate language is spoken, the less valuable that skill is considered by employers.

A 2005 study by economists at the University of Pennsylvania and the LECG Consulting group measured the effect on earnings by college graduates for learning Chinese, Spanish, German, Italian, French, and Russian. Spanish language proficiency boosted earnings an average of 1.7%, while French was worth 2.7%. The remaining four languages studied, on average, yielded 4% salary premiums.

“Like other STEM industry segments, engineering jobs are increasingly global,” says Hans Fenstermacher, CEO of the Globalization and Localization Association. “Less than 30 percent of the Internet is now in English, and global content is literally exploding. Every minute of every day, 571 websites, 100,000 tweets, 48 hours of video and 204 million emails are created.”

“What’s more, engineering advancements typically aren’t limited to a single country or market, and multilingual communication is critical when multinational targets are involved. Foreign language skills are essential for making global communications happen, and the ability to speak any language, even the less common ones, can make the difference between being hired, promoted or even just making more money.” Fenstermacher added.

Regional Variation in Language Preference

The need for global communications, and the premium for second language acquisition, are good general arguments for learning an additional language. Regionally, which language you learn can affect your prospects much more dramatically than the UPenn/LECG study would suggest.

“Across Europe the most useful language after English is definitely German,” says John Steele, Managing Director of MRI Manserv AG. “[Germany] and German-speaking Switzerland are proving resilient to the general European economic climate and have a significant shortage of engineers.” This leads German and Swiss companies to look elsewhere for engineering candidates, such as Southern Europe.

Related: Engineering Jobs for Bilingual Candidates

To facilitate global communication, many European companies settled on English as a lingua franca.  “While many companies have English as the company language,” says Steele, “it simplifies integration into the German workforce when a new employee speaks at least some basic German.”

How difficult is it to find qualified, German-speaking engineers? “Quite difficult,” Steele admits. “Most engineers are not linguists and often only have minimum exposure to other languages. The exceptions tend to be those whose parents or grandparents come from a German-speaking background. Even if they have no real understanding of the language they have heard the language at least spoken when a child and this eases the later learning of the language.”

So, while the general case would indicate identical salary premiums for learning Italian or German, the real jobs are in Germany. In addition, engineering candidates with intermediate-to-advanced German language skills would be quite valuable, as the language is limited within the recruiting pool.

Language Acquisition Strategies

If you’re looking to learn a second language, either to boost your earning potential or expand into new labor markets, here are a few general strategies we’ve found helpful.

Active Listening

Infant language learners spend months observing and listening before they attempt to communicate in their parent’s language. The same tactic works well for adults learning a foreign language. If no native speakers are available for observation, movies and television shows are an acceptable substitute. Audio clips are least useful at first as there are fewer contextual clues to study.

Read Aloud

Reading materials and study guides are useful, but reading aloud will engage your mind on multiple levels. One of the best ways to learn through reading is to buy children’s books at various tiers of sophistication. They’re easy to follow and play with the natural rhythm of the language more obviously than novels or adult material.

Take (and Post) Notes

Learning is a matter of learning to think in your new language, not just speak and understand. Taking notes on the events of your day, or your progress, helps you learn to organize your thoughts.

Posting the names and descriptions of common objects in your home or workplace is another useful shortcut. You’ll be constantly exposed to vocabulary training as you move though your daily routine.

Seek Conversation

When you’ve a fair handle on the basics, seek out people who are fluent in your new language and talk to them. Track how long you can converse before hitting a linguistic wall, over time, and do whatever you can to avoid defaulting to your native language. Conversation with native speakers will teach you more about the rhythm, sounds, and idiomatic usage of your desired language than it’s possible to learn from media.

What are the critical engineering languages of the future? Tweet @EngineerJobs or leave your comment below.

Image credit: Chris Devers