Benefits of Knowing a Foreign Language as a Chemical Engineer

Outside of science and engineering, I have always been interested in learning various languages. With Armenian as my mother tongue, English, too, has been a language that I have learned throughout the years. In addition, I have attained some level of fluency in Spanish, Italian, and Korean, whether it was through courses I have taken or out of pure interest.

When I began my undergraduate education studying chemical engineering at the Univ. of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), I realized that the engineering school did not have a foreign language requirement, unlike other schools within UCLA. This led me to wonder whether or not mastering a language besides English would help in one’s engineering career. I wanted to know if other chemical engineers found some benefit in knowing a language other than English.

Posing the question

To get a broad sense of the different scenarios in which knowing another language could be important, I asked AIChE members three questions:

  • For those who have worked outside of the U.S., how has knowing another language while working as an expatriate helped both in and outside of your career?
  • If you have worked outside of the U.S. and did not know the language of the country you worked in, what has your experience been like?
  • How does knowing another language benefit the chemical engineer who works and resides in the U.S.?

With these three different questions, I received many thought-provoking responses.

Working in other countries

Based on others’ accounts, knowing a language has helped them in some way. According to those who had worked outside the U.S., their engineering colleagues had a good grasp of English, at least enough to work alongside one another. As a result, they could get by in the workplace just communicating in English with their direct colleagues.

However, depending on the facility and location, not all employees will be conversational in English. “Very few operators spoke English,” recounts Victor Rice, now retired, regarding a former assignment in Saudi Arabia. “In order for me to effectively interact with the operators, I needed to speak their language, Arabic.” Rice enrolled in a conversational Arabic course that took place five nights a week, allowing him to be “reasonably fluent” within eight weeks.

Another engineer currently working in the sugar refining industry details a similar experience from his time working in Japan, saying that “even if they know English, they are comfortable with their own language — Japanese.” This is one of the main reasons why the Center for Chemical Process Safety (CCPS) Process Safety Beacon, which is specifically targeted to operators and technicians, is translated into dozens of different languages to ensure that important safety information reaches a wide audience, regardless of the language barrier.

After hours

Besides work-related activities, engineers also mentioned that being bilingual has its own social benefits. By knowing the language, you are able to better connect with people, and it displays a sense of humility. For example, Robert Zumwalt, now retired, lived in France with his family while working at a refinery for 2.5 years. “We did much travel, business and private, where knowing French greatly smoothed our way,” he says. “We routinely attended and hosted dinner parties where French was the language; most engineers’ wives were hesitant to use English.”

Outside of the work setting, it helps to know the language for your day-to-day life. You won’t be working the entire time, so being able to speak the language helps socially when meeting new people, or even trying to check in to a hotel or go to a restaurant where there isn’t a guarantee that you will meet someone who knows English. Zumwalt shares his experience regarding a later engineering position that required a lot of travel, saying “it was difficult to check into many German hotels without using German, even my rough Army German. I regained enough [of the language] to check into a hotel room, order a meal, and ask directions when I was driving on smaller roads.”

Back at home

Even within the U.S., knowing another language has its own perks. One respondent from the pharmaceuticals industry noted that his knowledge of languages is helpful when looking at equipment documentation, as manufacturers tend to have the best documentation in their primary language. Besides equipment documentation, knowing how to speak another language helps with communication between foreign vendors. It can also open up opportunities to peer review research or act as an interpreter between entities.

The takeaway

So, is it absolutely imperative for chemical engineers to learn another language besides English? Not quite. However, it does open the door to many different opportunities whether you work in a different country on a work assignment or within the U.S. Many people around the world already speak multiple languages, whereas that isn’t the norm in the U.S. Being multilingual not only eases communication with others, but it also enriches your experiences by being able to connect with different people and cultures.

This article originally appeared in the Emerging Voices column in the May 2023 issue of CEP. Members have access online to complete issues, including a vast, searchable archive of back-issues found at