Saturday, September 06, 2014


One fascinating difference between Europe and the United States is the role of the English language.

While the bachelor’s programs at KTH are taught in Swedish, the Master’s programs (from which I took courses) are taught in English. Perhaps half of my classmates in technical courses were Swedish, with the rest representing many parts of Europe and the world. Some of the latter were exchange students, through the EU’s Erasmus program or otherwise, and others were full-time Master’s students.

Academic/technical collaboration across language barriers was interesting to experience. In every course at KTH, I worked on teams with non-native English speakers, and most of my professors were Swedish. Reading European research papers and attending FOSDEM (conducted in English but with a predominance of German and French attendees) further illustrated the situation.

In all these cases, I often found it tempting to think that others’ knowledge of the technical material was weak. But, of course, communication is a complex process, heavily influenced by culture and other factors, and it’s difficult to identify failures that occur in expressing, receiving, or responding to a message. So, communication problems were more likely than intellectual ones to have led to difficulties in exchanging ideas with my colleagues.

As a tourist in southern and eastern Europe during the summer, a pattern was clear. A few European countries—Spain, France, Germany, Italy—take pride in their native (eponymous) language and are not particularly accommodating to English-speakers. But the rest seem to accept that it’s unreasonable to expect visitors to learn their language and pick English as a lingua franca, often followed by some of those other four countries’ languages. (Not their neighbors’ languages—almost nothing is labeled in both, say, Hungarian and Romanian.)

Back in the US, I find I’m more accepting of the occasional non-native English I encounter and often surprised by its quality.