Foreign language recommendation for Computer Science

My son is a Computer Science major at UT - Austin. He is trying to decide what foreign language to take to meet his degree requirement.

He has the equivalent of 2 years high school courses in both German & Spanish. He is likely to settle in Texas after graduation. He is a bit adventurous, and I could readily see him volunteering for an overseas assignment.

He is mainly considering taking German, Spanish, or starting off fresh in Japanese.

Anyone out there with experience in the CS field who can comment on the usefulness (or lack thereof) of speaking a foreign language in general? Any thoughts on which foreign language?


Sue from El Paso


I did a stint at UT-Tyler as a CS major. The unversity waived my foreign language requirement in lieu of my previous ton of credits in Literature.

Still…living in Texas, especially southern Texas, it’s probably a good idea to know as much Spanish as possible. This is especially true if your son’s job requires a great deal of person-to-person contact, such as would be required for an IT Manager or Systems Director (both jobs essentially interface human beings with computer systems, if you care to look at it that way.)

I also lived in Japan for a couple of years, Tokyo and Yokosuka, and learning the language was actually fun. It’s different from English (what isn’t?) in structure and syntax, and it differs enough from the Romance Languages that you actually feel that you’re learning something new–not just new variations of verbs, nouns, and conjugation.


In general, I have found that you an get along quite well in the computer field without ever requiring a second language. The overwhelmingly American nature of most recent developments in Operating Systems, software engineering and programming languages has made English pretty much the “lingua france” of moder IS. That said, I have found that the German and French that I occassionally butcher have enriched my life in a number of other ways (and, indeed, have opened up opportunities for professional travel and experience).

As far as today’s environment. Among the projects I have been involved with I would say that India has been the source of the strongest non-American technological drive. Of course, since English is a VERY common second language for Indians and Pakistanis, that weakens the idea that your son should study Hindi for professional gain. Were he my son, I would encourage him to choose a language study based upon a culture or part of the world that he woul like to experience directly. There are not many nations in the world in which an American educated CS professional with fluency (well, at least semi-) cannot find enough work to support himself while he explores to his heart’s content.

The best lack all conviction
The worst are full of passionate intensity.

May I recommend he learn American Sign Language (ASL)? Not only does it satisfy the foreign language requirement in many schools, there’s a very real and viable issue in ASL today relating to computers.

There’s a relatively recently devised system of writing the language. This system has been adapted for use on a computer similar to word processing. There are very many questions/issues involving how to “Sign Process” right now.

Please check for more information.

I think computer science is one of the few fields where I would state that a knowledge of a foreign language doesn’t bring much. Most of the technical innovations in the computer field have been done in english-speaking countries. (I have been working as a programmer in California for about 14 years.)

That said, learning a foreign language is always a useful skill.

If anything, I would say learn spanish (because it’s useful in Texas) or japanese (just because it’s rare to find english-speakers that also know japanese.)

La franchise ne consiste pas à dire tout ce que l’on pense, mais à penser tout ce que l’on dit.
H. de Livry

Thanks to all; I’ll send this on to Austin.

Sue from El Paso

I’ll put in a vote against learning Japanese, or at least expecting any professional benefit to come of it.

I work at a Japanese owned company in the U.S.; our computer system was developed and installed by the parent company’s IS department. My brother, who works at the same company and has worked extensively at the parent company in Japan, confirms my opinion of Japanese IS departments: they’re years behind.

Japanese corporate culture does not favor heavy computerization. Even Sony in Japan, where my brother worked a few years ago, isn’t heavily computerized; faxes are typically preferred over email (that’s also how we communicate with our parent company). The American picture of a PC in every cubicle is rare in Japan; more typically, several workstations are lined up against a wall in a department, and people who use them too much get dirty looks. IS departments in Japan face an uphill battle proposing and developing systems that American companies take for granted.

The upshot of this is that Japan will not be a good place for your son to look for foreign work. Even if he does learn Japanese, he’ll always rank lowly in an employment market that’s backwards to begin with.

As a CS major at UT Austin, I say that German is the way to go. It’s easy for native English speakers to learn, and the class sizes are MUCH smaller than the Spanish classes my friends are taking. The reason they make us take foreign language is that the College Of Natural Science requires us to take 4 semesters of foreign language. Go figure.

“There are many sweeping generalizations that are always true” -Space Ghost

In this day and age, it always helps to be bilingual. Anyway even if a second language wont be too handy within the company that they work, it can be useful in areas with high concentrations of those speakers (like Texas, Spanish will be very handy there, the same with California where I live). That said, I would go for a language I want to learn. I am a Spanish major (for jusrt a year now), and it was something I wanted to learn (not because it was popular, but because I had learned a little in high school and wanted to continue it and actually learn to speak it).

An interesting aside is, in my Spanish class, we are reading a story centering on computer analyst in Madrid (it’s all in Spanish). In the second chapter she’s lamenting the fact that her boss insists she use English terminology because “it’s one of the principal languages of computer science”. She goes on to say that her boss says most of their products come from the US and that they shouldn’t waste time trying to translate everything into Spanish. Anyway the book is called “Ladrón de la Mente”, by Elías Miguel Muñoz.

Well, I’m basically gonna say the exact same thing as everyone else.

In engineering, and specifically CS a foreign language is pretty damn useless. Chances are that he would have no need to take a foriegn language in the department of the university. I highly recommend he do some thorough research and speak to as many deans as is necessary to get a concrete answer (this process is quite tedious, and frustrating in college for some reason, the red tape is amazing) as to whether he actually needs to take it in college. I took 4 years of German in high school, and got the requiremnts waived. If he has 4 total years of foreign language I oubt there would be much resistance to giving him the credit if any. CS is a difficult field that reqires lots of CS courses that these gen ed requirements inhibit. Engineering departments usually have very few, and loose gen ed requirements because of the heavy credit requirements within the field.

This however is all moot if he wants to take the foriegn language. Its important to note that in CS foreign languages are useless, but a small percentage of CS majors stay withing the field. They typically end up doing IT jobs, and a variety of consulting projects. The latter is where a foreign language can make him a attractive hire. In this vein a common language is going to be the most useful. He will need to interact with people often, and rarely if ever need to have any technical aplication of the language. In short Spanish is the best to learn, especially in Texas. Spanish speaking countries are the fastest growing market, and have the most frequent interaction with the US. Japan, Russia, and China are suprisingly unreceptive to American employees.

Not to mention that Spanish will be the most useful in your social life in this country. Its also considered the easiest to learn, but is also the one which students with zero interest take, and therefore classes get big, impersonal, and fruitless.

Mmmh, what can I say that hasn’t been said.

It all depends on your son’s interests, of course. Let me warn you about Japanese: your son needs to be seriously interested in Japan for it to be worth doing. Studying Japanese is not like studying western languages. I studied both Spanish and Japanese, and after one year of Spanish and three years of Japanese I spoke much better Spanish.

“watashi ga, musuko-san no kyômi ni yotte eranda hô ga ii to omoimasu.”

word for word comes out as:

“I, son(honorific)-of-interest(s) to-according choose-side good that think.”


“I think that your son should choose according to his interests.”

Personaly, I loved Japanese and its strange grammar, but it’s difficult and it’s not worth it if you don’t intend on actually living in Japan. I did it and I’m enjoying it. Your son might have better things to do, though.

I think your son is probably better off getting a solid knowledge of Spanish or German.

Omni: You can’t get it waved unless you’re a foriegn student who passed the TOFEL. It is actually a requirement for the CS degree plan: CS Degree Requirements at UT.

“There are many sweeping generalizations that are always true” -Space Ghost

Damnit, “waived” not “waved” in the first sentence.

“There are many sweeping generalizations that are always true” -Space Ghost

Oh god, isn’t that the truth. In my current class there’s a couple of people I know are there just for the credit. At least in my university which is small, classes remain relatively small, BUT they are often filled fast and us sophomores and freshmen have to compromise on times (fortunately people often drop once they know who the professor is or decide they don’t want to deal with language that semester).

Momotaro: I have seen the agony Japanese causes my friends :). Two are Japanese language majors, and one says he hardly knows enough to put together sentences (and has been a Japanese language major for three years now). The other knows some Kanji but says she isn’t very good at it, but she can put together sentences. The Japanese language courses are VERY small in comparison to the Spanish courses.

LongHrn: it’s TOEFL, not TOFEL. Of course, that acronym is for Test Of English as a Foreign Language.

DOH! I didn’t think that TOFEL was right, but I figured since I don’t have to take it I don’t care. :slight_smile:

“There are many sweeping generalizations that are always true” -Space Ghost