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Learn new languages to get ahead

A knowledge of languages enables connections that open up new opportunities in the sciences.

In the modern world, humanities do not get much attention. Technology, science and business are zooming forward, while arts and languages seem to be left behind. To highly specialized professionals these often seem like a waste of time.

Credit: dieKleinert / Alamy Stock Photo

Is it important for a scientist to learn foreign languages? I say yes. Knowing several languages has not just benefitted but has directed my career. First, a little background: I was born in the Soviet Union and the language in which I talk to my close family is Russian. When I was three, we moved to Israel where I learned Hebrew. At seven years of age, I came to Brazil with my parents, so I learned Portuguese. And at age 14, I learned Spanish in Spain, where my parents went for their sabbatical year. What about English, you ask? In fact, I didn't learn a word of it until I was 24.

Not knowing English has directed my career from the beginning. Becoming a scientist was my childhood dream, and my plan was to start in medicine and then migrate to research, in order to fulfill my dream of working in a laboratory to find new cures. At that time, my hometown of Fortaleza, Brazil, had no undergraduate course in biomedical sciences, so I did not know that such courses existed. I only found out when I was about to enroll in medical school at Santa Cruz State University in Bahia (in Brazil you can enroll in medical school without an undergraduate degree). As part of the admissions process I had to pass an English as a foreign language test. As I did not know a single word of English, I decided to look into other options. This is how I discovered the existence of the undergraduate biomedical sciences course. This was what I had dreamt of doing in the beginning.

Early in my college life, I realized that the most important language to learn was English. My goal was to become a scientist, and English is widely spoken in science. My level of English was so low that when I tried to sign up for various English courses in Ilheus, Brazil, I was always evaluated as level 1 (the introductory level intended for children under 10 years old). I ended up in a course a friend of mine was teaching. He let me start at level 3 (which was an improvement, because it was for 13 year olds!). Though it might have been a little less embarrassing for me, it did not serve me well because I did not understand anything happening in class.

Reading scientific papers in any language is not a major problem, as the articles use a lot of universal terminology. Still, I remember an immunology course in which the teacher distributed scientific articles to the class to read and present. Everyone chose articles in English, except me. I was the only one who worked on an article that had been published in Portuguese in some Brazilian journal.

Thus, my lack of English limited me—not only at university, but also when I would go to international meetings. When I presented my work, I was unable to network well with foreign researchers, as most spoke only English. So before the conferences started I would choose the lectures that I would attend—those given by scientists who spoke any of the languages I knew: Russian, Hebrew, Spanish and Portuguese. As much as my lack of English limited me, my other languages still were very helpful. This lecture selection tactic led me to meet my future PhD mentor, Osvaldo Delbono, an Argentinian. He invited me to work with him in the United States, which I believe he did because I was able to communicate my scientific ideas to him in Spanish.

It was clear that entering a PhD program in the United States without speaking English was impossible. In addition, entering any US PhD program necessitated a high score on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), which aims to assess an individual's potential to speak and understand English on an academic level, and on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE)—required for admission to US PhD programs and a much more difficult test than the TOEFL. Therefore, my first goal was to learn English as quickly as possible. I was lucky to have enough support from my mentor, who forbade me from speaking Spanish in the laboratory. This helped as I was forced to learn words in English if I wanted to communicate with anyone at all. Furthermore, the city where I lived, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, did not have many Brazilians or Latins. This definitely forced me to learn English if I wanted to buy food or get around.

I bought an MP3 player and while doing electrophysiology experiments in the lab all day, I listened to news radio. Moreover, I had an American colleague with whom I would jog at nights after experiments were over, and whom I asked to keep talking to me even if I could not understand a single word of what he was saying. I promised him that if he just kept talking, at some point I would suddenly start to understand what he was saying. And indeed, that is what happened.

These efforts resulted in the rapid improvement of my English. In less than a year I had achieved good grades in the TOEFL and GRE and started my PhD in neuroscience at Wake Forest University under the mentorship of Osvaldo Delbono.

One of the other languages I spoke was important in the work I reported in my first published scientific article. We worked with Grigori Enikolopov, who provided a transgenic mouse called Nestin-GFP. Enikolopov was a Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory researcher who spoke Russian, and my ability to speak Russian contributed to this fruitful collaboration.

Later, in the middle of my PhD studies, I presented our work at an internal departmental meeting attended by Nir Barzilai, a guest professor from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. The professor liked my presentation and when he came to talk to me I realized that he was Israeli, and so we spoke in Hebrew. This meeting eventually contributed to my meeting my post-doctoral mentor, Paul Frenette.

Finally, returning to Brazil as a professor and starting my own laboratory would be impossible had I not been fluent in Portuguese. Today, a few years into my scientific career, my recommendation is to learn new languages—the more the better—because you could end up working with Argentinians, Americans, Russians, Israelis, Canadians or Brazilians. Such knowledge can open up some great opportunities.


The author thanks Veranika Hadassah for her advice and feedback.

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Correspondence to Alexander Birbrair.

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Birbrair, A. Learn new languages to get ahead. Nat Biotechnol 34, 1073–1074 (2016).

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