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Knowledge of Foreign Languages by Russian Scientists

The inclusion of a researcher in the global scientific community, participation in international cooperation, the exchange of knowledge and results largely determine the effectiveness of scientific work. This makes the knowledge of foreign languages (primarily English) into a critically important competence. The HSE Institute for Statistical Studies and Economics of Knowledge conducted a survey of more than 2 thousand Russian doctorate holders, in order to assess the situation with foreign language skills among highly qualified scientific personnel.

The absolute majority of Russian doctorate holders have language skills in the most common European languages — only 3,1% said they do not speak English, German or French even at a basic level. The dominant foreign language is predictably English — cases where a scientist speaks exclusively German or French, but does not know English at all, are quite rare (about 10% of respondents).

English Proficiency Level

The majority (87%) of Russian doctorate holders speak English at least at the elementary level.

Every seventh doctorate holder in Russia speaks English fluently, the rest have certain difficulties when using it in their professional activities. For 28,6% these difficulties are insignificant, but approximately every fourth researcher experiences noticeable difficulties in written and spoken communication in English, and every fifth reads professional literature with a dictionary.

The largest percentage of not speaking English researchers  are employed by higher education institutions (16%). In research institutes this share is equals to 7.7%, and in industry and services organisations — 10,8%.

Language skills are is not directly related to career advancement: the level of proficiency among researchers in senior positions and among ordinary employees is almost the same.

The share of those who know English is predictably higher among the youngest doctorate holders (up to 29 years old); of these, almost a quarter (24%) is fluent in English, while among middle-aged (30–49 years old) and older (50–70 years) this share is almost two times lower (14 and 12%, respectively). 40% of scientists under the age of 29 read professional literature freely and have only minor difficulties in speaking and writing, whereas among 30–49 and 50–70 year olds analogous share is only 28%. Among youngest researchers only 3% do not speak English at all, in comparison to 9% in the middle category and 19% — in older age.

The experience of studying or working abroad, as expected, have a significant positive impact on the level of proficiency in English. Internationally mobile doctorate holders are fluent in English at least four times more often (38%) than internationally non-mobile (9%).

The proportion of people who speak English varies considerably between the fields of science. The smallest share of researchers with high level of language skills are among researchers employed in the agricultural sciences, and highest share — in the natural sciences, mathematics, and medical sciences.

Knowledge of Other Foreign Languages

29% of the Russian doctorate holders know German (at the various level of proficiency), and 12% know French. But in most cases this is only basic knowledge of the language, when written and spoken communication on professional topics involves considerable difficulties.

For 8,2% researchers, German is the only foreign language they speak. This situation is primarily typical for scientists who have completed their education long time ago: the German language is more often spoken by older people (50–70 years old) than their younger colleagues.

French is very rarely the only foreign language that researcher know (1,4% of respondents), and this share almost doesn’t vary between different generations of scientists.

The fourth and fifth most popular foreign languages among Russian doctorate holders are Spanish and Italian: 1,9% and 1,5% respondents correspondingly know them at least at the basic level. Among the languages ​​of the CIS countries, the largest number of scientists speaks Ukrainian (1,5%). Certain small groups of doctorate holders  speak Polish, Eastern languages ​​ (Chinese, Japanese) or Latin, but they make up less than 1% of the sample; other languages ​​represent only in rare single cases.

Knowledge of Several Foreign Languages

Knowledge of several foreign languages among doctorate holders is quite common: about 40% of those who know English have studied at least one additional foreign language.

5,2% of the Russian scientists know three foreign languages (at different proficiency levels). In the absolute majority of cases, two of the three languages in such triads are English and German, and as a third, both European and Eastern languages can be added, as well as languages of the CIS countries.

Despite the fact that the absolute majority of Russian scientists possess foreign languages skills​​ (primarily English) to some extent, their knowledge is not always sufficient for successful international cooperation. Almost half of Russian doctorate holders are experiencing significant difficulties during professional communication in a foreign language. For the full integration of Russian scientists into international science networks, it is necessary to undertake systematic efforts aimed at developing the motivation of researchers for improving their language skills.

Sources: Data from a specialised survey conducted by the HSE Institute of Statistical Studies and Economics of Knowledge in the framework of the project 'Monitoring the behavior of subjects of the innovation process: technological strategies of enterprises and public involvement in science and technology' of the HSE Fundamental Research Program.

Material prepared by Natalia Shmatko, Galina Volkova

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