Learning in a foreign language

Each of us is a learner. We can be divided into those who are learning intentionally, and those who do it unintentionally. And that is the only valid polarization there should be. The world would be much easier with it.

Anyhow, as we are all learners (I strongly believe that), with the vastness of content available in only one or couple of languages, most of us are learning in our non-native language. This is especially true when working in IT, but in other branches of industry as well.

With this article, I want to address the topic of learning in a non-native language. What is the impact on us? How does it look? What do I do when I want to get the gist of something I'm learning? I'm also super curious to find out about your approach. Stick until the end, and then maybe add some comments on your ways of learning in a non-native language.

What do the scientists say?

So, after writing the introduction to this article, I've looked at what the researchers say about this topic. And to my amazement, I've found a lot of research. I've discovered that there is a thing called Foreign Language Effect. This is connected with thinking in a foreign language. What does it do to our critical thinking and biases that we have? How do we perceive certain words in a foreign language - do they have the same effect on us or not?

All in all, the whole topic of learning and thinking in a foreign language has plenty of research papers and books, and I wouldn't want to bother you with all. For that matter, I wouldn't even have the time for that.

However, I want to point out one research paper that I've found quite interesting. It is called Effects of Learning and Teaching in a Foreign Language, by Wim M.G. Jochems from the Eindhoven University of Technology. It's from January 1991, and it was published in European Journal of Engineering Education.[1]

This paper investigates the possible effect of learning and teaching engineering programs in a foreign language. That is what I needed in the first place. Someone to tell me what is the effect of learning about engineering topics in a foreign language. If all of my previous and future articles' research could be this easy...

Anyhow, I've gone through the research findings and the conclusion is - teaching and learning in a foreign language has numerous negative effects. Some of them that are mentioned include:

  • Students have lower scores on tests.
  • The passing percentage decreases.
  • Both teachers and students need to prepare more to teach/learn in a foreign language, resulting in more effort.

Those negative effects can and will decrease with time, sure, but in the beginning, it will be tough for both sides.

There is also another side to this. Other research says that thinking in a foreign language can be beneficial to us, as it brings a new perspective, a new way of thinking and looking at things.[2]

Yes, I completely agree. But that depends on various things, one of them being - what is the degree of proficiency in a foreign language? If it's high - I assume both understanding and thinking in a foreign language will be better for us and the overall understanding of the topic. But what happens if the proficiency is low? That person spends more time learning and understanding the topic.

What is my approach?

Now, I consider myself proficient in English. I've read numerous books in English, both non-fiction, technical, and fiction. For some time I've even preferred reading in English more than Serbian. I thought I read faster in English. Even my blog is in English due to better visibility. And the fact is that by being able to read/think in English the material available to you grows exponentially.

Just recently, however, I started to challenge myself differently. I'm sure I'll see the effects of it sooner rather than later, but until then, I'm going to stick with it.

This is the approach. When reading some technical, non-fiction book, or watching/listening to some material in a foreign language, if there is something I want to remember, I try to explain it to myself in my native language. Try to note down what I need to remember in plain old Serbian.

My previous modus operandi was - I took notes and did the learning in the language of the material. If I read something in English, I took notes in English, and so on.

Results so far - fun, tough and interesting. Fun because there are numerous of things I now translate to Serbian, including some terms like deployment, layered architecture, two-tier... Tough, because it's tough to sometimes go check the dictionary and look for synonyms if the translation is not good enough. And interesting because I'm able to better understand and explain things that I've learned. Both in English and Serbian. Previously I had problems when trying to explain things in Serbian.


Thinking about this topic always reminds me of a scene from the TV show Modern Family where Gloria (played by Sofia Vergara) during some argument with her husband Jay (Ed O'Neill) asks him - Do you even know how smart I am in Spanish?

Sometimes, I felt the same. And sometimes I even noticed that I'm more biased about somebody's expertise based on their proficiency in a foreign language. And that is plain wrong. We shouldn't judge a person's knowledge and expertise based on how well they speak a language that is not native to them.

Now, on the topic of learning more effectively - I found that my understanding and learning are better when after reading something in English, I try to explain it in Serbian. Also, when trying to recall things in Serbian rather than English helps me explain them better later in the process. In both Serbian and English. Maybe it's just a whim and it's temporary, or maybe it is better. The time will tell.

What about you? What is your preferred way of learning in a foreign language?


  1. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/233073286_Effects_of_Learning_and_Teaching_in_a_Foreign_Language ↩︎

  2. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.549083/full ↩︎