My Husband Teaches Physics in a Non-Native Language – Because He Can

by Corey · 22 comments

By Corey Heller
Photo credit: Waifer X

My husband was born in Germany and attended German public schools. He started learning English in 5th grade and continued all through school. His teachers often had German accents when they spoke English and it is possible they made mistakes from time to time, but he learned English well anyway. He also added French and Latin along the way.

My husband is multilingual because his school system encouraged him to learn languages.

When he was older, he traveled to England and Ireland many times and studied in Galway, Ireland for a year (which is where I met him). He has also traveled in France and even though he couldn’t teach Physics in French, he can make himself understood when he travels there.

He did his Diplom (Master’s degree) in Germany and a Geophysics Ph.D. in the United States. In English. The whole thing in English. He chose to become an instructor at a local college and now teaches Physics to college students from around the world in English.

My husband’s personal story is unique but his language skills are not. Most people in the world are multilingual. Multilingualism is what happens when we choose to live as global citizens and to encourage our children to speak languages from around the world. (By the way, the other Physics instructor in the department is French!)

My husband teaches Physics in a non-native language because he can. And he can because his country’s education system decided it was important for his future as a global citizen. Thank goodness for that.

How many of you teach or work in a language that is not your native language(s)? When did you first learn your non-native languages? Did your country’s education system help make this happen?

Corey Heller is the founder of Multilingual Living and the Editor-In-Chief/Publisher of Multilingual Living Magazine. Multilingual Living is the place where she shares her knowledge about raising multilingual and multicultural children. Corey, an American, and her German husband live in Seattle where they raise and homeschool their three children, ages 14, 12 and 10, in German and English.

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Linda M January 4, 2012 at 11:46 pm

Great story, and it makes a good point. Languages open so many doors!

Do you not learn foreign languages at all in reguar US schools? Or do you have to at some point but start later than we do in Europe?

I started learning English when I was 10 (now they start at 6) and, like your husband, I kept going all the way through uni with it, writing my MA thesis (History) in English and studying a year abroad (in York, UK). I’m currently back at school, studying to be a teacher and just finished a 6 week practice placement at an English language international school. I hope to work in an international school when I get my degree. (I also did French and German in school but I’m nowhere near as comfortable using them. I can order food in French and understand most of spoken German, though I hesitate to speak it myself because I’m worried I’ll get the grammar wrong… I’m such a grown-up 😛 )

The weird thing is that while I have been using English for both work and play for years and years, I never really considered myself a bilingual. I always believed you had to be bilingual from birth to be one. I only saw myself as someone who just happened to be fluent in English. My view has changed a lot since discovering this site and others like it, as I have become more and more invested in providing my kids with a “proper” bilingual upbringing. 🙂


2 Corey January 10, 2012 at 12:49 am

You make such a great point, Linda: we often forget that WE are bilingual too, even though we didn’t grow up with more than one language from birth. I love that Prof. Grosjean has gone to such lengths to finally dispel this myth. I keep meaning to write a post about this (your comment will inspire me) because the same thing happened to me where I had a sudden realization that I too am bilingual. Wow! And my husband and his family… etc.

Thank you for sharing about your own language learning experiences. Isn’t it amazing how lucky those are who have been given the opportunity to learn a language from a young age. To be able to learn it before we even realize the value of it! So wonderful!


3 A Frog at Large January 5, 2012 at 3:06 am

I learnt English at school in France from 11 years old. I also studied German and Italian but I was pretty rubbish at them! The school system is such that it is compulsory to learn English throughout secondary school as well as another foreign language (German or Spanish). I fear the real trigger for me being any good at it though, was that I had a terrible crush on a guy who was half French-half English and I hoped to impress him with my skills. It failed completely, but the language skills remained! I decided to take a year out to go to England for a year before going to university and I never came back. My working life has therefore been entirely in English despite it being my second language. I love it, even though my French has suffered a bit. Thankfully, I now have a daughter and speaking French to her is very good for me!


4 Corey January 10, 2012 at 12:51 am

You are so right: just because we learn the language in school doesn’t mean that we’ll be fluent in it. But it gives us the jumping off point to really excel in it if we want. Those trips to countries where the language is spoken is so valuable – or maybe today with the opportunities to Skype!


5 Chataine January 6, 2012 at 8:56 pm

I grew up in a small town in Mantioba, Canada and while languages in school were offered, it wasn’t taught very seriously.

The teachers offered the choice to learn German or French in Grade 3 so we were 8 years old, but now I hear they only offer French.
The attitude of many of my friends, was that: it was neat to learn another language, but we are right in the middle of a massive continent, why would we need to learn another language? Plus the majority of people around where we live only speak English so even if we managed to get a working knowledge of a language, there isn’t many people we can practice our language skills out on.

I graduated a couple years ago, and I asked a couple of friends if they have used what they learned at school and they said they don’t remember a thing, they never used it after passing that last exam.


6 Corey January 10, 2012 at 12:54 am

So true – if language isn’t used then it will slowly move to the back burner. I guess the benefit to learning it in school, however, is that the language is still there inside our brains for a future time when we might actually need it. I could imagine that if those of you who learned German or French went to a country where the language was spoken, you’d be able to start conversing much faster than those who didn’t have any language exposure. However, when all is said and done, it is unfortunate that we don’t have more opportunities to use our languages in the North American continent!


7 Chataine January 11, 2012 at 11:38 pm

Well I don’t think the students learning French had a good teacher. When friends heard the German class had a debate all in German they were shocked and said they defiantly wouldn’t be able to do that themselves. The focus was on reading and writing not speaking. So not terribly practical in a country where the official languages are French and English…


8 Corey January 15, 2012 at 4:19 pm

Great point, Chataine! The kind of learning experience we have can make all of the difference. There are so many elements to language learning: speaking, reading, writing… and then so many different categories in each of those: conversational, academic, business, etc.

I love the idea of a debate in the new language! Excellent idea!


9 Julie January 9, 2012 at 5:34 pm

That’s mighty awesome. Knowing multiple languages is a real advantage in life, and a door opener too.

My 2012 resolution is to learn French.

Luv 🙂



10 Corey January 10, 2012 at 12:55 am

Awesome new year’s resolution! I am behind you 100% on that resolution! 😉 Good luck and let us know how it goes!


11 Sabine January 12, 2012 at 9:17 am

My husband (Lithuanian) and I (German) both work and teach in Norway. We both didn’t know a word in Norwegian before being 21, BUT our school systems having taught us English and other languages gave us the courage to move abroad and the confidence to succeed in learning yet another language.


12 Linda M January 14, 2012 at 4:00 am

Hei 🙂

Do you teach in English or Norwegian? (Just being nosey here. LOL) I have several foreign friends who teach in Norway but they all work either in international schools or at uni, where they can teach in English. A lot of them never really bother to learn much Norwegian because most Norwegians understand English so well that there is no need.

Linda M


13 Sabine January 14, 2012 at 4:36 am

Hei 🙂

We teach in Norwegian. My husband is professor at the Norwegian Academy of Music and teaches in Norwegian, however in the single lessons he can adapt to what suits the student most (he speaks Lithuanian, Russian, German, English and Norwegian). I am an orchestra musician, and you are right, it was very hard to learn Norwegian since everyone switches to English immediately when you just didn’t understand one word….that is why I started to teach my instrument to elementary school kids who don’t speak english, that way I had to get through the lessons in Norwegian…which rapidly got so much better! 🙂


14 Corey January 15, 2012 at 4:33 pm

I love your final sentence, Sabine! Talk about finding a way to make sure language learning continues to happen! You got it! Excellent!


15 Corey January 14, 2012 at 1:50 pm

What a fantastic point, Sabine: learning that first second language gives us the courage to learn more. Once we realize that learning languages is possible and can be fun/enjoyable/satisfying/successful, we are encouraged to learn more. Plus, you probably quickly realized that learning a language IN the country is nothing short of AMAZING! Learning it outside the country can feel laborious but to learn it while living in the same language is so satisfying! Kudos to both you and your husband!


16 Judit January 13, 2012 at 7:41 pm

I started to teach Math in a NYC Private school (in English) 7 years ago.
I did the same thing in Budapest, Hungary (in Hungarian) for 10+ yrs.


17 Corey January 14, 2012 at 1:47 pm

That is fantastic, Judit! Where did you grow up? And where/how did you learn English and Hungarian? Aside from the languages, it sounds like it was a wonderful way to not just see the world but to experience it by living there for an extended period of time! I am very impressed to hear that you teach in Hungarian! I have heard that it is a very difficult language to learn! Amazing!


18 Judit January 14, 2012 at 2:32 pm

haha, learning and speaking Hungarian is NOT such a big deal if you are Hungarian :). I grew up in Budapest, and German was my first second language (other than the required Russian). My husband is a NYer and we live here and are raising our b/g twins (5 yrs) bilingual. We can spend the summer in Hungary and it helps for my kids. However, I have to be very consistent NOT to speak English with them. Not easy…English IS their primary language because that what the kids around them are speaking. They understand everything, but they are not on a 5 yr old kid’s level in speaking mu language. We try to meet Hungarian families and kids often during the school year, but it is not always easy. Anyway…this is an interesting writing (I enjoyed the others, too – about Santa/Mikulas and siblings, too). Thank you!


19 Corey January 15, 2012 at 4:23 pm

No wonder you are so good in Hungarian! 😉 However, I wouldn’t have been surprised if you had mastered it as a second language – people here always stun me with their diverse language abilities!

You are so right about how hard it is to keep languages alive for our children in the US. That was my original impetus for writing this post: in the US, multilingualism and learning new languages isn’t a part of our everyday expectations. We don’t expect that our children will learn multiple languages and then use them in the future. If we were to just add them in as a standard element to our children’s education, then it would add so much to their lives and give them the courage, joy, fascination with languages and cultures around the world. At least families can do this for their children! 😉


20 Judit January 15, 2012 at 4:37 pm

yes, I know people who are speaking Hungarian beautifully and they moved to Hungary as grown-ups. It’s hard but not impossible.
My grandma (born in 1901 close to the Austrian border – then one country – HU+Austria) spoke 7 languages…..she just had nannies from different countries plus studied hard. I wish I spoke 7 …


21 Ana Maria January 15, 2012 at 7:52 am

I am a Research Assistant Professor in a US private university and I work and teach in English. I was born in Colombia and thus I am a native Spanish speaker. This is not an unusual situation in universities across the US, especially in engineering and science where many of the faculty are of foreign origin and thus English may not necessarily be their native language. Going through graduate school in the US I experienced many teachers who were bilingual, some with better English skills than others but all of them able to teach a high level engineering course in a language different from their native language. I personally learned English when I was 10 years old because my family moved to the US for a period of 18 months. Growing up in Colombia, you have the option of attending bilingual schools (English, French, German, etc). I did not go to a bilingual school and thus the level of English class was not such that all of my classmates became bilingual. In undergraduate, English was a requirement unless you were proficient in the language. In fact, many books were in English so there I acquired some of the technical language that helped me later in grad school. Just to summarize I want to point out that in higher level education in the US, especially in engineering and sciences it is not such a strange occurrence to teach in English for non-native speakers. Interesting fact given that bilingualism is not necessarily a priority in the education system in this country.


22 Corey January 15, 2012 at 4:32 pm

Thank you for your comment, Ana Maria. Actually, what you are writing is exactly what I was pointing out in this post: people from around the world come to the US all the time to work, teach and live and they do so comfortably in a non-native language: English. It isn’t such a big deal because they have been given encouragement and skills to do so when they were younger (for example, your family made the effort to come here for 18 months – what a wonderful way to learn a language!).

I wish the US would make that an option for children here by offering students the chance to start learning a language from a young age. At the very least, it would take away the belief that learning languages is too difficult for them to achieve (it can be if you aren’t exposed to one until you are in high school, or later, and have a lot of other pressures to deal with!). If our children start at a young age, then they have a real chance to master languages. Even if they don’t use it down the road, they will know that they CAN use it or CAN learn another language. Language learning takes practice over time. Four years in high school just isn’t the place to start and doesn’t provide the time it takes to learn a second language.


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