why engineers are wired to be good at English as a second language. Why non native speakers can excel at Technical English and Business English

Language and Engineering: You’re Wired To Be Good at English

engineering language patterns myth buster technical english Oct 03, 2022

Are you among the many people who believe that learning a new language and engineering are completely different skill sets? Although you wouldn’t be a minority, you’re not entirely right. Your engineering skills can actually help you learn a language.


And it’s not just me who thinks this. Brain science points to the relationship between systematic thinking, problem-solving, and creativity that both engineers and language learners need to succeed. 


So, do you have what it takes to be good at business English? Your engineering brain might be your greatest asset.


Recognizing patterns: a language and math skill

The math and science you studied to become an engineer taught you to look for patterns, crack through codes, and understand symbols. Sound familiar? Learning a language requires cracking the code of another system: communication. And even if there are multiple exceptions to the rules (looking at you, English!), picking up on patterns is essential to learning technical English easily. 


Luckily, as an engineer, you’re already used to cracking the code of random symbols and turning it into something meaningful and useful.


Problem-solving in language and engineering

Similar to recognizing patterns, you as an engineer are wired to solve problems. The way you do it? Recognize a system (like a pattern) and improve that system. As much as we engineers sometimes wish problem-solving to be black and white, with a clear-cut solution to standard problems, many of the situations we encounter require us to think outside the box. Think about the world’s tallest building, for example. To keep the Burj Khalifa in Dubai cool, engineers created an ingenious ice storage system that cools the building and saves on cost. 


Learning a language is much the same way. If you’ve been in a situation where you’ve had to use your (limited) business English skills, you know what I’m talking about. You might have to completely rearrange a sentence you were going to say because you couldn’t remember that one vocabulary word or you don’t know the grammar to say it the way you initially thought of.


That’s when your engineering problem-solving brain is a big help.


Breaking down complicated concepts 

Many of the skills that are essential for success as an engineer can also be applied to learning technical English. For example, both engineering and language learning requires a systematic approach. 


In engineering, complex problems are typically broken down into smaller, more manageable parts. This same strategy can be used when learning English. Instead of trying to learn the entire language at once, we break it down into smaller chunks and learn it systematically, with new concepts and vocabulary being fed to us in bite-size pieces. 


Feeling comfortable and safe

Anyone who has tried to learn a new language knows that feeling comfortable is essential. If you're too intimidated to speak up and make mistakes, you'll never progress beyond a few basic phrases. 


The same is true of engineering. To be successful, you need to feel comfortable enough to trust your instincts, speak up when something is wrong, and assert yourself on the job. After all, engineering is all about problem-solving. And often, the best way to solve a problem is to get input from others. 


This can be a challenge, especially for women and minorities who have traditionally been underrepresented in the field. But it's essential if you want to be an effective engineer. 


Trust your gut, and you'll be well on your way to becoming a great engineer and a technical English language learner.


Language is a left-brain function (like math)

When most people think of engineering, they think of left-brain activities like math and science. It turns out that language processing is typically a left-brain function as well. 


It's your left brain that’s working hard to figure out the meaning of a new technical English word. Speaking and learning a language is primarily a logical function, and most of the language centres, such as those responsible for understanding grammar and vocabulary, are on the left side of the brain.


However, it's important to note that both sides of the brain are involved in all functions, including language learning and engineering. The right brain recognizes and responds to emotions, for example. So while language learning is primarily a left-brain function, communication requires both sides of the brain.


Engineering as a right-brain function (like art)

No, that’s not right. I can hear many of my engineering clients saying on reading this header. I’ll concede: engineering is both a left and right brain skill. 


Sure, as we noted before, engineering requires the systematic problem-solving left brain (like language), but it also requires creativity to solve many problems. Sometimes, there are multiple solutions to a problem – or you have to devise a solution on the fly. In these cases, a well-formed intuition comes to play. 


If you’re a good engineer, chances are you’re artsier than you give yourself credit for. You might not be creative in the traditional sense of writing poetry and painting sceneries, but being able to see the big picture and use your technical knowledge to build a dam, enhance a production process, or send humans to Mars is a right brain function. 


Right brain activities like brainstorming and creative visualization can help engineers develop new ideas and solutions. In other words, engineering isn’t just about math and science – it’s about using both sides of your brain.


That being said, while your engineering brain can help you learn technical English, it’s still difficult. This isn’t the type of English you learned at school or can pick up from watching a sitcom. 


Hiring an ESL* teacher with an engineering background can solve much of your frustration around learning English and give you the confidence to speak up in international settings. Learn more about English for Engineers tutoring here and get a free consultation.


*ESL: English as a second language