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Shouldn't Every Developer Understand English? 1077

Posted by kdawson
from the pragmatism-over-imperialism dept.
Pickens writes "Jeff Atwood has an interesting post that begins by noting that with the Internet, whatever country you live in or language you speak, a growing percentage of the accumulated knowledge of the world can and should be available in your native language; but that the rules are different for programmers. 'So much so that I'm going to ask the unthinkable: shouldn't every software developer understand English?' Atwood argues that 'It's nothing more than great hackers collectively realizing that sticking to English for technical discussion makes it easier to get stuff done. It's a meritocracy of code, not language, and nobody (or at least nobody who is sane, anyway) localizes programming languages.' Eric Raymond in his essay 'How to be a Hacker' says that functional English is required for true hackers and notes that 'Linus Torvalds, a Finn, comments his code in English (it apparently never occurred to him to do otherwise). His fluency in English has been an important factor in his ability to recruit a worldwide community of developers for Linux. It's an example worth following.' Although it may sound like The Ugly American and be taken as a sort of cultural imperialism, 'advocating the adoption of English as the de-facto standard language of software development is simple pragmatism, the most virtuous of all hacker traits,' writes Atwood. 'If that makes me an ugly American programmer, so be it.'"
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Shouldn't Every Developer Understand English?

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  • by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohn&gmail,com> on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @02:54PM (#27405635) Journal

    ... notes that 'Linus Torvalds, a Finn, comments his code in English (it apparently never occurred to him to do otherwise).

    I thought I had read/heard somewhere (might have even been the documentary Revolution OS) that Finns & Swedes grow up with English Sesame Street available to them and as a result many of them are bilingual from a young age.

    I've also ready that being bilingual or a polyglot is beneficial to thinking and memory skills. So I would caution thinking that because Linus Torvalds chooses comments in English for any reason other than more people speak it than Finnish. I would also caution you to assume that Linus learned English in order to increase his hacking skills. And I might even be inclined to argue that Linus' bilingualism aided or enabled him to reach such great heights with programming languages.

    After toying with tools like ANTLR [antlr.org], it's not too far of a jump to say that understanding another language (even a dead one like Latin) helps you understand that information & logic can be portrayed multiple different ways with different vocabularies & grammar rules. Thus priming you for many software languages.

    I cannot attest as to whether or not English buys you anything over Russian or Chinese as far as resources available on the web but I will argue that someone who has Russian as a first language and Chinese as a second will most likely be better off to code than someone with merely English as a first language (Disclaimer: I am the latter).

    'advocating the adoption of English as the de-facto standard language of software development is simple pragmatism, the most virtuous of all hacker traits'

    I don't think that makes you an 'ugly American programmer' but I sure do think it sets you up for some surprises in life.

    • by randyest (589159) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @03:06PM (#27405861) Homepage

      I will argue that someone who has Russian as a first language and Chinese as a second will most likely be better off to code than someone with merely English as a first language

      Cool, that sounds interesting. Upon what will you base your argument? Or have you confused "argue" and "assert?" An unfounded, unbased assertion is not an argument. HTH!

    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @03:07PM (#27405881)

      I thought I had read/heard somewhere (might have even been the documentary Revolution OS) that Finns & Swedes grow up with English Sesame Street available to them and as a result many of them are bilingual from a young age.

      Well, as a Finn I can tell that most of the programs in our TV, movies in theatres, etc. are still in english. All that are made outside Finland except for most of the ones meant for children under 10. They have finnish subtitles but we feel that dubbing them as most countries do would be just stupid. It does improve our english.

      However, the main reason why finns speak pretty decent english is our school system. Studying english is mandatory from grades 3 to 9 in the elementary schoo and any route you continue from there also requires you to study english. We believe that in the modern world it is just a basic requirement for everyone to understand the same language.

      Why Torvalds speaks good english is not because we think that programmers need that but because we feel that everyone needs that. I agree that everyone should speak english but disagree that programmers have much extra reason to do so.

      I visited St. Petersburg in Russia a week ago and nobody spoke english well. People on the streets weren't able to help us with directions when we needed some, we could ask nothing at the shops, etc... Even the staff at MacDonalds couldn't understand words like "Meal" or "Fries" in english. It sucked pretty much.

      • Speaking as a native English speaker resident in Finland, the idea that all young Finns are so wonderfully multilingual is unfortunately not the case. Especially outside of Helsinki, it's pretty easy to find young people who can't even hold a simple conversation in English, and the average Finns has about as much passion for the still-obligatory Swedish as Hungarians or Romanians did for Russian in the times of Communism. There are plenty of monolingual Finns.
        • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @04:01PM (#27406811)

          Speaking as a native English speaker living in England, it's pretty easy to find young people who can't even hold a simple conversation in English.

          Let's face it, even if an education system offers it doesn't mean everyone will take it up/do well at it. I would imagine that those who go on to be capable programmers will have done better in their education though.

    • I read your comment and the comments below yours. There is a misunderstanding. In July of 2009, there will be only an estimated 5,250,275 [cia.gov] people in Finland. The entire country has the population of one large city. Much of what they have comes from somewhere else.

      I have gathered considerable information about why Scandinavians speak English. This is the story, using the Finns as an example:

      Since so few people want to learn Finnish, they had to choose some other language, or not be able to communicate w
  • Yes (Score:5, Informative)

    by daveewart (66895) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @02:55PM (#27405667)

    Yes, almost certainly. You need to understand English to develop in programming languages where the syntax and reserved words are in English.

    Next question?

    • Re:Yes (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @02:57PM (#27405705)

      I agree. Not much different than learning French a century or three ago if you wanted to go into nternational diplomacy and handle high government legal affairs.

      • Re:Yes (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Yold (473518) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @03:58PM (#27406755)

        Or learning German a century ago if you wanted to be a scientist / mathematician. English is the lingua franca, so if you want a job in the technical/scientific field, you almost need to understand it. Maybe in another century, everyone will understand written Chinese.

        • by Trepidity (597) <delirium-slashdo ... g ['ish' in gap]> on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @04:21PM (#27407159)

          Perhaps if China had gone for the model that Japan has taken, with a significant domestic technical literature in their native language, it would be the case that within a few decades written Chinese would become a major language, at least for academia. But at least on present trends they don't seem to be doing that: to the contrary, the most prestigious domestic Chinese journals (excepting those specifically on Chinese history and literature) are written in English. That might change, but I don't see evidence of it happening yet. The fact that English has become the de facto standard for Indian scientists and academics (again, excepting some specific fields like Hindi literature) also helps bolster its dominance.

    • Re:Yes (Score:4, Insightful)

      by the_one(2) (1117139) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @03:05PM (#27405837)

      That's pretty stupid (unless you're joking). It's not like you have to know English just to understand the few words in programming languages. Of course there are other reasons for knowing English. There are a lot more programming books in English and if you are googleing you'd want to search in English and be able to read the information.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Cyberax (705495)

      ...and you don't even imagine how computer language with non-English keywords looks awkward and funny to native speakers.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Em Emalb (452530)

      Next question?

      American English or British English?

      • Re:Yes (Score:5, Interesting)

        by daveewart (66895) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @03:24PM (#27406191)

        American English or British English?

        Ha! I'm from the UK, so I use - of course - British English. However, occasionally there is a need to compromise. When I wrote colordiff [sf.net] I decided to use US-style 'color' in the project name (since colorgcc, colormake and other utilities already existed and I felt that made more sense) but to use UK-style 'colour' in all the documentation.

    • Re:Yes (Score:5, Interesting)

      by swillden (191260) <shawn-ds@willden.org> on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @03:12PM (#27405987) Homepage Journal

      I've seen a little discussion of this around the net, and I've talked to my own friends and colleagues from France, Korea, India, Brazil and China (just the sample I happened to have available). The most surprising thing to me is how NON-controversial this is. American programmers tend to feel a little sheepish about it, but the programmers who have to learn English in order to do their jobs effectively are -- from what I've seen -- absolutely matter-of-fact about the issue.

      I've even noticed an interesting phenomenon that, while far from universal, is also not all that rare: programmers who share a common non-English first language using English among themselves to engage in technical discussions. When I pointed out the oddity of that choice, I was told that even if they used their native language (Portuguese, in this case), that the conversation would be peppered with English words anyway, so it was just as easy to use English for the whole discussion. And why would the discussion be peppered with English? Because there's less agreement on the appropriate choices of Portuguese words for particular technical concepts, so the English terms are more precise and better-understood.

      Just last week I was speaking with a Korean developer and I was trying very gently suggest that it would be better if she commented her code in English, not Korean, because we have an international team and English is the only language we all have in common. I expected somewhat-grudging acceptance of my point. What she actually expressed was extreme embarrassment; she was quick to point out that she didn't write *any* of the Korean comments in the codebase and that she was very surprised when she saw them. In her mind it was a surprise that any of her fellows would comment in anything other than English. She was embarrassed because she hadn't yet managed to translate them all to English.

      And even those who wrote comments in Korean chose English class, method and variable names, which is another definite trend that I've noticed. Perhaps it's just so that the names read well with the English keywords, but in my experience it's pretty rare to find non-English names, even when all of the comments and documentation are in another language.

      Anyway, bottom line is that this seems to really be a complete non-issue. Programmers work in English, and there's no significant disagreement on the point.

      • Selection Bias (Score:5, Insightful)

        by SlashDotDotDot (1356809) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @03:39PM (#27406423) Journal

        TFA has many comments on its own page that agree with you, saying that this is a non issue. Of course, all of those people can already speak English, or else they wouldn't have been able to read the article. The millions of programmers who only speak Russian, Chinese, Japanese, German, etc. are unlikely to chime in here to argue against you. You probably didn't have a conversation just last week with a developer who only speaks Korean.

        I'm only sort of disagreeing. If I were a non-English speaking programmer with the time and resources to learn English, I probably would. I'm just saying that its hard to have a useful discussion about this, since the people most likely to have opposing views can't understand what we're saying.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Leafheart (1120885)

          As a Brazilian programmer who knows English pretty well even before entering programming let me light somethings that I watch in here:

          • Most of the programmers don't understand English very well (they mispronounce ever English constructor). Their comments are all in Portuguese, as are variables and class names;
          • Most of the programmers from the top universities (there are some people, even in my class, that were proud to not speak English)do know English very well and they indeed prefer to discuss, comment and
      • Re:Yes (Score:5, Funny)

        by TrekkieGod (627867) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @04:30PM (#27407289) Homepage Journal

        When I pointed out the oddity of that choice, I was told that even if they used their native language (Portuguese, in this case), that the conversation would be peppered with English words anyway, so it was just as easy to use English for the whole discussion.

        I can vouch for that. Years ago, I was speaking to a friend from Brazil over aim. He doesn't speak English, so the entire conversation was in Portuguese. However, when we started talking about technical things, I simply didn't have the necessary Portuguese vocabulary. So I started trying literal translations and hoping it would get close enough to the real term that he'd recognize it. Specifically, I was trying to find the word for "firewall" and the conversation went something like this:

        Me: "Parede de incendio?" ("wall for fires?")
        Him: "nao." ("no")
        Me: "Parede a prova de fogo?" ("fireproofed wall?")
        Him: "Estamos falando de computadores, certo?" ("We're talking about computers, right?")
        me: "Parede de fogo?" ("wall of fire")
        Him: "que??" ("what??")
        Me: "A coisa que protege computadores de acesso externo!" ("The thing that protects computers from external access"--I didn't want to introduce other terms like "ports" in the discussion, because I also didn't know how to translate that)
        Him: "Ah, quer dizer um firewall." ("Ah, you mean a firewall.")

    • Re:Yes (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Lutz (112651) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @03:17PM (#27406079) Homepage
      Wrong. I work in a French bank, and our contract management system is written in a French programming language: The variables are in French, the comments are French, the function names are in French, the operators are French... For example, "if" is "si". It's unbelievable for outsiders, but this is real.
      • by fadir (522518) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @03:44PM (#27406497)

        I didn't expect anything different, in fact it would have surprised me if such a comment wouldn't have popped up.

        Let's rephrase the Subject: "Shouldn't Every Developer (but the French) Understand English?"

      • Re:Yes (Score:5, Insightful)

        by CodeBuster (516420) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @04:02PM (#27406825)
        Yes, but the French are well know for their obstinate defense of their language and culture; frequently refusing to adopt foreign words, technologies, and culture until a french equivalent is re-created from scratch. This has occasionally resulted in some unfortunate side effects, such as the delayed distribution of HIV testing kits due to the originals not being French enough. English on the other hand is much more promiscuous, readily borrowing words, concepts, and ideas from foreign cultures and incorporating them into our own. So to say that France is different is sort of like cherry picking the most xenophobic element and accepting it as the norm.
        • downright wrong (Score:3, Insightful)

          by aepervius (535155)
          Yes, but the French are well know for their obstinate defense of their language and culture; frequently refusing to adopt foreign words, technologies, and culture until a french equivalent is re-created from scratch.

          a MINORITY of french, particularly a few academic and minister with nothing else to do do that. But most french could not care less. I never used couriel or whatever it is called, and everybody I know use email as word.
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by PCM2 (4486)

            But most french could not care less. I never used couriel or whatever it is called, and everybody I know use email as word.

            According to my French teachers in college, this has gone back and forth for years. For example, when Sony introduced the portable stereo in France, it was known by the brand name Walkman. Later, as "walkman" became a genericized word in English (whether Sony liked it or not), a movement in France began to create a unique generic for Francophone people -- thus, "baladeur." But more recently this practice has been downplayed -- particularly by young people, whether it's to seem more hip and in-sync with the

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Deflatamouse! (132424)

        You must be talking about Ç++

    • Re:Yes, pilots (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Jherico (39763) * <bdavisNO@SPAMsaintandreas.org> on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @03:32PM (#27406331) Homepage
      Pilots and ATC do the same thing. Its because the guarantee of pilots being able to communicate with each other and with ground control is much more important than the alternative, for obvious reasons. Whether this argument applies to all coders might be subject to some debate, but I imagine for mission critical software like for medical devices or say, ATC, its a no brainer.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by darthwader (130012)

        My wife is a pilot, and she tells me that (oddly enough) it is American ATC who are the worse offenders for not using ICAO-standard English. The ICAO standard may be to say "Turn left 30 degrees to enter a circular holding pattern", but the American ATC will be the ones to say "Ya'll hang a left now and hang around over the island until we're ready for ya, OK?"

        When people get confused, they blame the damn foreigners for not understanding English, instead of their own ATC for not using the standard terms wh

  • by VoxMagis (1036530) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @02:56PM (#27405699)

    I think 'programmers' are much to diverse to think that we need anything like this. I read somewhere that Air Traffic Control has English as the 'official' language, so that global flights maintain communication clearly, but I'm not sure we have to worry about that with coding.

  • Ja (Score:3, Interesting)

    by theverylastperson (1208224) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @02:59PM (#27405731) Homepage
    Ja wird das Sprechen von englisch fast angefordert, aber in der Lage seiend zu denken und Arbeit in vielen Sprachen ist besser.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Em Emalb (452530)

      Let me translate for those that don't speak German:

      Chief Inspector Lee:"Do you understand the words that are a-coming out of my mouth?"

      Detective James Carter:"Don't nobody understand the words that are comin' out of your mouth!"

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @03:00PM (#27405745)

    ...use English. Working for a firm that did medical education for Saudi Arabian doctors and nurses, everything was written in English - the default for the medical community. We had to be careful not to write above a 6th grade level, though, to reach the widest audience.

  • by Odin_Tiger (585113) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @03:00PM (#27405755) Journal
    Here's a response from an American in China with some good considerations on where to draw the line: http://odwks.com/2009/03/mandarin-chinese-programmer-communites/ [odwks.com]
  • by tedhiltonhead (654502) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @03:01PM (#27405765)

    Why does it have to be *functional* English? Most of the world is procedural English with some OO English here and there... I shouldn't have to learn a new programming paradigm just to communicate!

  • by randyest (589159) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @03:01PM (#27405771) Homepage
    Of course programmers should speak English. I'm not saying only English speakers can be good programmers, but let's be honest -- English is the most common spoken language on the planet (I didn't say first language.) So, it's almost like a "standard" for communication, which is pretty key for geographically-distributed collaborate development (i.e., programming, especially in FOSS land.)

    This isn't so much a case of someone being so "bold" as to "ask the unthinkable" as it is someone asking a question with an obvious answer by which some (silly and offen-sensitive) people will be offended. Maybe a troll for blog hits/ad impressions?

    Heck, even many of the most popular programming languages use English keywords! Not much to see here, move along at whatever pace you find most comfortable...
  • I live in Mexico... (Score:3, Informative)

    by Spy der Mann (805235) <<spydermann.slashdot> <at> <gmail.com>> on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @03:03PM (#27405811) Homepage Journal

    Mexico has been a country where the Internet has reached the majority of the population. Internet Cafes are practically on every corner of Mexico City, people know about youtube, etc.

    And yet, I'm constantly asked by younger relatives or friends to help them with some task (usually their homework). I ask them to search the wikipedia, and they say that they can't find what they're looking for. I ask: Did you search the ENGLISH wikipedia?

    Turns out they don't know English and are too lazy to learn.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by JCSoRocks (1142053)
      So are you sad because there aren't going to be more lazy programmers out there? Fine by me. I was sick of the lazy people I dealt with on projects in college. We don't need more of them.
  • by nirjana (1000315) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @03:04PM (#27405817)
    English has become the de-facto language for air travel and academic research as well. When efficient, accurate communication is required, there needs to be a common language that is used. The choice of the language isn't so important, as long as the community comes to a consensus (whether explicitly or implicitly).
  • by tundog (445786) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @03:06PM (#27405851) Homepage

    I, for one, welcome our new ulgy American overlords...

  • One language (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Todd Knarr (15451) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @03:07PM (#27405883) Homepage

    I think it's a more general statement: "All programmers should understand and be reasonably fluent in one common language.". It just makes collaboration easier if there's one language everybody can use when they need to talk to each other. It just so happens that English happens to be the one language with the largest "market share", because of the way computer programming started off. Personally I don't think English should get primacy just because it's English, but at the moment it probably involves the fewest people having to learn a language they don't already know. Plus, as noted, it's such a mongrel. As the joke goes, it doesn't so much borrow from other langauges as chase them down a dark alley, whack them up the back of the head and riffle their pockets for vocabulary. English is probably the best language out there when it comes to having short, direct ways of saying technical things. To me, those things give English the best claim to the position.

  • by jollyreaper (513215) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @03:10PM (#27405941)

    Everyone should use English. It's the lingua franca of the world now.

    *ducks, runs*

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by keeboo (724305)

      Everyone should use English. It's the lingua franca of the world now.

      *ducks, runs*

      More like "English is the x86 of the natural languages".

      (now excuse me while my karma goes down the drain...)

  • by Rozzin (9910) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @03:11PM (#27405957) Homepage

    I read an anecdote somewhere that went something like this:

    I asked a programmer friend, whose native language was something other than English, whether he was bothered by all of the hold of English over programming.

    He responded by asking me, "Are you at all musically inclined?"

    When I said that I was, he asked, "Does it bother you that all of the musical vocabulary is Italian?"

    When I said, "No, of course not.", he said, "Well, it's the same thing--it's just an artifact, that the thing has a vocabulary from wherever it developed."

  • Why not (Score:5, Informative)

    by JBMcB (73720) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @03:15PM (#27406025)

    English is also the international language of aviation. When a Swiss airplane is landing in Egypt, the pilot speaks English to the tower. Why? Because the US and England had the first major commercial air industries.

    At the turn of the last century, if you wanted a science or engineering degree, you had to learn German, as all the best journals were printed in that language.

    • Re:Why not (Score:5, Funny)

      by mooingyak (720677) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @04:07PM (#27406925)

      Why? Because the US and England had the first major commercial air industries.

      or, alternatively (quoting from: http://www.businessballs.com/airtrafficcontrollersfunnyquotes.htm [businessballs.com])

      Allegedly, a Pan Am 727 flight waiting for start clearance in Munich overheard the following:
      Lufthansa (in German): "Ground, what is our start clearance time?"
      Ground (in English): "If you want an answer you must speak in English."
      Lufthansa (in English): "I am a German, flying a German airplane, in Germany. Why must I speak English?"
      Unknown voice from another plane (in a beautiful British accent): "Because you lost the bloody war."

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by CodeBuster (516420)

      At the turn of the last century, if you wanted a science or engineering degree, you had to learn German, as all the best journals were printed in that language.

      The allied victory in WWII basically sealed the fate of German as the academic and technical lingua franca. The British/American development of the first stored-program computers, based in part upon the previous work of Charles Babbage and later Alan Turing (who worked at Bletchley Park on the Colossus among other things), further sealed the deal in the decades following WWII (especially with the Soviets walling themselves off behind the Iron Curtain).

  • jeff atwood is proposing a nonsolution to a nonproblem

    for historical reasons, english has become the de facto language of business worldwide, and programming as a global profession simply follows this proclivity, no questions asked, no need to underline the point

    a non-english speaking programmer knows he or she is limiting their options career-wise simply by ignoring the largest resource available to them: other programmers, who are undoubtedly speaking english, even if they themselves are not native english speakers. and so there is no need to insist programmers speak english, as it is self inclusivity (of those who choose to speak english freely) that is the prime motivator here, not esternally applied exclusivity (insisting someone speak english... that already knows its important)

    if a programmer self-excludes by choosing not to speak english, who cares? its there choice. let them program in english language isolation. how does that effect you? its not like you are going to an english language symposium and run into someone who insists you speak hindi to them, or comment on an english language programming tip site, and run into a comment in mandarin, or sit next to a programmer in the office, who only speaks spanish. the hindi speaker would have never gone to the symposium in the first place: its in english, announced up front. the mandarin speaker would not comment in the english language programming site: all the other content is a sea of english, what's the point? and the spanish-only speaker would never have been hired in the most probably english-speaking place of business in the first place, you would never run into such a person

    in other words, jeff is pointing out a nonexistent problem, that even if it existed, has a solution proposed which is pointless

  • Idiot programmers make the same idiot mistakes regardless of what language they speak. I'd much rather work with a brilliant, non-English speaker who can read and understand code (i.e. my code or anyone else's) vs. an English speaker that can't read code and is perpetually inserting screw-ups that I have to go in and mop up later.

  • by MobyDisk (75490) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @04:09PM (#27406959) Homepage

    Although I prefer Esperanto.

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