No, not all programmers speak English.

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2005/01/26 02:07 -05:00, original URI:

Yesterday, Brad Abrams asked Do all programmers speak english?

The answer, which I learned in part from the volunteer efforts to translate/localize large parts of the Trigeminal website, is no. Not all of them do.

I learned (and continue to learn!) many things from that site, because all of the following are true:

  1. Some people from other countries send me mail and talk about how cool the localized site is.
  2. Other people not only do that but point out typos and better words to use in translations.
  3. Still other people want to help by translating some pages themselves.
  4. Most people send me email in their language, asking for assistance with a technical problem!

The latter reached its high point a few years back when someone from a Microsoft subsidiary sent me email, fascinated that a consulting company he had never heard of was apparently doing business right near him and he had never heard of it. He wanted to know where my office was located, since my address was not on the site!1

To this day I get email from developers now and again in français, हिन्दी, deutsch, Ελληνικά, Português, தமிழ், Română, עברית, svenska, ภาษาไทย, Español, 日本語, Nederlands, Български, فارسى, and sometimes even ქართული from developers (whether it is for reason #1, #2, #3, or #4 often varies with language but the patterns are consistent!). I have even at times had whole email conversations with me typing in English and them typing in their native language (mostly when it is a Latin script language!), and since we share a common subject matter we can often understand each other without requiring Babel Fish Translation for every message.

One sentiment I have often heard from people in Sweden and the Netherlands (where I have given presentations and even had translations done of the PowerPoint slides!) is that many developers find knowledge of English to be invaluable as not all books and articles are translated (and some that is translated is not done as well as it might). Also, many developers assume that the English version of a program will be less buggy (though thankfully I think this impression is at least starting to fade). Along those lines, Francesco Balena told me a few years ago that even though he writes books for Microsoft Press in English that he does the translations into Italian himself (which i would imagine reduces the cost in addition to giving better control over quality!).

The one time that developers are most likely to use their native language is in comments, even if their function and variable names are in English. And I suspect that as more and more developers from other countries break into the international space that this will become more and more common.

I will close with a link to the 'Provincial' page, which sums up the issue in as cheeky of a manner as I can muster. :-)

1 - He was less thrilled after I pointed out that not only was I not in France, but that neither was my translator, who is a native of Québec! He suddenly changed from #1 to #2 and started pointing out typos that existed on the French pages, something that is always easier to forgive when the author is from the same place!


This post sponsored by "ચ" (U+09a9, a.k.a. GUJARATI LETTER CA)

# CornedBee on 26 Jan 2005 8:58 AM:

I think that on the contrary, as development gets more and more internationalized, comments in sources will tend to be all in English, even when written by non-English developers, so as to make it easier for other developers to work with the code.

Personally, though my native language is German, I prefer to do everything to do with programming in English. I learned programming in English, with all the tech talk in English, and when I talk in German about programming, I feel very uncomfortable with the many English words that mix in. I also feel uncomfortable with the translation of these words.

# Michael Kaplan on 26 Jan 2005 9:09 AM:

Well, opinions will vary on this one -- you and I can point to plenty of code on the web that can prove each of us right (which would actually just mean that we are both right!).

# Pavel Šrubař on 26 Jan 2005 11:35 AM:

Non-English programming rookies have an advantage when they name their identifiers in their mother tongue. It is more obvious then what is a part of the programming language (which is always
English-like) and what is invented by the programmer.

Nevertheless, Czech identifiers look so unnatural to me that I refrained from using them, giving up this undeserved advantage :=)

# Martin Skøtt on 26 Jan 2005 1:30 PM:

I always comment my code in English and use english function and variable names - as Pavel Šrubař allready pointed out they look unnatural in other languages (Danish for me).

One complication in English programming languages is that sometimes function names or important terms just don't come natural. Words like: translitterate, immutable, append are just examples og words which have puzzled me while getting started programming.

On the other hand - my experience is that books on programming not written in English suck :)

# Nick Lange on 26 Jan 2005 8:51 PM:

Actually, some of the more obscure pieces of code I've neeeded in equally obscure situations has been pulled from overseas.. great code, just wish I could understand the comments sometimes :)

# English programs more reliable on 26 Jan 2005 11:28 PM:

Well, for my part I do think english programs (even microsoft ones) are more stable. For an example, about a year ago, our department switched to Visual Studio .NET 2003, from Visual C++ 6. I was the only person with english OS (Windows XP) and with an english installation of Visual Studio. Others had german versions of both. Well, somehow, I was the only person who had no stability issues. All others were complaining about the new program.
To the credit of Microsoft, the problems did go away with time. Now I don't know, were it really stability issues and did they learn to work around them, or was it only reluctance to use a new program? :-)

# Mark Eichin on 27 Jan 2005 12:17 PM:

Back in the day, "With Microscope and Tweezers" was translated into Japanese by BIT Magazine. Left-to-right JTex, very much for a technical audience (and it probably helped them leave things like "Athena" and "sendmail" in Roman letters.) I was particularly amused that they took some of the example code, kept the identifiers but translated all of the comments. I never did find out if that was common among Japanese coders, though.

It was clear that Japanese coders, at least, were expected to read enough English to handle names and language keywords...

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