Knowing English as a second language? A third? Or at all?

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2006/02/11 18:27 -05:00, original URI:

I read with amusement Mark Starr's Why Doesn't Anyone Speak English in Torino?

(Well, most of the amusement was with his conclusion "in a real emergency, at least the hookers here speak English."

It is interesting how there is an implicit assumption that if the city is big enough it should be easier to get around with English.

Though I have found that assumption to be untrue often enough that I think I have cured myself of it, after several years.

But I thought about Tokyo of many years ago versus now, and about that humorous conclusion and I saw a pattern.

People in any kind of service based job will learn languages like English in order to be able to take advantage of the all important tourist section of the market.

Though obviously for this to work as a motivator, the business has to be steady enough that people can see or at least sense the amount of business they are losing by not being able to understand.

And of course Torino does have an episodic reason to be interested, but it perhaps lacks the sustained interest that it would need to interest folks in the economic benefits of learning additional languages....

When I look at Windows and at computers in general, I know how often people make assumptions like "if they are developers, then they know English" but I wonder how often that is just self-fulfilling prophesy.

After all, when someone says this they are leaving something out of their assumption. What they really mean to say is "if they are developers who use our product, then they know English".

Which makes me glad that we are trying to move into so many new language markets -- because it means we are not making the assumption that people will learn English to use our products.

It was a lousy assumption anyway.... :-)


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# Steven Don on 12 Feb 2006 6:38 AM:

Given the ubiquity of the English language, I'm surprised English languages aren't mandatory in schools in many countries. Here in the Netherlands, every high school student has to learn English for at least 4 years.

An odd thing I've noted about computer users that I know is that most of them prefer to use the original untranslated versions of software. Having a Dutch localised version of Windows drives me mad. Can't find anything anymore and all the keyboard shortcuts are messed up. Unfortunately, the original English versions are much more difficult to come by.

A lot of developers also seem to work exclusively in English (I know I do) simply because it seems more natural. The programming languages themselves are all constructed with English keywords. The majority of relevant information on the 'net is in English, so it just makes more sense to do ones development in English.

# moo on 12 Feb 2006 7:21 AM:

"Me love you long time ":)

# CesarGon on 12 Feb 2006 4:43 PM:

I am Galician/Spanish, 38, and have over 20 years of experience using and programming computers. My first languages are Galician and Spanish (bilingual), and I started learning English when I was a kid at school. During my life I have gone through different stages regarding the usage of (natural) languages. At the beginning, in the 80s, I used to employ English most of the time, because (a) all software and manuals were in English and because using English felt trendy and cool. After some time I started drifting towards Spanish, because many of my friends and colleagues didn't speak English or didn't want to use it. As I developed my personalit and grew into an adult, I reinforced my position to avoid English in favour of my mother tongues. After all, computers are becoming ubquitous, and most average citizens speak only their native tongue in many parts of the world. I am aware that Scandinavia, most of Western Europe and some other non-English speaking places promote the teaching of English at school and, in general, have a good knowledge of English. But this represents only a very small part of the world. In China or Japan not many people speak English, for example. My parents don't speak English, although younger generations in Galicia and the rest of Spain usually in to different degrees.
As a software engineer, it is funny developing an application using, of course, a programming language that is always English (well, except for the crazy localised version of basic that came with an old version of Excel) and a UI language that is Galician or Spanish or whatever. The naive view is that it is easy to draw the boundary, but if you have done it, you know this is not so. Especially if you rely a lot on metadata.
For the last few years I tend to use English again, perhaps because I've been living in Australia and because you get more pragmatic as you grow older. I have discussed this with some colleagues and done a bit of informal research on it as an academic. My first and foremost conclusion is that native English speakers tend to speak only English, with a little of French or Spanish perhaps, while most of the people involved with software engineering whose first language is not English do speak quite nice English nowadays. This puts the latter in a better position to understand multilingual issues. My second conclusion was that writing software that uses non-English UIs is significantly harder than writing full-English software. My third conclusion was that non-native speakers of English, even when they do speak nice English as a second (or third, etc.) language, they tend to prefer localised versions of their operating systems and apps, more or less 4 to 1. Development tools and IDEs seem to be an exception, though, perhaps because they tend not to be available in localised versions. But the experience reported by steven, i.e. that using a localised version of Windows drives him crazy, is not the most common one in my experience.
I love being able to speak English, and I do use it a lot. But I think that every one of us has the reponsibility to support their own native tongue. I am often bewildered at how people who only speak English (especially if they are from the USA) tend to assume that is everybody else's responsibility to use English even at their own non-English-speaking countries. I have seen many USAer tourists bitching about a waiter or cab driver in Santiago (my hometown in Galicia) because they did not speak English. Of course, they would not use French or Galician or Italian to address French, Galician and Italian people.
As a final reflection, I have been lately toying around with the Basque language, a language isolate (i.e. no known relative languages in the world) spoken by perhaps a million people. Learning a language so different to your own opens your mind in an amazing way, and makes you realise how much we tend to focus on our own bellybuttons rather than raise our heads and look to a world that is large, rich and complex.

# Gabe on 12 Feb 2006 6:44 PM:

I have never been able to understand how somebody could program without knowing a significant amount of English. All major programming languages use English for keywords, even those written by non-native speakers (like Pascal and Ruby). On top of that, libraries and documentation are also almost exclusively in English.

Sure, you could translate Windows, and even all of Visual Studio to any language. But could you translate all of MSDN? How about the Knowledge Base? You certainly can't translate the names of classes, methods, properties, parameters, or anything else that has to be fixed for interoperability.

A programmer who doesn't know English would have to rely on thoroughly translated documentation because the names of everything wouldn't be meaningful. They would have to memorize thousands of essentially arbitrary tokens.

I can only imagine that it would be easier to actually learn English (no need to be conversationally fluent) than to attempt programming in a major environment with no more than translated docs.

# CesarGon on 12 Feb 2006 7:40 PM:

I agree with Gabe. Programming needs a lot of English. I commented on the funny experiment of Microsoft's when they translated basic into Spanish (and I imagine into other languages too) for some old version of Excel: rather than a For Next loop you would write a Para Cada loop, or something like that. It was UNUSABLE, even for me, a native Spanish speaker. I preferred the English version of basic without question.
Now, this doesn't mean that I prefer using software whose UI is in English. And I speak and read English quite well. My main point is that there are more issues in addition to the mere technical: it is not about being able to understand English, but about wanting to use your own language because it is _yours_. I can use Windows in English without a problem (actually it is installed on my work machine), but I _want_ to use Windows in Spanish if I can. Call it principles if you want.
My second point is that people who only speak English find this harder to understand than people who have learned English as a second language, in my experience. My hypothesis (I haven't contrasted it) is that this is so because they do not face the dilemma of having to choose between two languages. It's simpler for them.

# Nick Lamb on 12 Feb 2006 9:53 PM:

More than three-quarters of Italians said (in a EU-wide survey) that everyone should speak English, that's actually slightly more than the British. So call me a cynic, but I doubt that Mark Starr's trouble in Turin has anything to do with language.

Hint: Tell them you're a Canadian, or if you can take a stab at the accent, an Australian. No-one hates Canada or Australia half as much as the US.

As to user interfaces, of the people I've asked said that the translations were terrible, and they couldn't put up with attempts by non-technical people (most translators are non-technical) to convert English language technical phrases (like "permission denied" or "color correction") into their native language. This is probably a threshold that varies from person to person.

# Tamir on 13 Feb 2006 5:18 AM:

It supports even with different languages in it :)

# Alun Jones on 13 Feb 2006 11:36 AM:

Re: Nick Lamb's comments about disguising your accent.

On a recent trip to France, it was noticeable how many people we met who would happily speak English to my American wife, but became monolingual French-only when I (an Englishman) tried to talk to them.

In Germany, everyone I met was eager to speak to me in English, no matter how hard I insisted that I was trying to use my German in order to learn the language better.

In Italy and Spain, I got around by pointing at stuff.

In Switzerland, there's a mix of French and German already, and there seemed to be an attitude of "hey, what's one more language?" - everyone I met spoke English without complaint.

The worst trouble I've had trying to understand someone was in my first few weeks in Texas - I knew the guy was speaking English, but I couldn't pick out more than one word in five.

I think that the responses you get will depend on where you are, who you appear to be, and what your attitude is.  There's nothing that makes people more welcoming than a stumbling phrase in their language - just trying is a compliment to many.

In technical communities, though, English is definitely the Lingua Franca.

# CesarGon on 13 Feb 2006 2:47 PM:

I think we are talking different things here.

On the programming language side, yes, I also agree that programming (or doing software development, for that matter) without a good level of English is very hard.

On the natural language side, well... what can I say? I fully agree with Alun Jones. We need to be pragmatic and find a balance between safeguarding our languages and making ourselves understood in a variety of situations.

# Michael S. Kaplan on 13 Feb 2006 3:40 PM:

Given how few non-programming native speakers of English consider even verbose programming languages like VB to be all that intelligible, I do not think knowledge of English is required in order to program -- the keywords are just tokens to learn.

This applies even more to languages like C, which some programmers do not even find intelligible!

Now the issue with docs and the limited number of languages they are translated into is a separate and quite valid issue.

But in the serach for new customers, it may be important to recognize the need to start getting those customers who decide to not learn English, too....

# CesarGon on 13 Feb 2006 3:50 PM:

Not only "those customers who decide to not learn English". In most countries, any software used by the government or any government agency must be in the official language of that country. For example, here in Bizkaia, any piece of software that is bought by the government, or custom developed for them, must have its UI in Basque or Spanish (the official languages here). So English on the UI is not even a choice. And remembed that most of the countries of the world don't have English as an official language.
Most private organisations do similarly, although the rule is more relaxed and sometimes (not too often, though) you can find applications in English being used.
This means that if you want to develop software for the government or most private companies in any non-English country, you NEED to use the local language of that place.

# Mike Williams on 17 Feb 2006 11:09 AM:

In September, I drove from Calais, via Belgium to Amsterdam, and thence through all of Germany and Switzerland and into Italy. It was just north of Milan that I encountered the first signs that were not multilngual. Prior to that you would see them in English, French and German at least. Unfortunately it was at an unmanned toll-booth and I didn't know that it was at one where you "retrieve" a ticket rather than make a payment. No one responded to the Help button, so I had a queue of screaming Europeans building up behind me before I discovered a ticket sitting just inside the lip of some mechanical orifice.

Now this would also be the first such entrance point for (potentially) millions of other European drivers heading south. It was also the first pay-road I'd encountered after driving through 5 countries. So does anyone usability-test these things?

As an additional data-point, while at language schools in Spain and France, students all fall-back to speaking in English during the breaks, regardless of where in the world they come from. If their English is really good, then they're not from the US or UK etc but Sweden or the Netherlands :-).

Paul on 5 Apr 2012 2:04 AM:

Knowing about an english because i am a teacher in english because your ugly hahahahaha


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