decoded

Silicon Valley’s language problem isn’t foreign accents, it’s English

September 4, 2013
September 4, 2013

Paul Graham managed to pose a very important question: the one of the English language as a requirement for programmers. It was a controversial matter as he referred to “foreign accents” (internet is full of people just waiting to overreact), but this is the least interesting part of the question. The important part is, no one talks about the “English problem” usually, and I always felt a bit alone on that.

In one way or the other, I always accepted English as a good thing. I always advise people against translation efforts in technology, since I believe that it is much better to have a common language to document and comment on the source code. To obtain the skills needed to understand written technical documentation in English is a simple effort for most people.

In 1998, I basically learned to write a broken subset of English, that is usually enough to express my thoughts in the field of programming, but not well enough to write about general topics. I don’t know most of the words needed to refer to objects you find in a kitchen for example, or the grammar constructs needed to formulate complex sentences, hypothetical structures, and so forth. As I now can communicate easily in the topic I care most about, and in a way that other people can more or less understand everything I write, the pressure to improve has diminished greatly. However, I recently discovered that this was the most minor of my problems with English.

European English, that funny language

While I managed to eventually read write comfortably enough for my needs, I almost never experienced actual communication in an English-speaking country until recently. Before that I always used English with other Europeans.

The English spoken in these countries is the English spoken at English school lessons. Phonetically, it has almost nothing to do with American or UK English. They say it is “BBC English,” but actually it is not. It is a phonetically simplified English that uses UK English grammar.

That version of English, actually allows people from around the world to communicate easily. The basic grammar is trivial to grasp, and in a few months of practice you can speak. The sound of the words is almost the same in all the non-UK speaking countries in Europe. So it works out great.

There is just one problem, it has nothing to do with the real English spoken in UK, US, Canada, and other countries where English is a native language.

English is a bit broken, after all

Now I’ve got a secret for you: English is a broken language, phonetically.
In Italy, we have a long history, but a very late political unification. Different regions speak different dialects, and people have super strong accents. Before 1950, when the “TV Language Unification” happened, everybody was still talking with their “dialects” and Italian was only mastered by a small percentage of people. Sicilian itself, the language spoken the most by my family, predates Italian by centuries.

Still, guess what, nobody has issues understanding people from another region, or even those from a Switzerland canton. Italian is phonetically one of the simplest languages on the earth, and is full of redundancy. It has, indeed, a low information entropy and usually words are long with a good mix of consonants and vowels in every word. There are no special rules to pronounce a word, if you know the sound of every single letter. Plus the sound of a few special combination of letters like “gl”and “sc,” you can basically pronounce 99.9% of the words correctly just reading them for the first time.

The fact that people from different English-speaking countries have issues communicating is already a big hint about how odd English is phonetically.
For me and many other non-native English speakers, it is very very very hard to understand what someone from the UK is saying. North Americans are usually a lot easier to understand.

Because of this “feature” of English, the problem for me is not just my accent, that is the simplest thing to fix. The fact that Paul Graham refers to “accents” is a bad attitude of UK/US people in this regard. Hey guys, you are not understanding us, we are not understanding what you say as well, and it is hard to find people that, once your understanding limits are obvious, will try to slow down the pace of the conversation. Often even if I say I did not understood, I’ll get the same sentence repeated the same at speed of light.

Learning written English as a first exposure is killer

In my opinion, one thing that made me so slow at learning English is the fact that I started reading English without ever listening to it. My brain is full of associations between written words and funny sounds that really don’t exist in the actual language. My advice is that if you are learning English now, start listening as soon as possible to spoken English.

I’m not an introvert

One of the things that shocked me the most with my experience with the English language is how not mastering a language can switch you into an introvert. I’m an extrovert in Italy where most people are extroverts, in Sicily where there are even more extroverts, and inside my family that is composed mostly of extroverts. Now when I have to speak in English, I’m no longer an extrovert anymore because of the communication barrier, and I regret every time I’ve to go to a meeting, or to be introduced to another person. It is a nightmare.

It’s too late, let’s study English

English in my opinion is only simple grammatically, but is a bad pick as a common language. However the reality is, it already won, there is no time to change it. It is a great idea to speak better in English, even if this requires a lot more effort. This is what I’m doing myself, I’m trying to improve.

Another reason I find myself really in need of improving my English is that in 10 years, I’ll likely no longer write code professionally, and a logical option is to switch into the management side of development, or to handle big projects where I won’t be writing the bulk of the code. Well, if you think you need English as a developer, you’ll need it a lot more as you go into other divisions of a typical tech company, even if you “just” have to actually manage many programmers.

My long term hope is that sooner or later different accents could converge into a standard, easy-to-understand one that the English speaking population could use as a lingua franca.

This is an adaptation of Salvatore’s blog post “English has been my pain for 15 years.” You can follow Salvatore on Twitter at @antirez. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com

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