Realise native English speakers are privileged

This post is about consciousness-raising. I would like to talk about something that could use some more attention: the fact that native English speakers are privileged in open source communities, and that they should be more aware of that.

The days of Latin and French as the lingua francas of the world are long over and we all know that English has taken its place. Especially IT is dominated by the language. Virtually all documentation and function naming is done in English, as well as almost all the communication. There are not many languages that have their own words for ‘computer’ or ‘internet’, or ‘software’ and ‘hardware’ for that matter.

It is logically, of course, to use this language now. It makes no sense to try to get everyone to learn Swedish all out of the sudden because we like that better. If you want to successfully communicate online and participate in an open source community you’ll need English. However, this is the cause of a large inequality between native and non-native speakers.

It comes clear when you take a look at what happens when you’re not a proficient English user. When your English isn’t correct:

  • people will take you less seriously and treat you more like a child or an ignorant person;
  • you find it harder to express yourself and to make your intentions to someone else;
  • using it takes more energy and is more frustrating, meaning you’re less likely to use it;
  • you’ll be more often misunderstood and/or be considered harsh, causing negative feedback;
  • you find it harder to understand documentation, HowTos, blog posts and other community-vital information.

These points all discourage less fluent persons to contribute to discussions, to speak up. This is very clearly demonstrated by the relative high amount of Americans, and other contributors of English speaking countries, in the community, especially in key roles.

The United States with 300 million inhabitants is smaller than geographical Europe with 731 million people, or the EU with 501 million. Still there are many more Americans visible in the open source projects. There are only about 70 million native English speakers in Europe, from Ireland and Great Britain.

But lets start about India, Indonesia and China. All these countries have populations of less or more than one billion people. That is huge! Ubuntu also seems to be very popular there. Still we don’t see as many contributors from those countries as we see from English speaking countries.

Of course there are many factors that have to do with the diversity and origins of the community members. However, this doesn’t explain everything. India, Indonesia, Brazil and China might still be working very hard on making broadband accessible to everyone, but (Western) Europe has mostly far better internet connections than a lot of parts of Northern America.

I think that one very important reason for this is the fact that not everyone speaks good English, and for a lot of people who do speak English using it is still not as simple as using their native language. You can never learn a second language as good as your native language and it does cost a lot of energy for many people to use it when reading, writing, speaking and listening.

That is a barrier to them to contribute to the open source communities, so they stay in their LoCos or hang around a bit in the international community, but don’t do as much as they could or would like to do, because they find it costs too much energy or it too hard to learn or do because of the language. For most voluntary contributors Ubuntu is something they do in their leisure time, as a hobby. When your hobby is mostly hard and not as fun as other things you could do in the same time, it is not hard to decide not to contribute.

This is probably costing us more contributors than gender or race inequality. It is also something that is harder to solve since you can’t take away all problems by simply educating people and raising their consciousnesses. There will always remain a language barrier.

Raising consciousness does help, though. First of all I would like to make all native English speakers realise that they are in fact — every one of them, including those with dyslexia — very privileged over non-native speakers.

Secondly I would like to ask everyone in the community — also the non-native speakers — to take into account someone’s proficiency when reading a mail written in bad English. It might be tempting, unconsciously, to dismiss the email and consider the author as someone who didn’t bother to write it in proper English. However, please consider that this might be the best English of the author. Give the author a chance regardless.

Thirdly I would like to ask everyone in the community to realise how important localisation and translations are, of the interface and the documentation. Americans are very privileged that they have their whole system, from the texts in some obscure application from universe to their default currency, localised by default. They never have to adapt when a certain application is only available in US English, or when a command line calendar is following their historic conversions. Others do.

Checking the Ubuntu community

I wanted to end this post with an overview of the different councils of the Ubuntu community and the countries of origin/native languages of their members. Just read the data and consider it.

Community Council

name country of origin native language(s)
Alan Pope United Kingdom English (UK)
Benjamin Mako Hill United States English (US)
Daniel Holbach Germany German
Elizabeth Krumbach United States English (US)
Mark Shuttleworth South Africa Afrikaans/English (ZA)
(unsure)
Matthew East United Kingdom English (UK)
Mike Basinger United States English (US)
Richard Johnson United States English (US)

Forum Council

name country of origin native language(s)
Mike Basinger United States English (US)
Mike Braniff New Zealand English (NZ)
Matthew Helmke United States English (US)
Ryan Troy United States English (US)
John Dong United States English (US)
“Bodhi Zazen” United States English (US)
Isabelle Duchatelle France French

IRC Council

name country of origin native language(s)
Benjamin Rubin United States English (US)
Juha Siltala Finland Finnish
Jussi Schultink Australia English (AU)
Nathan Handler United States English (US)
Terence Simpson United Kingdom English (UK)

LoCo Council

name country of origin native language(s)
Laura Czajkowski Ireland English (IE)
Alan Pope United Kingdom English (UK)
Christophe Sauthier France French
Chris Crisafulli United States English (US)
Paul Tagliamonte United States English (US)
Leandro Gómez Uruguay Spanish (UY)

Technical Board

name country of origin native language(s)
Colin Watson United Kingdom English (UK)
Kees Cook United States English (US)
Mark Shuttleworth South Africa Afrikaans/English (ZA)
(unsure)
Martin Pitt Germany German
Matt Zimmerman United (unsure) English (Uu)
Scott James Remnant United (unsure) English (Uu)

Disclaimer: this post was not intended as a rant or a personal attack on any community member or council. My goal was to write an eye-opener, not an eye-slammer.

Join the conversation

40 Comments

  1. You make a very interesting point here. While I was reading this post I found out why I (and my centralamerican fellows) rarely publish posts in the Planet Ubuntu.

  2. Between English and other languages lies the same underlying exclusionary, imperialistic, monopolistic racism supporting propietary software over free software. This will keep cutting out people from accessing new technology and sharing knowledge, despite the promise behind the word "ubuntu". Really nice post! But, as someone unhappily pointed out already, "this is not a democracy"!

  3. its going to take a while to achieve one world one language
    and in the meantime verbal textual translation software is
    really important. very profound observation you have made.
    should be read widely. thankyou

  4. You make some excellent points in your article. I am one of those “English Only,” speaking people, having been born in the U.S. But, I’ve been on the receiving end of exactly what you are saying. During my working years, I lived and worked in three other countries in Africa. I consider myself to be fairly proficient in English, having worked as a news editor and writer. During those overseas years, I often felt like the “odd man out,” when I would get together with friends. We were from many nations, several different languages as mother tongues and sometimes the conversation would take strange twists and turns. Perhaps the most humiliating experience was living in an English speaking African nation. I THOUGHT I spoke English…until I discovered that I spoke and wrote AMERICAN English. Many times, English speaking people looked at my writing and could not understand what I was saying. I would use American English words, which at times had a rather different meaning in English, eliciting laughter and at times, blushing faces from my English speaking counterparts. All was taken with good humor, for the most part, but I remember feeling less than fluent in English. I needed a year or to become more proficient in British English and that was living full time, every day, immersed in the language. Tolerance and understanding go a long way and we should all remember that.

    1. A good point. It is something that also came up during a discussion on the #ubuntu-community-team IRC channel: the differences between the different kinds of English that are used around the world can be a cause of confusion and misunderstanding as well.
      It can be just that during conferences some people find it hard to understand certain accents, but like you said it can also be the use, or the omissions, of certain words.

      When your language doesn't fit in with the rest of the group you stand out. When stand out you feel less part of the group. The helpful atmosphere and the diversity we've already achieved within the Ubuntu community help a great deal to prevent this, but how more diverse the community becomes, how less strange it is to hear all different kinds of English. And when no one's the same everyone's the same, no? 🙂

      1. The situation becomes worse when different forms of English are generalized as only English.Like Indian English which is from British English is very different from American English but is still shown as English,This creates confusion and chaos.

        Moreover English is my fourth language,so that creates confusion too.

  5. This is a very interesting point. I am a native English speaker from the US, and I have found it interesting that most of the posts on the forums are in English, where there are a ton of Ubuntu users are not English speakers. What are some things that we could do to help make things more inclusive for non-English speakers?

    1. You have to remember that many languages and countries have a forum of their own hosting, which is the case for example for the Finnish Ubuntu LoCo.

      1. And others, as we in the Catalan Loco Team[1], have an own subforum inside the general ubuntuforums (http://cat.ubuntuforums.org). Altough we are less than 10 milion catalan[2] speakers, (obviously not all of us use Ubuntu :D) we've got quite good activity in forums, mailing lists, irc channel and organizing global jams, release party and many other FOSS activities. The majority of the hard core (the founders or early members) of the loco team can read, write and speak more or less fluently in english language. There are different levels, of course. There are also members with no or few knowledge of english. But in the rest community, there are plenty of people that don't get a word, because they could'n learn it at school or perhaps, specially the older ones, because before the second language at school was french, not english.

        Anyway, what I'm trying to say with this long reply (I'm sorry), is that the author of the article is really right, and that the most efforts you (the ubuntu community and specially the core members of councils and Canonical staff) dedicate to allow non english speakers to get into the game, the most benefit for all.

        Thanks for your bright article, Sense.

        [1] http://ves.cat/ahFg
        [2] http://ves.cat/ahFf

    2. The attitude you're showing here is a great start already. You're aware of 'the problem' and that helps a lot. Take it into account when interacting with people helps a lot to make them feel welcome.

      You learn a lot from reading English, but reading hard English can be frustrating of course. When you write hard/beautiful English people will have more trouble understanding it, but they'll learn a lot more from it when it is not too hard. However, it doesn't have to be an English-class of course. The best thing you can do when writing is writing correct English, use punctuation properly (it's a service to the reader, remember!) and avoid slang when something can be phrased differently without losing (too much) of the meaning.

      Like myrtti said, there are already many language-specific forums and I think that those are good ways to provide support. It is not very doable to have multiple languages in one forum.

  6. Great post, however do note we have #ubuntu-locoteams which we have seen more and more non English speaking team members enter in and we're all understanding of the language barrier and mindful of that when people explain themselves.

    We have many ubuntu members who do not post on planet.ubuntu.com as they feel it has to be in English which is unfortunate as I'd love to read them – we all can use a web translator.

    More and more countries have their own forums in their own languages and are very active there, I would also argue that the people on councils and boards and even ircs ops who put them selves forward want to be on those positions, those who don't do not.

    We are a massive international community, a lot speak English, not everyone does. We do need to remember this on mailing lists, forums and irc you're right, not everyone is tolerant or patient at times but we do try.

  7. Great post. Knowledge of English is now essential of course, not just for open source and software development in general but for all kind of jobs. In many companies, you can only hope to join if you speak English, even in non English speaking countries. Candidates fluent in English but non native speakers may be able to join companies of course, but the progression ladder in the company is likely to be more limited than for native English speakers. Information in your post seems to indicate this. In short, non native English speakers are often second class citizens in obvious or sometimes subtle ways.

    I'm one of those who think that an easy, yet flexible and expressive auxiliary language such as esperanto would be not only more fair, but also a lot easier for most people. Of course, it won't happen any time soon, unless we all learn such an auxiliary language at school in all countries.

    1. There are indeed a lot of jobs, especially in IT that require English. Some require a lot of English. It is said that the EU is more prone to hire British because of their English proficiency and their accent, so it can happen indeed that being a non-native speaker is a disadvantage. However, in most companies I don't think that the language barrier is higher than it is in open source communities. Some companies, when run by non-native speakers, probably suffer from the same problems as well.

      Esperanto is a wonderful ideal and I do think that such a language could help, but that hasn't been put to the test yet and I think it will never be. It is not a trendy language, not a popular one and since it is not a language of a country that can rise to power (English only became the world language after the rise of the United States) I don't think it has much chance to become something people will want to learn. But maybe I'll be proven wrong, who knows?

  8. Dude, I am from Chicago, so I am not privileged at all, as a matter of fact my English is even worse. And one more thing, I stepped down from the Community Council and the Developer Membership Boards, so there goes 2 spots with US/English 🙂

    Rich 'nixternal' Johnson

  9. The CC used to have two other non-US people on it: myself (Corey Burger) – (Canada) and Jerome Gotangco (Phillippines). But I think you point is well taken about the need to realize that there are lots of non-English speaking people in the community.

  10. Not too make it sound too simple but: With privilege comes responsibility, and patience is key to understanding 🙂

  11. What changes when the native English speakers realise that their proficiency at English gives them advantage?

    I suppose the hope is that :

    1) We become more tolerant of bad grammer.
    2) We ask questions where there is confusion rather than dismiss the confusion
    3) We cope better with misunderstandings (that could lead to who knows what: embarrassment; extra work; …)

    Of course, this relies upon native english speakers being able to determine from the text alone whether or not an author of some post is actually meaning to say what they say.

    I live in Sheffield in South Yorkshire in England. When I moved here I was surprised to hear the word 'while' where I would have expected the word 'until', or maybe just 'til', or even 'to'.

    Question: "What hours do you work?"
    Answer I would expect: "9 to 5"
    Answer I would expect in Sheffield: "9 while 5"

    It has a certain programmers logic to it though. But my point is this. Confusion is inherent in the language. Native speakers say confusing things as well as non native speakers, perhaps there is a belief amongst non-native speakers to think that native speakers must always be correct in their usage of the language, but that's often not true. (Especially with what I write!)

    So I think it's pretty hard to turn this realisation of advantage into practical advice. Any suggestions?

    You can't assume people don't mean what they say and start questioning everything, where would that leave you?

  12. Matt Zimmerman is from the US. Baltimore, Maryland, if I recall correctly.

    I haven’t seen anyone get flamed on any of the Ubuntu mailing lists I’m on for their English. Often they apologise about their “bad English” (which tends to turn out to be quite good!) beforehand and get replies back saying not to apologise and complimenting their skills at learning another language. I think I most often see this in Ubuntu Women. That’s more likely the rate of new people being greater there than, say, on ubuntu-devel.

    1. Hmm you might also notice that I use British English spellings (see above: "apologise"), even though I'm American. I think English (UK) is more widely understood internationally, so I try to use it.

      I wonder what the thoughts are on non-native speakers doing translations. I did a few Japanese translations years ago when I was still studying it (I'm too out of practice now to be useful), but I wonder how well-received it is when a non-native person submits translations.

      1. The Oxford English Dictionary is using the American '-ize' I think, so it's not as clear as they try to teach at (our) school. 🙂
        Not sure though if British really is the most often used version of English. It is the one the EU uses, but that's mostly because the US isn't a member state and officially all languages of the EU member states should be equal. Europeans often use the British spelling, but a lot of people also want to use the American instead. But I don't think that 'dialogue colourised doughnut programme' is a lot easier to understand 'dialog colorized donut program', it is just different.

        It probably depends on the size of the translators pool how people will react to your contributions. In general I think you could say that people would welcome any contribution. However, contributions would probably be better received by communities with little translators, like Frisian, Esperanto or Klingon, than in communities like the Spanish, which has translated nearly everything there is to translate and has probably a lot more policies, customs and habits.

  13. One aspect that you don't mention is reporting bugs. I've been in situations a couple of times where I've tried to translate and help reporters who reported bugs in a language other than English to be told that the bug should be in English and wouldn't be looked at if it wasn't.

    I understand that the developers who will eventually work on the bugs use English and that it may take a lot of effort to translate problems from a foreign language to English but the risk in ignoring non-English bug reports is that important issues never get resolved and non-English users feel like second class citizens because they can't report their problems to someone who can do something about them. Any suggestion on how to resolve this would be welcome.

    1. There have been talks in the Bug Squad about using Answers as a primary entry point for bug reports for a while now. This would solve two things:
      1) Most bug reports are not valid defect reports, but in fact support requests. Using Answers can help to write better bug reports. Also, when a bug is a duplicate of another bug it doesn't have to mean that the support the reporter needs is the same as the support the reporter of the other bug needs. Answer can be linked to a bug report, and a question can be kept after a bug has been marked as a duplicate to make sure the user gets the support (s)he needs. Another plus is that by encouraging the use of Answers for support requests it would be very easy to attach a bug report to a support request if a bug would be discovered during the process of providing support and when it turns out that a bug reported via Answers was not a bug report the support can continue uninterrupted.
      2) Answers has already got support for multiple languages — it only needs to be localised itself — which means that LoCos can use it to provide support in the native language of people.

      Answers would have to be optimised for the use mentioned above before we could fully profit from the opportunities it provides us with, but it would:
      1) Make bug reporting a more pleasant and helping experience for everyone.
      2) Reduce the number of bugs we have to deal with as triagers.

      Downsides would be: the work needed to make Answers suitable for this, but most importantly: getting people to provide the support and triage the questions in Answers. Many people would probably rather use other support methods, like the forum, a mailing list or IRC and we should be careful to prevent users having to go through the whole riddle again when they're referred to Answers by someone in that medium.

  14. One problem as a native English speaker is that there's no easy way for me to help non-native speakers. Replying to someone's message with a message saying "Your English needs some work. Here's how I would fix it up" comes across, at best, as incredibly condescending.

    If some system, mailing list, or wiki could be set up for a purpose such as this, I think it would help this situation. I know I'd gladly spend an hour or two a day helping out.

  15. Your points hit the nail, and they are direly needed.

    Also they are something Esperanto-Speakers have been saying for over 100 years. As more and more people try to cross the boundary of their home countries, the language barrier will be more and more troubling, till at some point a neutral (and much easier to learn) second language for everyone will be beneficial even to those who now learn english as first language. There is even a paper evaluating the cost of having a hard to learn language as lingua franca. Sadly I don’t have it at hand right now, so I can only supply a source of general information http://www.uea.org/info/angle/an_ghisdatigo.html

    For Japanese and Chinese people, english is prohibitively hard to learn – much more so than for german people.

    1. You're absolutely right that a neutral language will allow everyone to communicate on a more equal level. It could potentially prevent a lot of inequality. However, non-natural languages are very hard to learn, especially later in life. The reason most people on the world learn at least a few words of English is that they have been bombarded with English by popular media since they were born. When people try to learn other languages you see that it is a lot more difficult to learn them fluently.

      What could help here are computers. Once technology is sufficiently strong to allow high-quality real-time native-language-to-native-language translations in internet conversations, we will have solved the problem for online communities. Unfortunately we're still far from a perfect solution.

      1. Did yo try to learn Esperanto?

        Typical time-to-conversational-speaking ranges from one weekend to a few months for adults. I learned it myself by just reading the lord of the rings in esperanto (la kunularo de’l ringo) and doing about 2 3-pages long excercises. Here’s an example roadmap for learning Esperanto in two months with one hour each day: http://edufire.com/content/articles/158-becoming-

        Compare that to french: I learned it in school for about 4 years, 4 hours a week. I can barely watch the news and I’m able to find my way in Geneva with quite some struggling, but not much more. Reading a book in french is out of question. Reading a book in esperanto works quite nicely.

        Or compare it to Spanish, an easier language. My wife is spanish, and I can now understand about 30% of a normal conversation (after living with her for 2 years).

        So it’s the other way round: Natural languages are very hard to learn when compared to Esperanto, and that is also true for english. Yes, many people hear english all the time, but there’s a huge difference between being able to say “I want eaten a chicken” and real english. And besides: By the same logic, many youth here in Germany should be quite proficient in Japanese, thanks to Anime. But do you find most of them really talking in Japanese – aside from Arigato and other short phrases?

        Or try to find people in france who speak english. When I was in Paris this year, I had to unbury my french skills to get a ticket at the railway station in paris at the main airport. And it was a huge struggle.

        Compare that to going to an Esperanto meeting after not having spoken Esperanto for years and understanding 90% without problems.

        So Esperanto as designed language is very easy to learn. It has no exceptions, clear phonetics (every letter has exactly one sound) and only 18 grammar rules. And it has a word-building system which allows you to speak using very few roots (so you have to learn far less words to be able to speak fluently): Lerni = Learn. Lernanto = someone who learns. Lernilo: A tool for learning. Blogilo: A tool for blogging. Lernujo = The land of learning. Lernigi = teach. Lerniĝi = teach yourself …

        Do you know the phrase “the perfect is the enemy of the good”? If you don’t do what’s good because you wait for the perfect, you’ll be stuck with the bad forever.

        1. I have tried learning Esperanto, and indeed it is not too hard to learn. However, not everyone finds learning new languages as easy as the two of us might. Furthermore, although you might quickly learn to passively understand Esperanto texts and have informal conversations, it is a lot harder to discuss abstract things. You need to know many more words and be able to construct much more complex sentences than when you're having small talk.

          1. But isn’t all that true for english as well, adding the problem, that you also have to be able to use a much more complex grammar and that there are far more words to start with? And that english doesn’t have the kind of word-building that Esperanto offers (which allows you to use words for abstract things which people can understand without having to learn new roots).

            And a complex sentence in Esperanto is easier to build than in english or german, allowing people to focus on the content of the discussion instead of the language. There isn’t any new fangled art of grammar to learn in Esperanto: All the grammar and a good deal of words fits into a tiny pocket-book. Add to that the special words of your topic, and you can lead deep discussions.

            And if you say that it might be harder for other people to learn a new language than for you, why force 90% of them to learn a far more complicated language instead of the simple Esperanto? English isn’t universally known, and the cost for learning english is many school years. The time which gets freed when learning Esperanto instead of english could be used to learn programming – or any other topic.

          2. Learning Esperanto is not trivial, but compared to any natural languages, it is much easier thanks to its regularity:
            * all verbs are regular. This alone is a huge time saving compared to learning French irregular verbs for example.
            * all plurals are regular.
            * Learning vocabulary takes a lot of time in most languages. This is also true in Esperanto but to a less extent. Esperanto saves you time since words are built in a logical way. For example, the equivalent of English words "warm", "hot", "tepid", "cold", "heat", "to cool down" in Esperanto would be "varma", "varmega", "varmeta", "malvarma", "varmo", varmigi" which are all derived with the same root word "varm-" and regular prefixes/suffixes to alter the meaning: -a for adjective, -o for noun, mal- for opposite, -eg to make it bigger, -et to make it smaller (like the -je suffix in Dutch), -ig for a verb which causes something, etc. There are many other prefixes and suffixes to create rich nuances. So by learning only one word "varm-" you can build many other words without too much effort to memorize them.
            * spelling is phonetic

            Most people fail at learning a natural language (beyond simple sentences such as "my name is …") because it requires many years of study. Regularity of Esperanto makes it possible to become fluent in a fraction of that time. But in the end, whether someone succeeds in learning a languages or not depends not only on how easy it is to learn, but also on how much daily exposure there is to the language and on the personal motivation for studying it.

    1. I am sorry that the system doesn’t seem to work properly at the moment.
      If you want to manage your subscriptions to WordPress blogs, like mine, you can do that on https://subscribe.wordpress.com/. If you enter your email address in the field under ‘Manage Your Subscriptions’, you should get sent a mail with links that you can use to unsubscribe from blogs.
      If that doesn’t solve your problem, please let me know.

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