The bigger language problem

2 minutes read

The bigger language problem 

C#? C++? VB? Java? English! Whenever I speak at conferences across Europe (right now that's about twice a week), every other attendee's first comment when talking to me after any speech will not be a technical one. Instead they say "your English is fantastic". People seem indeed surprised s'at mei englesh iss not vot s'ey vutt expeckt.

I don't think that it is a "fantastic skill", but rather just part of doing my job right. Having reasonable control of the language that is the "one and only" of the IT business -- and that happens to be (American) English -- is essential. I was lucky enough that my former employer sent me on a two year assignment to New York City in '95/'96 and that was the time where I got a sobering reality check on my "school English", picked up all the idioms that let me understand what the Americans are saying between the lines, and (somewhat unfortunately) had all my English teachers' efforts to provide me with a polished "British" spoiled for good.

There is a huge problem here. There are unknown (but large) numbers of very bright people out there, who simply cannot make themselves heard to a broader, world-wide audience just because they don't write and speak English "well enough". Also, English language skills are essential to understand anything happening on the "cutting edge" of computing, because there is always a considerable lag for specifications, books and white papers to appear in any other language than English.

Right now, it's more important for my company that people know English than knowing specifically Java, C#, VB, C++ or SmallTalk. If they have a good understanding of programming as such, it's a tiny step to switch between languages. However, even if they are fabulously eloquent and well read in German, they still may not be able to get a single understandable English sentence together and, just as bad, may miss implied statements in English material they read.

Can we fix this? The answer is certainly not to lament about "language imperialism". The answer is to deal with the facts as they present themselves today and for the future as far as we can see ahead. Being "proudly European", I think that in order to be able to successfully compete with America in this industry, the Europeans, especially the French and the Germans, will have to start to understand that technical degrees must come with proper education in English on a level that's far beyond current "school English" and that a good deal of technical material should indeed be taught and tested in English. Likewise, students need to understand that it's not enough to be a German or French tech-geek. "My English is not very good" is unfortunately not a valid excuse if you are in the IT industry -- it's indeed even worse than saying "my C++ is not very good" when you apply for a systems programmer job.

What's really bad is that I am writing this in English. Sorry, I can't write it in all the languages in which it would matter to say this. Therefore I have to opt for a somewhat neutral choice.....


Leave a Comment