More Bad English, Please

by Ostatic Staff - Mar. 22, 2010

I'd like to see more bad English on mailing lists, and fewer apologies from non-native speakers about their poor English skills. There's nothing to be ashamed of in trying to communicate in a second, third, or fourth language and not being an expert. And it'd be a shame if non-native speakers let fear or embarrassment hold them back from making a vital contribution or asking a question that could help them succeed in contributing or using FLOSS tools.

One of the wonderful things about open source is that it's multi-national, the truest "melting pot" anyone could hope to find. Millions of people participate in English-language mailing lists for using and developing open source because it's the most common language among participants. But for many, it's not their first (or even second, or third) language and the only practice they may get with written English is participating on FLOSS mailing lists. So, along with a variety of cultural perspectives, you also get some folks whose English skills (or their estimation of their English skills) are less than perfect.

If I had a dollar for every email I've received that included an apology for "poor English," I'd be within shouting distance of a comfortable retirement. But there's no apology necessary, and that needs to be said rather loudly. I want to see more bad English on mailing lists!

First of all, no one should feel the slightest shame or embarrassment about making a good faith effort to have a productive conversation with someone else. There may be room for improvement, and people should be admired for making a continual effort to learn new languages or improve their language skills.

Second, people who are embarrassed with their ability to communicate are likely to speak up less. To hold back questions for fear that they're not going to be understood. To hold back expressing ideas because they might not get the point across as well the first time. One of the great things about the time I spent with Novell was that I had the opportunity to meet and speak with many people around the world who love free and open source software, and being part of the larger community. Unfortunately, far too many of the people I met where embarrassed by their proficiency with English. Several contributors I've spoken to have admitted reluctance to participate in discussions because they were embarrassed by their skill level with English, or because they feared they wouldn't be understood.

Often, this fear is misplaced altogether. Many of the people who have expressed concern about their English were, while not quite fluent, certainly proficient enough to be understood. Even when there is a moderate language barrier, there should be no shame felt or conveyed for someone trying to participate in their non-native language. If anything, those of us who are monolingual owe the rest of the group an apology for speaking only the one language.

I've been reading Linchpin by Seth Godin. He talks extensively about fear holding people back from doing good work, from making art, from being the most productive they could be. And I think fear plays a large role when someone feels the need to apologize for their language skills. Fear that they're going to be rejected, misunderstood, or simply ignored because they don't speak the language as well as others.

But that isn't true, or at least it shouldn't be. Most communities, and certainly those worth one's time as a contributor, are eager to hear from everyone. Even if that means a bit of extra work understanding someone. Who cares if a person's English isn't perfect when they're doing good work or trying to learn? Lurking behind some slightly mangled English you'll often find brilliant and talented contributors who are a delight to work with. So I'd like to see a lot more bad English on mailing lists, and I bet you would too. Spread the word.