Showing all posts tagged language:

Speak like a Foreigner


The ongoing conversation about English's domination as the international lingua franca can sometimes feel extremely repetitive. It is true that the ascendancy of English may be founded first in British imperialism, and then in its upstart offspring, American imperialism1. However, to state that today non-English-speakers learn English purely to communicate with Americans and Brits is to miss a large part of the point.

As I have written before, English today is the common language that people from different backgrounds use to talk to each other - whether or not there is a native English speaker present! In fact, I have seen native English speakers fail to communicate any better than people with rudimentary English. Indeed, I have frequently seen them communicate worse than those for whom English is a second language.

Why does this happen? Surely native speakers should have an advantage when communicating in their own language?

Actually, that facility may be hindering rather than helping. Native English speakers will use idiom and cultural references that foreigners may not be familiar with, while someone speaking English as a second language is likely to restrict themselves to vocabulary and phrasing that are shared by their audience.

I have seen this mechanism play out many times. A native speaker talking to a mixed audience of native and non-native speakers may make some reference or use some phrase that is perfectly clear and familiar to the other native speakers - but completely loses the non-native-speaker part of the audience. They might say that something is a "red herring", or that they aim to "get to second base" on something - simple verbal shorthand to them, but concepts that require a lot of unpacking to an audience that is not familiar with those phrases. Both are real examples I have heard used in international business meetings, and that I have had to help local colleagues understand.

In fact, that second example illustrates the cultural aspects of language use. The idiom of "getting to second base" comes originally from baseball, but mutated into sexual slang for "making progress" with one's date. Both are peculiarly American forms, and might not be especially familiar even to a British audience, except possibly from films.

It is a good idea in general to keep your audience in mind when speaking (or writing!). On top of the immediate benefits of making your message easier to follow, it is also a good way to clarify your own thinking. Concepts come across better when they do not rely on clichés and received phrasing - even when the audience does not have any linguistic barrier at all.

Famously, George Orwell came up with six key rules in his essay. Politics and the English Language:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I would say that all of these rules represent excellent advice, and even more so when non-native speakers are present. Those metaphors, similes, and longer words may not be familiar to them, and complex passive constructions may confuse them.

One last note is that phrases that English imported from other languages come with their own set of booby traps for the unwary. The pronunciation of words, ordering of acronyms, or even the name of a phenomenon may change from one language to another. Stick to a plain description in common terms if your objective is to be understood and get your point across.

A wonderful example of someone explaining complex ideas with simple words is Randall Munroe’s Thing Explainer:

In Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, things are explained using only drawings and a vocabulary of the 1,000 (or "ten hundred") most common words. Explore computer buildings (datacenters), the flat rocks we live on (tectonic plates), the things you use to steer a plane (airliner cockpit controls), and the little bags of water you're made of (cells).

As Ernest Rutherford is reputed to have said, "A theory that you can't explain to a bartender is probably no damn good." Whatever you are trying to explain, it probably isn’t as complicated as what he had in mind!

And of course, never say or write anything outright barbarous - no matter what.

Image by Anders Jildén via Unsplash

  1. American friends, I kid because I love. We're good. 

On Learning Languages

When the topic of languages comes up in conversation, people are sometimes surprised to hear how many languages I speak. The reactions mainly break down into two different groups:

  • Native English speakers: "wow, that is so cool! I could never learn languages…"
  • Non-(native)English speakers: "you are so lucky to be able to speak English! you can go anywhere as long as you speak English."

There are a few different things going on here which I want to unpack.

The blonde isn’t really following what is going on

Why learn a language?

While it’s very fashionable for people who speak English as a first language to talk about wanting to learn another language (or wanting their children to), there’s one question I always want to ask: "assuming you learned another language - what would you use it for?"

The big English-speaking countries (US, Canada, UK, Australia) are pretty homogeneous. Aside from a few enclaves (hello, Quebec) relatively few people aside from recent immigrants speaks anything but English as their primary language. If you don’t speak a language frequently with native speakers, you never learn it properly. Worse, if you don’t regularly use even a language that you do know, you will lose it!

The other side of that coin is that everybody else wants to learn English too. If a Finn, a Russian, a Ghanaian, a Mexican, and an Indonesian1 want to do business together, guess what? They’re all going to speak English to communicate with each other.

The time when international diplomacy was carried out in French is long past. My father-in-law, a mechanical engineer, studied German rather than English, because at the time that was what you learned if you wanted to do Serious Engineering with other Serious Engineers (at least in Europe). No longer!

Who do you speak to?

This leads to my second point. English is easy to keep up as a second language, because English-language content is everywhere. I am raising bilingual kids on the basis that all of their TV, films, books etc. are in English, and they speak Italian out of the house with their friends. This sort of arrangement is easy with English: our cable TV lets us choose different audio tracks, as do media we buy through iTunes. This means we can "enjoy" Paw Patrol, Dora the Explorer, and Daniel Tiger in English, just as if we lived in an English-speaking country. If you still use physical media, DVDs also generally come with several language tracks.

Getting the same access to media in another language is much harder. That same cable subscription only offers a handful of channels where languages other than English are even available, and the content is, ummm, not riveting. It doesn’t help that I don’t watch much TV in the first place, so something has got to really grab me to make me stick with it.

For native English speakers, this means that they are up against a significant block. It’s one thing to say you want to read Borges or Marquez in the original Spanish, and you might even force your way through one book - but when you want to relax, you’ll turn to something fluffier, and that will tend to be in English just because that’s easier to access. The same goes for news. I know, because I’ve tried. I do make a point of picking up paper copies of Die Welt or whatever when I’m in an international airport, but all of my Twitter and RSS stuff is coming in as English - even from people who are not native speakers - and so my online activity is almost entirely anglophone. I will come back to this point, because it’s important too.

Borges all the way (with maybe a Beano tucked inside)

Pity the English!

There is a double-whammy for English speakers, because (at least among European languages) English is about the worst starting language. All the hard edges have been worn off the language, leaving no real structured grammar to speak of, so learning a second language starting only from English is twice as hard because students have to learn both the concept of an adverb and how an adverb actually works in whatever language they are learning, all at the same time.

This reminds me of one my favourite quotes, from James Nicoll:

The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle their pockets for new vocabulary.

Back to grammar! I remember studying German in a class full of English people. It took me a while to figure out why all of them were struggling with what were, to me, pretty basic and obvious concepts. The answer was simply that having learned Italian at school, I had spent literally years breaking down sentences into their component parts (analisi logica), and had then taken that even further in studying Latin and classical Greek. As annoying as this was (and as poor a student as I was!) at the time, it was an invaluable foundation for learning other languages.

Not having been exposed to real grammar before, English-speakers are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to learning any second language. This same topic came up in a recent episode of the Futuropolis by Popular Science: Talk Emoji to Me.

Language is a circle

Bottom line: languages are not magical. I love learning languages as a hobby, and I am enabled to do that by background, education, and no doubt some native aptitude2. Languages have certainly helped me in my career, because even people who can communicate perfectly well in English appreciate when somebody goes to the effort of learning their language well enough to conduct the meeting that way.

The reason this worked, though, was that languages were another circle for me. I was the person who could do X and had a background in Y, and could also do it in language Z. If I had only had the language skills, I would not have got anywhere. If your choice is between learning a skill and learning a language, nowadays the skill is almost certainly the better investment.

Unless you just enjoy language, in which case I’ll see you out there, making friends with people at the bar, tripping over false friends hilariously, and generally enjoying myself with languages.

  1. You thought I was going to go with "…walk into a bar", didn’t you? 

  2. I am a cunning linguist3

  3. Sorry - not sorry. 

Problems that only affect me

It seems that iOS 8.3 changed something in the way multiple keyboards are handled. If you don't know, you can add keyboards to iOS from Settings > General > Keyboard. This is worth doing even if you only type in one language, because it's how you get access to the Emoji keyboard. Enabling multiple keyboards adds a little "globe" key between the numlock and dictation keys:


Simply tap that "globe" key once to switch to the next keyboard in the list, or hold it to see a menu and select the keyboard you want.

The advantage of having multiple keyboards is that it enables predictive text to work in other languages. It also allows you to choose alternative layouts, e.g. AZERTY for French, QWERTZ for German, or QZERTY for Italian - but I find that confuses me more. Luckily, iOS lets you set all keyboards to use QWERTY.

Now, here's the problem. Before 8.3, if you had a primary keyboard (generally corresponding to your locale), you could switch to another language to type some text. The next time you hit the key, as long as it was within a reasonably short period of time, it would switch you back to your default keyboard. This is great for me, as I type mainly in English, but switch to other languages several times a day.

With 8.3 this behaviour has gone, and the "globe" key always switches to the next keyboard in the list.

This change is probably invisible to almost everyone, and only a minor irritant for those few of us who use multiple input languages frequently, but it is surprisingly annoying when you are used to the old way of things.

I can even understand the rationale, as I have seen people get confused by why the switcher would sometimes go to the next keyboard but at other times revert to the default - but the solution there is to give us preference settings to disable the behaviour entirely or change its timeout. I don't even mind if it's turned off by default, as long as I can turn it back on - but that's not the Apple way.



Transit lounges of international airports are not places where you can assume no one understands your language, no matter how obscure. It's amazing what people are happy to discuss out loud.

Debug mode for humans

I have been speaking a fair amount of German lately for one reason and another, both socially and professionally. I find casual conversation much easier, especially when well lubricated; my Bierdeutsch is super-fluent!

Delivering a professional presentation is completely different. It strikes me that speaking in one's non-primary language is like running in debug mode, at least in my experience.

First of all, I am conscious of various different threads, all running at the same time but at different speeds: what do I want to say, how am I going to phrase it, what is the word I want, make sure it isn't a "false friend", make sure the case of the adjective agrees with the noun that supports it, don't forget the verb at the end, … None of these are fully synced up, either (except at the height of Bierdeutsch), so there is also a monitor thread watching all of these other threads. Speaking on a serious subject for any length of time in a language you are not fully comfortable in is exhausting.

Interestingly, it seems that there is some reality behind the metaphor of debug mode. Certainly it seems that reactions in a non-primary language are more considered and less subject to empathy, according to a study in PLOS ONE: Your Morals Depend on Language.

This is a really interesting finding, if you think about it for a moment: our thoughts are dependent on our ability to express them.

At its extreme, of course, this turns into 1984's Newspeak. According to Orwell,

"the purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods."

Could this mean that it is also possible for us to train ourselves to be better people by expanding our vocabulary and our facility with it?

People have been known to worry about the impact of the internet in general, and social media in particular, on "culture", for want of a better word - but one overriding aspect of the internet is that to participate, you need at least a minimum level of comfort with language. To emerge and to excel, you need mastery.

In other words, Twitter and Facebook will save us - by forcing people to think.

Image by Florian Klauer via Unsplash

Gender and Language

John Scalzi performed an interesting experiment in his recent book, Lock In - which is excellent, by the way.





Okay, I hope that persuaded anyone who hasn't read the book to stay away.

Basically, the protagonist of Lock In, Chris, is never explicitly gendered. This makes sense in the context of the book; Chris has grown up with Haden's syndrome, and therefore has not experienced puberty and such in the "normal" way. John Scalzi simply avoided declaring what gender Chris is, and left readers to reach their own conclusions.

Now this is an
experiment, as far as it goes, but as usual things are more complicated. For
I assumed Chris was male because "Chris" is a male name to me. I have never encountered females who go by "Chris". This could just be a US thing, of course: while I am intellectually aware that in the US, "Andrea" is a female name, if I see it without context I assume an Italian male - because that is where I am most used to seeing that name. I didn't even get to the point of wondering, as I might have if Chris had been called "Lesley" or something like that.

I also wonder how translators will play this in gender-obligatory languages. This is something I have [written about]( "

Minimum Acceptable Standard

" ) before: English has it relatively easy, making it possible not only to write an entire book without ever stating the protagonist's gender, but to do it so subtly that readers may not even notice.

Doing this would be impossible in any other language I am familiar with. Adjectives, verb endings, and all sorts of other bits and pieces would force an explicit gender in the very first sentence where the protagonist appears, or would cause such obvious linguistic contortions that readers would know something was up.

Regardless, interesting experiment, not least because, going by an unscientific survey of the comments on the Tor piece, many women also read Chris as male. Gender assumptions are tricksy.


Stack Overflow just announced a Portuguese version of their site. Apparently enough people didn’t understand the reasoning behind this that they had to put out a long blog post to explain:

Assumption: All of the serious developers in the world are highly proficient in English.

Which… actually sounds plausible. But it’s wrong.

  1. Not every developer in the world speaks English.

  2. It’s almost impossible to feel like part of a community if you’re not highly proficient in the language.

  3. Requiring that all aspiring devs "just go learn English" first isn’t who we want to be.

Just the other day I wrote a post (link in Italian) about why Italian bloggers should blog in English to increase their audience. So I should be all up in arms against this move by Stack Overflow, right?

Actually, no. I think it’s a great idea.

Wait, what?

I definitely think that developers, bloggers, and generally anyone who wants to be a part of an international community should learn English. Note that this is not because everyone should move to Silicon Valley! I am quite happy living in Italy, thankyouverymuch. It’s just that English is the lingua franca of our days.

A step back: here’s the etymology for the original lingua franca (from Wikipedia):

The term "lingua franca" is from a particular example, Mediterranean Lingua Franca. Lingua Franca was a mixed language composed mostly (80%) of Italian with a broad vocabulary drawn from Old French, Greek, Arabic, Portuguese, Occitan and Spanish. It was in use throughout the eastern Mediterranean as the language of commerce and diplomacy in and around the Renaissance era. At that time, Italian speakers dominated seaborne commerce in the port cities of the Ottoman empire. Franca was the Italian word for Frankish. Its usage in the term lingua franca originated from its meaning in Arabic and Greek, dating from before the Crusades and during the Middle Ages, whereby all Western Europeans were called "Franks" or Faranji in Arabic and Phrankoi in Greek during the late Byzantine Period. The Douglas Harper Etymology Dictionary states that the term lingua franca was first recorded in English in the 1670s. An earlier example of the use of lingua franca in English appeared in 1632.

In other words, lingua franca was nobody’s first language, but it was used for communication between many different people who could not speak each others’ first languages. In a world in which commerce might require communication with people who spoke Italian, French, Greek, Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew, Ladino, Portuguese, Spanish, and any number of other languages, it was simply not practical for most people to learn every one of those languages.

This is exactly how it works with English today. If a Finn, a Swede, a Spaniard and a Chinese need to communicate, the odds are good that they will do it in English. Therefore, if you want to be a part of those conversations, you’d be better off learning at least some English.

But I thought you liked Stack Overflow launching in Portuguese!

Yes, yes I do.

There’s a difference between saying that a Portuguese-speaking developer should learn English in order to be part of a wider international community, and saying that all Portuguese speakers must learn English in order to learn how to develop. My hope (and, I imagine, the hope of the good people at Stack Overflow) is that many of those new developers will go on to join the bigger conversation on the English-language site.

On the other hand, they shouldn’t have to learn English just to get started. In particular, the SO blog post points out:

How old were you when you first realized you could type things on a keyboard and control machines? Great. Now, at that age, were you proficient enough in another language to have learned to code without any English?

There’s your answer. That’s why resources need to be available in local languages. Individuals should learn English eventually, but they should not be obliged to just to get started.

Image by Caroline Gutman via Unsplash

Il nuovo latino

Enrico Signoretti scrive Sul valore di scrivere un blog di IT in Italiano.

Da un lato capisco che il blog in inglese ha una portata decisamente maggiore e capisco anche che alcuni articoli, magari quelli più tecnici e specifici, hanno una rilevanza internazionale maggiore, proprio perché interessano ad un pubblico più selezionato, e quindi i numeri li puoi fare solo all’estero.

Capisco anche che la "lingua ufficiale" dell’IT è l’inglese.

Poi però, se mi guardo intorno, non trovo molti blog in Italia che si occupano di enterprise IT e, soprattutto, non ce ne sono che lo fanno con costanza (non dico quotidiana, ma almeno un aggiornamento ogni tanto quello si). Anzi, sono alla continua ricerca di altri blog Italiani da seguire ma alla fine è pieno di telefonari e sysadmin che scrive articoli per altri sysadmin (spesso riprendendo stessi argomenti già sviscerati 1 o 2 anni fa su blog esteri).

Insomma, il panorama mostra una povertà di fondo abbastanza desolante.

Dato che questo è solo il mio secondo post in italiano1 mi sento un pochino chiamato in causa. È vero che scrivo soprattutto in inglese, ma questo è perché l’inglese è ormai di fatto il nuovo latino.

Sì, latino, non Esperanto - e non solo per ricordo dei miei anni di liceo classico! L’Esperanto è una lingua assurda, creata a tavolino e parlata da nessuno. Il latino è rimasto per secoli dopo la caduta dell’impero romano la lingua utilizzata per comunicare fra persone che parlavano lingue diverse. Il latino è stato finalmente scalzato dal suo discendente, il francese (lingua franca, per l’appunto) che poi ha spadroneggiato fino agli inizi del XX secolo. Solo da allora l’inglese è diventata la lingua internazionale per antonomasia, ed in alcuni ambiti hanno resistito altre lingue fino a poco fa. Ad esempio mio suocero, ingegnere meccanico, ha imparato il tedesco, non l’inglese...

Oggi se un ceco, uno svedese, uno spagnolo ed un cinese devono comunicare, oltre a sembrare l’antefatto di una barzelletta, si parlano in inglese. Non è esattamente una questione di egemonia culturale anglofona, dato che l’inglese ormai è parlato da molte più persone come seconda lingua che come prima.

Se vuoi essere aggiornato, inserito in una comunità di gente che ha i tuoi stessi interessi e non solo che parla la stessa lingua, dovrai per forza almeno arrangiarti con l’inglese. Viceversa, se vuoi che i tuoi post siano visti da più dei dieci lettori di manzoniana memoria, dovrai scrivere in inglese.

Statistiche di questo piccolo blog dicono che la maggior parte degli utenti hanno il linguaggio impostato su en-us o en-gb, e pochi su de, it e ja (vorrei sapere chi è il mio lettore giapponese!). Se però teniamo conto che molto spesso en-us è il default che non viene cambiato, vediamo quanto possano essere internazionali quei lettori in inglese.

Enrico Signoretti se la prende anche un po’ con il campanilismo del mondo tech italiano:

I peggiori sono proprio quelli che, spesso, sono più attivi all’estero. Non è inusuale infatti che quando scrivo articoli con fanno dei commenti che infastidiscono un vendor i dipendenti Italiani si "offendono" e, invece di mostrare il loro punto di vista sul blog, si mettono a mandarmi mail personali per dirmi che sono scorretto o, peggio, ricevo messaggi da amici che mi dicono "qua pensano di fare azioni contro di te" o cose ancora più ridicole.


Mi piacerebbe più interazione e meno gente stizzita, non si capisce mai per cosa poi. (e non trincerativi dietro le politiche sul social media della vostra azienda perché se no non si spiegherebbe come fanno i vostri colleghi all’estero!)

Qui si incastrano correnti diverse. Il dipendente italiano del vendor internazionale si sente a volte come nell’ultimo avamposto di periferia dell’impero. Non ha né i vantaggi di essere in frontiera, libero di fare quello che vuole, né quelli di avere una struttura solida dietro di sé. Rispetto ai colleghi esteri ha spesso prospettive di carriera più limitata, e come sempre negli ambienti un po’ claustrofobici, la politica diventa cattiva.

Io lavoro in Italia, ma raramente con l’Italia. Interagisco più spesso con clienti in Finlandia che in Italia, e non solo perché misteriosamente in quel paese piccolo e frigido si riescono a fare progetti molto più in grande che non qui da noi.

La conclusione però è la stessa: parliamo inglese, mettiamoci su una piazza più internazionale che possiamo, e l’italiano lo parliamo a casa e fra di noi. Triste? No, realista.

  1. Ecco il primo

Minimum Acceptable Standard

I don’t call myself a feminist, because that requires more effort than I put into it. What I do is sort of Minimum Acceptable Standard Equality: basically I try not to be gratuitously insensitive. As part of that effort, I try to avoid gendered pronouns wherever I’m not actually referring to a person of a specific gender.

This is where that Minimum Acceptable Standard stuff comes in: I refuse to switch "he" for "she", because especially when it’s done by guys, this looks too much like the author is asking for a pat on the back. Plus we have a perfectly good non-gendered pronoun in English: "they". Denying the use of they just makes you look like a jerk.

So far so good; but what should we do in languages that are more strongly gendered than English? For instance, at a recent meeting held in Italian, I stumbled over the fact that I was describing "the user" (masculine in Italian grammar) to a female software developer.

Gendered languages have generally struggled with this issue. The closest English example would be something like actor/actress. Should a woman be an actor, or an actress? In particular, where a feminine version of a term had not been needed in the past, because women could not become ministers or directors or whatever, but rules exist to create it, should it be created, or should women adopt the masculine version? Different people have answered this in different ways in different places and times.

Now imagine that every single noun in your speech has this sort of issue associated with it… Bottom line, English speakers have it pretty easy, so there’s no excuse for not achieving at least the Minimum Acceptable Standard.

Image by Sebastian Muller via Unsplash

The joy of making up words

First post on my new blog! Posterous shut down, so here I am over on Wordpress. I hope it lasts longer than Posterous did…

UPDATE: Evidently it didn’t. Although Wordpress is still around, I’m here on now.

German is a wonderful language. I don't speak it nearly as well as I would like to, but I take every chance to read Die Welt or chat in German. What I love most about it is the structure, with each word in a sentence supporting every other word, meaning that a change in a word-ending can change the meaning of a phrase quite radically.

Some people are put off by the complexity of German, or by some of its idiosyncrasies. Famously, Mark Twain wrote a piece called "The Awful German Tongue", making gentle fun of peculiarities that Samuel Clemens himself found when learning German.

One of my own favourite features of the German tongue is the way you can create new words by mashing together existing words. This process can be taken to ridiculous lengths, as in Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft, which means the Association for Subordinate Officials of the Head Office Management of the Danube Steamboat Electrical Services (source: H2G2). In less extreme cases though this facility in word creation enables enormous precision of expression, to the point that the resulting words get adopted in other languages. Examples of useful German composite words adopted in English might be Zeitgeist or Schadenfreude. Even auto-correct has no problem with those as English words!

I want to propose a new word along the same lines: Arschlocherkennungsfreude, the small pleasure one takes in correctly identifying an idiot. I coined this word one day on the motorway, when I spotted clues in the body language of a car in front of me that led me to understand that it was about to change lanes without indicating or checking the mirrors, into the spot I was about to occupy. I backed off the throttle, and sure enough the car swerved right in front of me.

After exploring the ancestry of the driver for a few generations out loud, and making some choice observations on their offspring's prospects in life, I realised that I was actually mildly pleased to have correctly identified and allowed for the driver's idiocy. Why should this be so?

Quite simply, I had validated my own superior expertise in my own mind (95% of drivers, including me, identify their own skills as above average). Maybe Arschlocherckennungsfreude is a bit limiting as a term, except that it gives the all-important dimension of comparison with a point of reference - in this case, the swerving lunatic in front of me.

Either way, I challenge you to come up with an equally pithy word in English.