The Language Barrier

Don’t Change Bit Assignments
December 31, 2010
Is Your Safety Net an Afterthought?
February 28, 2011

The Language Barrier

While living in Germany, I heard the following joke:

Question: What do you call someone who speaks three languages?
Answer: Trilingual.
Q: What do you call someone who speaks two languages?
A: Bilingual.
Q: What do you call someone who speaks one languages?
A: An American.

If you were born and raised in the United States speaking only one language, you might not appreciate the implications of this joke. This joke plays on the stereotype of the American who speaks only English and expects the rest of the world to speak English also. Unfortunately, there’s some truth to this stereotype: While many Americans speak more than one language, many more speak only English. In addition, the relative ease of finding English speakers in other countries has led too many American travelers to expect everyone to speak English.

On the other hand, because of America’s predominant role in worldwide hi-tech industries, English seems to be the de facto common language for embedded systems developers. English is used among native-English and non-native-English speakers, and even among people who all speak English as their non-native tongue. For example, while employed at HP, I saw two other HP employees, one German and one Japanese, talking to each other in English.

Several years ago, our team had to work with an embedded systems product designed and manufactured by a company in another country with a national language quite different from English. The product documentation was at least 50 pages long and written in English by a native of that country. Our team had a hard time understanding many parts of that documentation and engaged in several email exchanges—which also had to bridge the language barrier—to clarify the documentation. As difficult as it was for the native English speakers on our team to understand this documentation, it was even harder for the team members who spoke English as a second language.

In the hardware/firmware interface space, hardware teams produce documentation used by firmware teams. Either or both of those teams could be located outside of the US. Even in the US, members of those teams could include non-native-English speakers. This means it’s particularly important that the documentation should be readable and understandable by the non-native speakers. In other words, don’t write like this:

The principal constituent of authentic sophistication consists primarily in the unostentatious suppression of superfluous erudition.

when all we’re trying to say is this:

Keep it simple.

  • Best Practice: Write the documentation to be readable and understandable by native and non-native speakers.

Until my next newsletter…
Hasta mi boletín de noticias siguiente…
Bis mein folgendes Rundschreiben…
Jusqu’à mon prochain bulletin…
直到我的下一个通讯,
私の次のニュースレターまで、
До моего следующего информационного бюллетеня,
मेरी अगली न्यूजलेटर तक,
עד הידיעון הבא שלי,
حتى الإخبارية وجهتي المقبلة،

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