Monday, 28 July 2008

Language barriers when outsourcing programming

In case you're working with outsourcing, you may have experienced communication problems. English is my 3rd language, and when I communicate with people from other parts of the world, who have English as their 2nd or 3rd language, the message is not always understood as intended.

In order to communicate well, you need to know the most frequent causes of problems. This post describes some of these - when communicating in English with people that have Russian or a related language as their primary language.

Russian is a different mental model, so it requires some effort to communicate properly in English, and if the sum of language effort and programming effort has a maximum, it means that very complex programming issues may lead to more misunderstandings in language.

A very frequent problem is the lack of "a" and "the" in Russian. Example: "Make the program create a file for output. Export graphics into the file." Disregarding "the" means that you may end up having two files instead of one. A solution could be to replace "the" with "that" when you are referring to a specific file.

The next problem is about tenses. Russian basically has past, present and future, and completed and uncompleted verbs. It does not have the same tenses as English, and some English constructs are not made using tenses in Russian. Tenses are important when describing work processes. Example: "Yesterday at the meeting, I had given you instructions..." (the instructions were given before the meeting) If your programmer uses automated translation tools to translate this to Russian, the result is "Yesterday at the meeting I gave you instructions..." - which is totally incorrect and causes confusion.

Basic construction of sentences is also a problem. It can be very difficult to understand complex English sentences like "Moving the button up could cause some problems with the layout that was requested at the meeting.". It takes quite some analytical work to decompose this sentence into it's basic building blocks if your primary mental language model is not close to English.

Vocabulary is obviously a problem - if you don't know a word, you need to look it up. But even if you know a dictionary's translation of a word, you can get into trouble. Example: "Gossip was the main business of the evening". The word "Business" can be translated in many ways to russian, and in this sentence, it makes a big difference if you translate to "делом" (what to do) or "бизнес" (bisness=commerce).

Correct English. If you don't write correct English, it can be very hard to understand it, and it can be impossible for automatic translation tools to help out the reader. For instance, "The discusion was about maintanance." (2 spelling mistakes!) auto-translates to something like "xyz was about hobbies", whereas "The discussion was about maintenance" is autotranslated correctly, using my favorite translation tool.

Special thanks to Rikke, Anatoly and Alexander for their contributions to this post.


Alex said...

Nice article!

Xepol said...

George Orwell was dead right in 1984 about new speak. Language limits though perhaps more than it lets us express it.

Makes you wonder what comes first - the word or the thought.

Thanks to my days in french immersion schooling, I have words in french that appear to have no english translation whatsoever, and understanding some of the verb tenses was.... difficult - Eventually you learn to think in french and the problem goes away, but it does give one a greater understanding of why so many translations are so utterly rotten.

I can't imagine how much worse the problem is when you add technical sub languages into the mix (I've noticed a number of languages don't even bother, they just stuck in the english words as use them as best their pronunciation and grammer allow)

Personally, the battle you describe is definitely one of the reasons I am unconvinced that outsourcing to foreign countries is a good idea to save money. Hard enough to explain something to someone in the same langauge some times.

Lars Fosdal said...

True and accurate observations for sure! Japanese, Vietnamese and Chinese thought process can also appear somewhat ... err... "alien" - if you pardon the pun.

The metaphors are different, the grammar is different, and the mindset is different.

Making jokes and puns (which is a bad habit of mine) can plunk to the ground and leave an awkward silence.

For specifications, they really have to be painstakingly precise and not round formulations in plain english.

rp said...

Nice article - My first language is french but i always use / buy software in 'native' english. Because of bad translations (or because of translations of strings that should not have been translated at first) translated software are often hard to understand & buggy (especially if they are large). In many cases Babylon(.com) may be of precious help.

HollyDays said...

English is so beautiful a language. But how many years or decades will people need before they understand that English is definitely inappropriate when it's about speaking to people from different cultures and with different native languages?

English has a complex spelling, because too many native people learned how to write it before some of them could think of simplify its spelling (like French, unlike German and Spanish, for instance). It has a huge vocabulary (about twice as much as any other European language has), with so many words with a very close (though usually subtly different) meaning but a completely different origin (fraternal vs. brotherly, liberty vs. freedom, vision vs. sight ...). Without saying the numerous vocabulary traps and pitfalls (e.g. like many other adverbs, "softly" comes from "soft" and means "in a soft way". But don't say "I hardly worked" to your boss if you worked hard, he won't like it...).

And, if it wasn't enough, it is quite difficult to articulate English in a proper way (all those diphthongs!), thus to properly hear it, when other people utter words the wrong way or even in an unusual way (which happens quite often!). As a result, everyone but a few only speaks "Broken English", which leads to these very common (and unavoidable) misunderstandings.

Common people need thousands and thousands of hours of hard learning to become quite fluent in English and *feel confident* with it (linguist studies seem to show that most people need about 10,000 to 15,000 hours; this is true with many other languages, by the way). Are every people doomed to spend such an enormous amount of time? Is there no other way? Is this problem of speaking in a multi-cultural environment so new, that no one before could think of it?

Thing is: some people did. About a hundred years ago. They ended up making up an language, which is both very expressive (often more than any European language) and incredibly fast to learn: basically because there are very few grammar and vocabulary construction rules, and not a single exception or pitfall, experience shows that people usually need about ten times less time to learn and feel confident with it than most of the other languages. Guess what this language is called? Esperanto. Why does no one speak about it?

theysaywordscanbleed said...

Different languages can be a tricky thing when undergoing business deals and projects.

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