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Ask Slashdot: 2nd Spoken/Written Language For Software Developer? 514

Posted by Soulskill
from the can't-go-wrong-learning-klingon dept.
ichimunki writes "I am a mid-career software developer. I am from the Midwestern U.S. and my native language is English. I've studied a few languages over the years, both human and computer. Lately I've begun to wonder what is the best second (human) language for someone in this field to have. Or is there even any practical value in working to become fluent in a non-English language? I am not planning to travel or move/work abroad. But if I knew a second language, would I be able to participate in a larger programming community worldwide? Would I be able to work with those folks in some useful capacity? Perhaps building products for foreign markets?"
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Ask Slashdot: 2nd Spoken/Written Language For Software Developer?

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  • Mandarin Chinese (Score:4, Informative)

    by sawak (582338) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @05:04AM (#42334803)
    I agree with you on Chinese. Sooner or later you will work on some project where most of the developers are in China. Communication is the most challenging part of such a project. If you know the language you are definitely in a better position to get higher salary or some team leader position.
  • Re:Mandarin Chinese (Score:5, Informative)

    by diakka (2281) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @05:21AM (#42334881)

    I disagree with this at this point in time. First, Chinese is not a European language. A native speaker will require many years of study to achieve a level that will be even remotely useful in the workplace. I personally have spent about 6 years actively studying, more than 10 passively studying, and am just now at a level where I would feel comfortable functioning in a Chinese work environment. And I apologies for blowing my own horn, but people often tell me that my Chinese is the best of any westerner that they know. Guess what? I have yet to see any development jobs come my way because of it. There could always be a change in the future. That said, most of those types of jobs could just be given to a Chinese person with a high level of English. If you learn Chinese, do it because you are interested in learning Chinese because the ROI is pretty lousy. I suppose this could change in the future, but I kind of doubt it.

    If anyone knows a job for someone with a CS/admin + Chinese background, feel free to message me.

  • Re:German (Score:4, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @05:25AM (#42334903)

    I live in Eastern Europe, second most sought after languate in IT is German.

    Romanian is my first, and believe it or not, the other latin languages are easy to understand, English is second and German is third (which was harder to learn, but easier if you already know a little English).

  • Re:Chinese (Score:4, Informative)

    by slew (2918) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @05:55AM (#42335013)

    There's no such thing as (spoken) Chinese either.

    China (if we were to anthropomorphize the country) might beg to differ. Although outsiders seem to want to call the official spoken language "mandarin" chinese to somehow distinguish it from other spoken dialects of hanzi/kanji script, the chinese just call it putunghua which roughly translates to the people's tongue or common spoken language. Of course putunghua is mostly just a codified Beijing dialect, but similarly, there's no such thing as (spoken) English either, except maybe if you count RP...

    Of course there is no "Indian" language, though. The most common languages in India are English and "standard" Hindi. Of course Hindi has lots of dialects which are pretty much as unintelligible to standard Hindi speakers as some of the Chinese dialects are to the putunghua speaker.

  • Re:Mandarin Chinese (Score:4, Informative)

    by Malc (1751) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @05:56AM (#42335021)

    It gives you a chance to re-iterate in the other person's language what you meant. Or you could just consider it useful for good will and generally smoothing your relationships. You can't go wrong improving your language skills.

    Having lead off-shore Chinese developments teams since 2006, I wish I'd invested time in learning the language. The smattering of German I learnt at the Goethe Institut a few years ago really helps me with my German colleagues, even if it's an opportunity for them to laugh at me over a beer. It does give me a better sense of what is being discussed if they're talking to each other in German though.

    Anyway, the story is about somebody in the US mid-West. That's a brutal time difference for working with Chinese colleagues. I did it for a number of years from Toronto (12-13 hours time difference). I'm much happier doing it from London now: I'd rather start work at 06:30 than have to come back to work at 21:30 after being out for dinner and not know when I'm going to escape so I can go to bed.

  • Re:Chinese (Score:5, Informative)

    by Starky (236203) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @06:37AM (#42335211)

    As someone who has learned Chinese as an adult, I would recommend against it unless you have the opportunity to do so without sacrificing considerable opportunity costs or have the luxury of not having to worry about opportunity costs. The learning process is considerably more time-consuming and challenging than a European language, and you cannot learn it to a functional level from taking classes. (There are many foreigners I've met in China who took four years of Chinese as an undergraduate and were astonished to discover when they set foot in the country that they were totally non-functional.) You have to actually live in a Chinese-speaking country, and it's very hard to get a decent job in China unless you're moved there by a multinational and retain your salary and benefits from the home country. Even then, if you're working a regular job, you simply won't have time to learn the language in a reaonable tme frame. I know plenty of expats in China who have been working here for 7-10 years and still can barely ask for directions in Chinese.

    Finally, if you think you can simply show up in China and people will be beating down your door to give you a great job, think again. The idea that China is full of potential is a total myth for Westerners. There are almost no opportunities for Westerners outside of teaching English or other jobs unrelated to professional technical positions, and no Chinese-owned firm I've heard of has ever given a Westerner a management position with any authority. Whereas in the United States, being a non-U.S. citizen does not impose a glass ceiling, in China quite the opposite is true. You simply won't make money here unless you are working for a multinational and are moved here from your home country rather than someone who moves here and is then hired in-country, in which case your living here is taken as a clear signal you're willing to work for local wages.

    In short, people who talk about Chinese as a way to open doors and create opportunities are simply out of touch with the realities on the ground in China.

  • French or Italian (Score:4, Informative)

    by Sussurros (2457406) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @06:45AM (#42335237)
    If you're interested in programming neural networks then a lot of extra resources and communities are available in French and to a lesser degree Italian. In Italian there are also publications and websites that deal with AL and AI (artificial life and artificial intelligence). I discovered them when I was looking at stupidology, that's the study of why intelligent people do stupid things that average people don't. The field has since been subsumed and renamed by psychology which is doing its best to bury it quietly. For general programming neither French nor Italian is any particular use, they're only useful for neural networks, AL and AI as far as I'm aware.
  • Re:Obvious answer.. (Score:4, Informative)

    by CastrTroy (595695) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @07:09AM (#42335295) Homepage
    Assuming you already speak English, it really depends where you live. I live in Canada and speaking French is a big asset. In the US Spanish or French would probably be good. A lot depends on the industry you program for as well.
  • by acidfast7 (551610) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @07:12AM (#42335305)

    1. Once you start learning German (you get a fair bit of Swedish/Norwegian/Danish/Dutch/Afrikaans for free.) The same could be said for Latin, but it doesn't have any practical use.

    2. Most of Eastern/Central Europe learned German. Outside of the major cities such as Budapest/Sofia/Bucharest/Lviv, I've found my broken German extremely useful. This is NOT a moot point as these countries are investing huge amounts in infrastructure.

    3. Russian/Arabic would be extremely useful but much more difficult.

    4. I wouldn't worry about Spanish. I had 7 years in public school (US Northeast) and I assume that you did as well. You'd pick it up pretty easily if you had to.

  • Re:Russian (Score:3, Informative)

    by badzilla (50355) <ultrak3wl@nOSpaM.gmail.com> on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @08:07AM (#42335483)

    My first language is UK English and I too faced the same "which next language to learn?" choice. After a lot of thought I chose Russian. China is such a massive trading partner and I can understand the arguments for selecting a Chinese language but the truth is that learning a language takes time and you have to predict what will be useful in the future rather than what would be useful right now. I've been amazed at the high quality of our outsourced Java development from Russia and and I'm betting that it can't be long before they get tired of China/India taking everything and themselves emerge as a prime supplier of both outsourcing and physical resources. Also Luuseens is right there is a lot of useful technical stuff posted in Russian and it's helpful to read it directly rather than auto-translate.

    I've been learning Russian for four years mostly by self-study of free learning material found on the internet. I am nowhere near fluent for a workplace but I'll get there. Yes Russian is "hard" from the point of view of being unlike English but on the plus side its internal structure is so consistently logical that it almost feels like just learning another computer language. My friend at the local office of a major software company does speak four languages fluently (including Russian and Mandarin) and it's beyond doubt this has been a major boost to her career so why not also for the rest of us.

  • by Zontar_Thing_From_Ve (949321) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @09:53AM (#42335961)
    I have studied other languages. I've got a talent for it. I'm just going to be honest with you, which is better than some of unrealistic answers you've been given so far.

    The problem with Chinese is the tones. Depending on your genetic material, as an adult you may find it very difficult to come to grips with them. Or it could be easy for you. But I can promise you that for every person for whom it is easy, there are tons of native English speakers who will never be able to deal with it successfully. The grammar in Chinese is pretty easy for the most part, which is good, but the tones are the killer. I am always amazed at how people suggest learning Mandarin or Cantonese without any regard to the difficulty that speakers of non-tonal languages will have. And you need to understand that as an adult unless you want to devote the next decades of your life to constant work at it, you will never learn Chinese characters. Yes, you could learn pinyin but that's not really all that practical honestly. So for all practical purposes you will be illiterate in Chinese, even if you learn to speak it well. Yes, you can use programs to translate your pinyin into the characters and vice-versa, but how practical is that on the streets of Beijing?

    Yes, if you want to engage in questionable activities then Russian would be a good choice, but I can tell you that most native English speakers fail at their attempts to learn it. I'm one of the exceptions. Russian grammar is quite complex. It is an inflected language and that's the complexity. What this means to people not familiar with linguistic terms is that Russian nouns and adjectives change their spelling depending on how they are used in a sentence. Russian adjectives have up to 24 forms - 6 cases X 4 forms per case (singular masculine, singular feminine, singular neuter, plural). The good news is that some of the forms overlap so in reality there are usually "only" 19 or so forms to learn. Ha ha. Nouns have singular and plural forms to learn. Given how in the USA most English grammar instruction is over forever in public schools after 8th grade, you really have no idea how challenging it is for someone who doesn't even know what an indirect object is in English to try to understand something like the dative or genitive case. Without a proper understanding of the cases in Russian and memorization of the various forms of nouns and adjectives under them, you'll never make any progress at learning it. Outside of the ex-USSR it's generally pretty useless. I get some kicks out the "wow" factor of being able to impress people that I can speak it and I've done some traveling in the ex-USSR where I used it every day, but in the IT world it's been almost useless. Then again, I'm not a leet haxor. I can tell you that learning Cyrillic is very easy and that will absolutely not be the problem in learning Russian, but the grammar will separate the men from the boys. If you can believe this, from a grammatical standpoint most of the Slavic based languages are actually harder to learn than Russian, with Bulgarian/Macedonian being an exception.

    English is really the most useful language to know. If I had to recommend another language, Spanish is generally the easiest one for English speakers to learn. Portuguese is not bad either. French would be next, followed by Italian and German and then pretty much everything else. The further English speakers get from Western Europe in the languages they want to learn, the more difficult it will be. I've found that the older you are, the harder you have to work at learning another language and most adults aren't willing to do the hard work necessary to succeed. Unless you are some language learning genius (unlikely), you will need to do about an hour a day, 5 days a week for about a year to achieve any kind of reasonable proficiency. And it's like climbing a hill. Once you get to the top, it's much easier to get down, but many give up on the way to the top because progress is so sl
  • Re:Obvious answer.. (Score:2, Informative)

    by GPLHost-Thomas (1330431) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @01:34PM (#42337789)
    When you write just "Chinese", it's not very helpful. Are you talking about oral Mandarin? Or Cantonese? Or perhaps Simplified or Traditional written Chinese? Probably, you should first learn to know what you're talking about before thinking about learning it.

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