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

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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  • Russian (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Luuseens ( 1422579 ) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @04:56AM (#42334757) Homepage
    I would say Russian. It's my 3rd language (English being my second), and it has helped me a lot when searching for some specific info on the net. There is a wealth of information on programming to be found; especially if you are interested in security. This might be less relevant for you if you are looking for information that might be considered 'shady' (e.g. jailbreaking phones, breaking certain security features), but I've found it very helpful.
  • Well, of course... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by seebs ( 15766 ) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @05:00AM (#42334769) Homepage

    About all I'd say is: Pick a language mostly-unrelated to your own. Bonus points if you expect to have coworkers who speak it natively.

    I see a comment saying it won't help you to learn a second language. I am unpersuaded. I generally find that anything I do which makes me more flexible makes me a better programmer. Being able to think in another language can be really useful for shaking up some of your presuppositions and assumptions. On the other hand, so can a philosophy degree.

    I learned Chinese well enough to dream in it, and then mostly forgot it over the next decade or two. I still have an easier time understanding Chinese coworkers, because their English is often idiomatic for Chinese. But mostly... I am a more flexible person. I have concepts that there's a word for in Chinese and no word for in English. I learned to handle different ways of thinking about grammar. Overall, a good experience, and not one I regret. It's not as though it's a huge time sink; I'd guess I've spent more time playing video games in any given two-year period than I spent learning Chinese.

  • Don't do that (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jawtheshark ( 198669 ) * <slashdot@ja w t h e s h a r k . com> on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @05:02AM (#42334783) Homepage Journal

    Perhaps building products for foreign markets?"

    No, please... Don't do that unless you're also culturally involved in your target market and actually understand the countries you write software for. Look at the whole "locales" mess. It works fine, if you have a single region with a single language, beyond that, it becomes very fishy... and $DIETY help you if you actually want an English system with date and time set to your geographical location. Language and regional settings should be entirely independent, but they aren't. On Linux, I found a workaround by just generating my own locales, but still.

    I have worked on many multilingual projects, and I assure you: localization is not mere translation and translation is not merely swapping out strings with language. I would say, I can help on projects that to language for a sizeable part of Europe, but I am not good enough to include Asian languages, the Cyrillic typeset or even plain Greek.

    While it's very interesting... I just wanted to warn you: you don't just walk into Localization.

  • German (Score:3, Interesting)

    by phagstrom ( 451510 ) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @05:14AM (#42334845)

    Chinese or indian are the obvious answers, but they may be a bit too much.

    I would go with German, because it is a fairly large language area (90 million + speakers) most of which belong to technologically advanced nations. As an alternative consider a latin language, such as Spanish.

  • Spanish (Score:5, Interesting)

    by stoolpigeon ( 454276 ) * <bittercode@gmail> on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @05:18AM (#42334863) Homepage Journal

    If I lived in the US I'd learn Spanish as a second language. It ought to be compulsory for all American school children. It's the second most spoken language in the U.S. It's the language of the majority of the Americas from Mexico down. And trends I don't see changing significantly seem to indicate it will only have a stronger presence in the U.S. over time. So that's what I'd focus on first, regardless of vocation.

  • by pieleric ( 917714 ) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @05:57AM (#42335033) Homepage

    It's always great to learn a new (human) language. It will allow you to discover a new way of thinking, and let you see the world through a different point of view.

    That said, let's be honest right away, if there is one part where it will bring you almost nothing, it's for software development. 99% of software communities online are discussed in English. 99.9% of software comments and software documentation is written in English. I happen to speak French, English, Dutch and Spanish (nothing special, I'm just European). I have been doing software development for more than 10 years and I cannot recall ever using any other language than English except when doing translation. The only advantage is that you'll be able to understand a bit better why translators are mad at you when you write bad printf()'s.

    So go ahead, learn a new language, it's a great experience. I'd recommend one with a big amount of speakers like Spanish or Chinese (this one, I promise, will completely change your understanding of the concept of "language"). However, don't kid yourself, it's pointless with respect to software development :-)

  • by Half-pint HAL ( 718102 ) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @06:34AM (#42335189)

    But when labour costs start to rise in China where is the next place that the big multi-nationals will seek to keep their cost base as low as possible? If you can determine that and then learn the local language then you could reap big rewards when the off-shoring goes there.

    This is an excellent point. The real money is in handover, and that's mostly done for all the established off-shoring locations. If you ready to do a handover in the next big location, you have a chance.

    But you'll be hard pushed to assess that yourself, so it'll take a hell of a lot of reading and a hell of a lot of luck to achieve it.

    The other option is to look at it not in terms of a single big outsourcing market, but to look for parallel outsourcing markets. At the moment there are two major outsourcing markets: English-speaking and Spanish-speaking. I think the next big opportunity is for those who are in a position to act as a "bridge" between the two operations when companies try to integrate them. Who's going to get India and the Philippines talking to Bolivia and Peru? Maybe it'll be you....

  • Re:Chinese (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Half-pint HAL ( 718102 ) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @07:13AM (#42335309)

    Part of the Empire? India was part of the thuggish, cretan British Empire for around 200 or so years.

    Hold on a minute, please don't assume that I'm a fan of my country's imperial past. I'm not.

    It was Bharat for a bit longer than that (a few thousand at least). Hindustani is the official language of India as codified in the constitution ( Hindustani is actually a mix of Hindi and Urdu. I suggest you read more before you comment on something you know shit about.

    Well I'm guessing you're from the north, because there are plenty of speakers of Dravidian languages who would take issue with you. The official status, as explained in the article, is as the language of the federal government and half of India wants that to mean exactly what it says. Hindi is not "their" language and they're happier speaking English with other Indians as a neutral language. Here's an experiment for you: hop in an auto in Thiruvanathapuram and speak to the driver in Hindi. Then, at your destination, hop in another and speak to the driver in English. Tell me which works better for you.

    And you're unlikely to find much discussion on the finer points of any programming language in any language other than English. That's just a retarded remark to begin with considering that English is the lingua franca of the planet.

    Go back to school and learn something. Idiot.

    Well considering that was part of my point, there's no need to insult me about it.

    But the situation is different in India from other countries because English is so common. If you go into a book shop in most countries, you'll find a lot of programming books in the local language. The last time I visited Landmark in the Forum (Bangalore), I don't recall seeing any programming books in anything other than English. For that matter, I went to the spoken languages section too, and as far as I recall, the only books in Kannada were to learn Hindi or English, and the only books in Hindi taught English or Kannada....

    Now why don't you go back to school and learn some manners!

  • Re:Chinese (Score:5, Interesting)

    by KiloByte ( 825081 ) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @07:22AM (#42335345)

    A language is a dialect with an army and navy [].

    In Poland, some folks speak the Kashubian language which is less intelligible with Polish than for example Czech, yet during the soviet puppet regime people went to jail for daring to suggest it's anything more than some regional accent. The government said Polish is one language with no dialect continuum with the neighbours, and that regional dialects need to be eradicated.

    So do the French with Breton, Occitan and others: they deny them the right to exist, fine companies who try to allow their employes to speak these languages at work, and do everything to eradicate them. For added hypoctisy, they demand that French should be preferred over English in parts of Canada.

    Some countries want 1 country:1 language so much they artificially declare their languages as separate: Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin are identical baring a small number of words (below 1/100 the difference between British and American English), yet significant amount of taxpayer money goes into proving they have nothing in common with each other. It's so ridiculous that in the Wikipedia you have 7 (or more) copies of the identical language for purely political reasons.

    I thus don't believe the language variety in China is going to survive long.

  • Re:Russian (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Bramlet Abercrombie ( 1435537 ) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @09:12AM (#42335723)
    I still haven't learned Russian, but I have learned the alphabet, and even that has been very rewarding. It is easier than it looks, you can start sounding out words with a few afternoons worth of work. 'napk' in russian sounds and means the same as 'park' in English 'pectopah' sounds like 'restoran' and it means restaurant. See you've already learned that they use the letter 'p' to make thier 'r' sound. Continuing in this way you can easily learn the substitution cyper and can sound out russian words on your own. Have fun!
  • Re:Chinese (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Chrisq ( 894406 ) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @09:45AM (#42335909)

    It's actually a fascinating dialect/language to study. I used to be able to speak it, but I can't any more.

    I love the Indian English word "prepone" (to bring a meeting forward). Its such a logical opposite of postpone!

  • Re:Obvious answer.. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Abstrackt ( 609015 ) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @10:49AM (#42336369)

    Fluency is defined as being able to express yourself easily and articulately. A vocabulary of 1,000 words allows you to understand at least half of what's going on around you. Some studies go as high as 75-80%, such as this one [] for Spanish (pg. 109), but I aimed low for my example. A vocabulary of about 10,000 words and a general understanding of how to assemble them into a sentence is enough to be considered fluent in almost any situation.

    If you learn 30 words per day you would be able to express yourself at least half the time in a little over a month. You may lack grammatical skills but the idea would come across with some consistency. Continuing on that track, it would take just under a year to be able to express yourself with a high degree of fluency. Mind you, I am assuming you started focusing on grammar at some point during that year. For Spanish, I found it took about six weeks until my grammar limited me more than my vocabulary. I’m only a few months into learning but I can already communicate well with native speakers.

    If you make flashcards using some kind of spaced repetition system like Anki or Mnemosyne it will automatically handle the review of words you’ve already learned so you just need to focus on daily study and let the program handle the rest. The greatest difficulties you’ll face during this process are making the flashcards, which is an important step in building recognition, and the odd word that simply will not stick.

    When you’re not studying your flashcards you need to immerse yourself in the language. Listen to music you enjoy, try to watch shows that interest you and parrot everything you hear. In the beginning, the point of this exercise isn’t to understand anything but rather to recognize it. Eventually you’ll start to pick out words you’ve learned and infer the meaning of others based on context and the language starts to snowball in your head.

    If learning a new language is not fun you’re doing it wrong. If learning a new language is difficult, you’re probably using Rosetta Stone. ;)

  • Re:Obvious answer.. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Megane ( 129182 ) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @11:16AM (#42336585) Homepage

    Q: What do you call a person who only speaks 1 language? A: American


    If I could go back in time and choose again I think I'd go for Spanish, which I would actually have found useful from time to time.

    I took two semesters of Spanish in college. And I live in central Texas, where there are TV stations in Spanish. I eventually realized that about the only good thing it could get me (aside from a low-paying service-sector job) was a few more news reports about NASA.

    But it was great for teaching myself Japanese. They both have similar vowel sounds (but Japanese has stuff like hyo, ryo, etc. which most English speakers can't grok, even though they have similar sounds with other consonants), and both have heavily-conjugated verbs. In fact, it overlaid what little Spanish I learned such that I want to use Spanish words with Japanese grammar.

  • Re:Obvious answer.. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by mellon ( 7048 ) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @11:32AM (#42336775) Homepage

    Bollocks. In my role as an IETF working group chair, I work on a regular basis with geeks from India and China and Europe. All of them speak better english than my Chinese, or Hindi, or Turkic, or French, or Finnish, or Swedish. As a result of their imperfect english, they are able to do useful work, and engage constructively with other geeks, both native english speakers and not. The IETF has an RFC editor who fixes their english to be more canonical once the technical work is complete. Not speaking perfect Queen's English is not a handicap in this profession.

    As an english-speaking geek, there is no real point in learning another language just for the purpose of improving your ability to do your work. Choose a foreign language you are attracted to speaking, regardless of whether it will be obviously useful. Maybe it'll be useful, maybe it won't. I would suggest French, German, Swedish, Dutch, or even Danish. If you want a hard language to learn, not an easy one, consider Chinese or Japanese. But plan to put a _lot_ of work into it—learning to read and write in Chinese or Japanese is _much_ harder than learning to read and write english, and involves a shit ton of memorization. has lists of the thousand most common words in quite a few languages. Memorize the list, and learn the meaning of the words, and then avail yourself of available online media. German and Danish TV are available online (e.g., tagesschau). French is harder, unfortunately. I haven't actively looked for Swedish or Dutch. There's a lot of Chinese TV available online as well, and of course if you decide on Japanese you can watch anime. :)

  • Re:Obvious answer.. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Jmc23 ( 2353706 ) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @11:50AM (#42336913) Journal
    Listen to lots of music in the language. Singing helps eliminate regional distortions to the language and you get purer simpler tones for your brain to deal with for developing tonal/rhythmic pattern detectors.

    Play the music while you sleep, play movies while you sleep. Your conscious mind doesn't have to be actively engaged for your brain to pick up on flow, patterns, rhythm, phonemes/morphemes etc... That's all low level reorganization.

    If you have access to native speakers of the tongue then when on your own just practice connectors. Nouns are easy to learn from others.

  • Re:Obvious answer.. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by mcgrew ( 92797 ) * on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @12:39PM (#42337339) Homepage Journal

    I don't see any point in learning a second language unless going to have an opportunity to use it for real - or you're never actually going to become fluent in it.

    Indeed. Language is like every other thing you've learned -- use it or lose it. I was told by South American tourists when I worked for Disney World in the early '80s that I spoke Spanish very well; some thought I was a native speaker from a different country than them.

    Today? If somebody dropped me in Acapulco I'd never be able to communicate with the natives.

You can measure a programmer's perspective by noting his attitude on the continuing viability of FORTRAN. -- Alan Perlis